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COMMENTARY: Nevada’s legal brothels often just ‘prisons in doublewide trailers’

At least two women from pimp Dennis Hof’s legal brothels have made credible accusations of sexual assault. In the process of studying the sex trade for the past 20 years, including two years in Nevada, I have learned that many of Nevada’s legal pimps are control-obsessed thugs who regularly assault women.

Clarifying what the sex trade is all about, a sex buyer explained, “prostitution is renting an organ for 10 minutes.” Some pimps view prostitution as a time-share business, with women occupied for a brief time rather than owned outright. The attitude “I paid for you, so I own you, so I can do whatever I want to you” is common among pimps and sex buyers, who together are the most frequent assaulters of women in the legal brothels. The warning signs are the same behaviors you see in pimps and men who buy sex: an attitude of sexual entitlement, unwanted touching, persistence and social isolation of their target.

A woman who prostituted in a Nevada legal brothel said that the experience was like being the pimp’s property for two weeks. “You have sex when they want, with whom they want, and it doesn’t matter how you feel or anything,” she said. “You’re locked in a box for two weeks and guys come in and out.”

Other women describe the Nevada legal brothels as “little prisons in double-wide trailers.” When we interviewed 45 women in Nevada’s legal brothels, 81 percent told us they wanted to escape prostitution. They most often had pimps or boyfriends coercing them from outside the brothel. Many faced poverty or homelessness (47 percent of the women in Nevada’s legal brothels had been homeless). A Nevada legal pimp reported that he saw pimps from out of state drop off the most beaten-down, injured women for what amounted to incarceration as they were coerced under slave-like conditions to make more money by selling sex.

Although it has improved conditions for pimps, legal prostitution does not make it safer for women in the brothels. We all somehow hope — against the evidence — that there’s something we can do to make prostitution better for the women. That we can magically make the women safer from everything we know that happens to them, but that few can even stand to think about. But there is much evidence that legal prostitution is physically dangerous.

In the brothels, there is pressure on women to accept any sex buyer who chooses her, regardless of how drunk, foul-smelling, verbally abusive or threatening he seems. If a woman rejects more than one or two johns, she can be fired. Some women were afraid that if they reported violence from sex buyers, they themselves might be blamed for it or even fired.

A former brothel manager (who feared for her life if her identity were revealed) stated that only a small percentage of brothel violence is reported and that the women are so accustomed to violence in their lives that an assault seemed “almost insignificant” to them. As one woman explained, “What is rape to others is normal for us.” Sexual harassment is the job of prostitution, yet somehow we don’t think of women in prostitution as part of #MeToo. She has the right to exist without sexual harassment, without prostitution, just like the rest of us.

There is no evidence that legal prostitution will eliminate illegal prostitution. In fact, a 2013 study of 150 countries showed that wherever prostitution was legal, sex trafficking increased. Legal prostitution is about 10 percent of the sex trade in Nevada. The other 90 percent is illegal. Why is that? Legal prostitution is a legal welcome to pimps — it creates a prostitution culture in the state, normalizing prostitution and attracting sex buyers and pimps from all over the world.

Having discovered that almost all legal prostitution is controlled by organized crime, the Dutch have shut down more than half of the legal brothels in Amsterdam. Dutch politicians are working on changing the country’s prostitution law.

It’s essential to end the laws that place Nevada’s counties themselves in the role of pimps. Lyon and Nye County advocates are currently gathering signatures to reject legal pimping. The fewer pimps in Nevada — legal or illegal — the better.

Melissa Farley, an American clinical psychologist, researcher and feminist anti-pornography and anti-prostitution activist, is executive director of the San Francisco-based organization Prostitution Research and Education.

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