The US crackdown on sex work won’t help women—it will hurt the most vulnerable

Not going down without a fight
Not going down without a fight
Image: Kimberly White/Reuters
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Everyone in the brothel has a story about how they got there. But some stories are sadder than others.

I went to northern Nevada last year to interview legal sex workers in four brothels owned by Dennis Hof, Nevada’s biggest brothel owner. I met a woman named Mia*, who worked out of Sage Brush Ranch just outside Carson City. We sat down to eat chicken soup in the brothel cafeteria. I was shocked when she told me she had been a sex worker for more than ten years. Mia looked so young—she could not be a day over 25. The story she went on to tell me shed light on the urgency of doing more to prevent sex trafficking—and just how complicated it may be to determine which laws will best help protect its victims.

Mia told me that she’d run away from home when she was 14. Soon after that a man she met drugged, kidnapped, and took her to Oakland, about 80 miles away from her family. Her captors raped her repeatedly and then forced her into prostitution. She worked the streets for a few months before she was picked up by a policeman. He called Mia’s mother, but she did not come for her daughter. Mia says her mother didn’t have a car and had no way to get to Oakland. Mia was put on a bus and sent home.

Mia moved in with her grandmother and went back to school. But Mia had changed. After school she continued to work as a prostitute, walking the streets to find customers. She says turning 18 improved business because she could now check into hotels with her Johns. This meant she could work as an escort and book clients in advance using online sites. She could also charge them more money.

After a few years of escorting, she heard about the legal brothels in Nevada and decided to give it a try. When I spoke to Mia, she’d been working at a Hof brothel for about a year. She was married and lived nearby. She said she made more money at the brothel than she had on her own and was paying off her debts.

But she must give the brothel half her earnings. I asked how she felt about that, after years of working independently and keeping all her money. She said it was worth it. Legal sex work had fewer complications, even if she found the structure and regular shifts stifling. Plus, after years of bad experiences, she appreciated the safety and security the brothel offered. It had security guards and panic buttons in the rooms; she didn’t have to worry about being in danger. In many ways, the brothel was the safest place she’d been since she was 14.

The future of this brothel is now in question as US cracks down on sex work in both the legal and illegal market. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) recently passed into law in April. It aims to shut down websites where escorts who work independently (and illegally) advertise and screen their clients. And this fall, voters in two Nevada counties will face a referendum on banning brothels, including six of the Hof brothels.

The motivation behind the crackdown is to reduce sex trafficking. But it is not clear that shutting down websites and legal brothels will do that. It may even be counterproductive. It is true that trafficked women and girls were advertised on escort websites selling illegal sex, but they are a small minority of the business. Most people on the websites are adults who work independently. Websites are also how women in the illegal market share tips on violent clients and screen new customers, and law enforcement also uses the sites to find trafficking victims. Some of the websites even actively work with law enforcement to identify trafficking victims.

Supporters of the referendum to ban brothels argue that this will prevent sex trafficking and help women like Mia. But, no one is trafficked in legal brothels. Legal brothels face too much regulation and scrutiny to get away with selling sex slaves. All the women are over 18, licensed, and undergo thorough background checks.

Awaken, an advocacy group supporting the legal broth ban, argues that sex workers face higher rates of murder and violence. That is true, but the websites and legal brothels may be the best line of defense against those crimes. I interviewed dozens of women who work in Hof brothels. All claimed that they felt safe at work. A few mentioned bad experiences with customers finding them online or following them home, but the brothels have a zero-tolerance policy for this behavior. These men were banned from the brothel and the women were provided with extra security.

Meanwhile, all the women I spoke with who’d done sex work illegally had encountered clients who would not pay or were violent. Research has shown advanced screening reduces violence, but not all women do and after FOSTA it is harder to screen. In legal brothels, screening is unnecessary. Banning brothels only eliminates another safe refuge to do the work.

If the goal is to reduce sex work, they crackdown might work. There is evidence that making sex work more accessible has brought more women into the market. But many of them are ambivalent sex workers, often educated women who have other job options. Indeed, at Hof’s network of brothels, I spoke with several women who had MBAs and PhDs. One woman said that she enjoyed working there because it was a break from looking after her five children. These women would probably be fine, and do other jobs, if they couldn’t work at the brothel or advertise their escort services online. But more vulnerable women, like Mia, will do sex work no matter what. Either they will do it on the street, working with violent pimps, or they will have safer options.

Getting rid of websites and legal brothels won’t prevent trafficking. But they did facilitate Mia’s sex work after she was freed. The legal brothel even profited off it. Still, that may be the best option for women like Mia. She’d probably be involved in sex work with or without websites and brothels. The difference is that they made her safer.

Mia left the brothel early this year. Sage Brush says she’s gone on to “bigger and better things.” I don’t know what kind of work she’s doing now. But the best thing we can do to help vulnerable women who become sex workers is to regulate the work, and keep it out of the shadows.

*Not her real name.