Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

Nevada Demonstrates the Impact of Decriminalizing Sex Work

The sex work industry, prohibited in 49 states, is one of the largest underground industries in our country. Nevada is the only state in which prostitution and other forms of sex work are legal.

Amidst conversations of police brutality, the push to decriminalize and legalize sex work has risen to national attention. The ACLU says police often target and harass individuals who they think are sex workers. The victims of these attacks are overwhelmingly trans women of color. These stories are underreported because sex workers who are attacked fear being arrested. Decriminalizing sex work would allow those in the industry to protect themselves and to file reports when they are harmed. 

Decriminalizing sex work would also provide basic human benefits for those in the industry. This opportunity could give workers access to healthcare and lower the risk of client-to-provider violence. Reducing violence against sex workers has been the major platform in discussions about legalizing sex work. Studies show that the stigma surrounding the industry actually increases acts of violence. Legalizing prostitution in the United States would reduce the stigma surrounding sex work and therefore reduce violence against sex workers.

Although legal, there are limits placed on sex work in Nevada. State law bans solicitation and prostitution unless it is done in a licensed house of prostitution. These legal brothels allow prostitutes a safe place for consensual sex in exchange for money. Additionally, Nevada bans prostitution in counties with a population above 400,000 people. This ban affects two counties in the state – Clark County, which contains Las Vegas, and Washoe County, which includes Reno.

The docu-series Sold in America goes inside the sex industry at one of Nevada’s legal brothels, the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. The series, created by Newsy, explores the push to legalize prostitution in the United States. In an episode titled “The Workers,” viewers see what it is like to work in a legal brothel. The women that are interviewed show an immense amount of pride and love for their profession. The owner of the brothel describes the women he employs as “true businesswomen” with a passion for “empowerment and ownership.” Additionally, the owner makes it incredibly clear that he has a business license to run this type of business.

Worker safety is a priority at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. The women undergo thorough background checks and weekly STD testing. Additionally, each room has a panic button that triggers a camera and microphone in the room to turn on so that if one of the women feels unsafe or uncomfortable, the staff can assess the situation and prevent serious conflict. Workers at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch recognize the privilege of their safe environment in an industry that is often dangerous. The employees advocate for decriminalizing and legalizing sex work across the country to make the industry safer.

The Moonlite Bunny Ranch is an example of what sex work in America could look like with the widespread decriminalization and legalization of prostitution. According to the documentary series, up to 80% of street sex workers in New York experience violence. In an interview with an ex-sex worker and trans woman of color, the viewers hear about the dangers of illegal sex work.

“They’re not afraid to hurt you," she said. "Because you’re a sex worker they feel like, ‘Oh I can hurt you, you can’t even report it to the police.’” 

The push to decriminalize and legalize sex work is supported by several well-known Democrats, including former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. In 2019, the Safe Sex Workers Study Act was introduced to Congress. The act calls for a study to be done to investigate “the unintended impacts on the health and safety of people engaged in transactional sex.” 

The push to decriminalize and legalize prostitution is still underway in America. As seen in Nevada, the legalization of prostitution provides sex workers with a safe work environment and offers protection from harassment and abuse. If the progressive trend established by Nevada continues, legal prostitution in the U.S. will protect and provide for sex workers.

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