When people find out I’ve spent time researching brothels, they have many questions. Mostly about why women do the work, but also about the men. They expect the men to be monsters, creeps who are cheating on their wives or acting out dark fantasies. Many are surprised to learn most of the customers I met are just lonely. Some have a hard time connecting yet still crave intimacy, some are elderly widowers or disabled, and, yes, some are just creepy. Seeing it up close, I understand why the demand for sex work exists and why it always has and probably always will. I’d even argue it fills a function in our society, a side most people don’t want to acknowledge exists.
We live in an era when old taboos are being shattered every day. Marijuana, once considered a vice worthy of prison time, is becoming legal or at least decriminalized in certain countries. Gambling, in casinos or online, was once widely prohibited and is now omnipresent. But in most of the world there is no such acceptance for sex work. Quite the opposite. In last year, laws like the US’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) sought to make sex harder to sell, by cracking down a website were sex workers advertise and screen potential clients.
But every so often a society makes an uneasy peace with with sex work, recognizing its inevitability, and finds ways to manage it. Today there are roughly three ways governments address sex work, making it completely illegal (the standard in the US except certain counties in Nevada), semi-legal (as in the UK and Nordic countries), and fully legal but regulated (Nevada, Netherlands, Germany and 52 other countries).