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Vegas and the sex industry

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote recently that “There is probably no city in America where women are treated worse than Las Vegas.”

It is true that Las Vegas is the symbolic center of the sex industry, which thrives on the bodies of women. The Las Vegas tourist corridor exudes sexuality, from ads and signs for strip clubs and escort services everywhere, to tourists dancing in sexy clothes and ordering libations from scantily clad cocktail waitresses.

It is also true that the sex industry is saturated with gender, race, ethnic and age inequalities. For example, women lack economic power relative to men; it’s women’s bodies that are used to sell everything from non-sexual products and services to actual sex; and the industry is replete with misconceptions about gender, especially as related to ethnic, racial, sexual and age stereotypes.

What are the myths about Las Vegas that fuel our Sin City image?

First, Vegas is not unique in terms of the prevalence of sexualized images and messages. The U.S. economy is profiting mightily from more public sexuality, from the strip clubs in any major city, to pornographified images in mainstream advertising, to pole dancing classes on college campuses and in athletic clubs. Our culture is obsessed with sex — though as a society we fear the consequences. In Las Vegas, this trend is marketed as part of the tourist image and the national and global fascination with sexy, sinful, risk-taking decadence draws approximately 39 million visitors a year.

Second, the assumption that all women in Vegas are exploited and disrespected because of the sexualized tourist atmosphere is patently false. In some ways, including the number of women in political positions, women’s poverty rates, and wages compared to men, women fare better in Vegas than other major cities. By other measures, women in Nevada continue to suffer gender inequities. Given the coexistence of positive and negative trends for women in Las Vegas, gender issues are complex and contradictory.

What is clear is that the sex industry does not have a uniformly negative impact on all women in Southern Nevada, and women who choose to work in the sex industry do not degrade or endanger women who do not. Women, children and men who are forced into sexual enslavement or otherwise subjected to coercion or violence need the same protections from such abuses as all citizens; these crimes are not natural manifestations of the adult industry.

Third, public images, messages and discussions about prostitution, the sex industry and sexuality are not the problem. The problem is that the women in the images are so uniformly Anglo, young, heterosexual and unnaturally thin with artificially large, perky breasts. These images convey that all women should look and act like this to be desirable; those who do not are ignored, invisible or stigmatized. The problem isn’t the sexual part, it’s the rest of it. We need a diversity of images and messages that reflect real bodies and authentic human relationships.

Fourth, Herbert and his source, Melissa Farley, both conflate juvenile and adult participation in prostitution and other segments of the sex industry. They are not the same. It is condescending to treat adult women who make choices as if they are the equivalent of children; it is even worse to dilute the special and unique issues associated with child rape/prostitution and sexual violence. To say that they’re all just bad treats adults like kids and kids like adults, to the benefit of no one.

Finally, it is not accurate to say that all forms of prostitution and sex work are coercive or equally exploitative. Arrangements– in the sex industry or otherwise — that coerce, harass, abuse or marginalize women are the problem. When women cannot control their sexual images or their own embodied sexuality — in the marketplace or at home — they are vulnerable to victimization. But legal work situations where women’s labor rights and human rights are protected are good for women; this is what we need to strive for in all workplaces, including the sex industry.

After conducting research on the sex industry for more than 10 years, we have found that women entering legal prostitution, for example, do so with widely different educations, relationships with parents and socio-economic resources. These factors determine where they work, who their customers are and how much they earn. Not all women in the sex industry have personal, social or economic resources. Inequalities exist and contribute to widely differing experiences. But nowhere near all adult women who work in the sex industry are horrendously impacted and “rotten” inside, victims of all measure of atrocities as Farley and Herbert would have us believe. Instead, we challenge you to dare to believe what many women tell us, dare to take them seriously when they describe a good life of their own choosing and a sense of empowerment in their sexuality. These voices cannot be reduced to those of passive victims.

We do not argue that all women experience safe, rewarding, lucrative lives in the shadow of the neon in Las Vegas. But the key is that many do. Some women choose to move here, to work here, to stay and live here. Some women love Vegas, not because they are brainwashed victims of this tourist enclave, or sexually enslaved by the sex industry, but because it is their preference. The presence of legal prostitution in 10 rural counties outside Las Vegas doesn’t impact the day-to-day lives of women, whether working in the sex industry or not. And for many women we interviewed, choosing brothel work was the safest and most desirable option for them.

Herbert has it right that Vegas is a sexualized city space. He has it right that the sex industry, like the tourist industry, the service industry, and all other industries, can be exploitative. But he misses the ubiquity of these experiences beyond Las Vegas and outside the sex industry.

The real problems are larger systems of gender and sexual inequality that constrain women nationwide and worldwide — Vegas simply highlights the contradictions of oppression and empowerment, coercion and choice. Ultimately, though, to reduce all women in Vegas to passive victims of the city as predator is itself a predatory, degrading, exploitative argument. It is a dramatic analogy, but like Vegas’ carefully staged mirages and simulations, it is all surface and no substance.

Kate Hausbeck is a senior associate dean at UNLV’s Graduate College. Barbara Brents is a UNLV sociology professor. Crystal Jackson is doctoral student in sociology at UNLV.

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