Maybe the best political development to come out of Nevada Senator Harry Reid’s latest moral crusade is the public response: silence.
In what appears to be a flailing pander to “values voters” in the state that brought us the Liberace Museum, Reid recently called for a ban on the state’s (currently legal) brothels. The logic seems to be that the sex business is bad for other kinds of business, reports the Las Vegas Sun:
When he said “Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment — not the last place where prostitution is still legal,” there was a scattering of applause.
When he said, “the time has come for us to outlaw prostitution,” the crowd in the Assembly chambers was silent.
Reid paused for an awkward three seconds before he seemed to realize no ovation was coming.
Asked about it later, he said, “Well, I guess … I was happy to get applause sometime.”
Coming in the midst of an estimated $2.2 billion budget deficit, sky-high unemployment, and one of the deepest foreclosure crises in the country, maybe Reid’s timing was a tad suspicious.
Colleagues dismissed Reid for trying to deflect attention from the state’s economic collapse. The masses weren’t sold, either:
The Legislature was engulfed by a sideshow of beefy pimps and short-skirted prostitutes, with joking comparisons to lobbyists and legislators being for sale and many asking: “Why take the time out now to bring up the issue.”
Guy Rocha, a state historian who was in the packed house, said, “I don’t see how brothels undermine our economic development interests, other than I’ve heard of a few instances of businesses being uncomfortable.”
Back in 2009, the sex sector distinguished itself in the business community by actually inviting more regulation, perhaps anticipating that paying tax to the state, as opposed to the current fee to individual counties, might enhance brothel owners’ political purchase. But back then, too, Democratic lawmakers “regarded the issue as a distraction,” reports the Sun.
Though Reid may have courted ridicule, there are real political and ethical concerns surrounding the brothel industry’s touchy relationship with the state. Should legal brothels — which now operate in counties with populations of up to 400,000 residents — be boosted as a viable revenue source for a state drowning in fiscal turmoil? Just as some communities are revisiting the question of legalizing marijuana, maybe it is time for a public discussion about the risks and rewards of legal sex work — what legalization means for communities, purveyors of sexual capital and the consumers of pleasure in a time of economic misery.
Now, Nevada’s brothel industry is no cash cow. Like casinos, the sex trade was squeezed by the recession and tends to face difficulties advertising their services due to social stigma.
Research on the economic effects of legalizing or decriminalizing sex work can be as polarizing as the legal debate over sex work itself. But one study of the political economy of sex work found that in theory, at least, there’s a good reason people have been selling sex since time immemorial, according to Forbes:
according to data assembled from a wide variety of times and places, ranging from mid-15th-century France to Malaysia of the late 1990s, prostitutes make more money – in some cases, a lot more money – than do working girls who, well, work for a living. This held true even for places where prostitution is legal and relatively safe. In short, streetwalkers aren’t necessarily being paid more for their increased risk of going to jail or the hospital.
In other words, even absent the barriers of criminalization, the commodity of sex fetches a high price on a “free market.”
But such an analysis revolves around the cold binary of demand and supply as opposed to the labor relationship that links the sex worker, employer, and client. A purely economic analysis may not account for the more nuanced issues like gender inequality, social attitudes toward prostitution, the array of economic opportunities available to the workers as they decide to enter the trade, the sector’s relationship to law enforcement or labor regulators, and risk of exploitation, which can occur regardless of whether the work is “aboveground” or “underground.”
So sex-trade policy must be sensitive and sensible. If Nevada wants to get prostitution right, and perhaps lead the nation by example, it can look north. In Canada, a set of major prostitution bans was recently thrown out by an Ontario court as unconstitutional. To replace the vintage “bawdy-house law,” officials may have to turn toward European models for regulating sex work, which vary widely in terms of their degree of decriminalization and their effectiveness, often harming rather than helping the workers.
Any form of regulation needs to be balanced against civil liberties and weighed in terms of whether it truly guards against the hazards of the job and prevents trafficking and coercion. Do sex workers have the right to unionize, negotiate contracts and collectively bargain? For those who are mistreated, does society afford them access to services and safety protections? Finally, the free will of the laborer, and control over one’s sexuality as the “means of production,” must be understood and negotiated by individual sex workers and employers, from a human rights perspective as well as a material one.
So Senator Reid’s strike at brothels was perhaps impolitic. But it touched on the social dilemmas that emerge in any crisis of capitalism. If sex sells, why can’t we sell it? Why do we live in a society that insists that one’s sexuality be controlled arbitrarily by social mores, rather than regulated rationally by the state for economic purposes? If the market tells us anything about human nature, then we need to examine every commodified aspect of human existence, from educational achievement to athletic prowess to mechanical skills to, yes, sexuality, that gives value to our labor, and by extension, to ourselves.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.