What is the lawsuit against Nevada's 'pro-prostitution' laws? NCOSE says legalization leads to trafficking

According to NCOSE, legalization does not necessarily make Nevada a safe space for sex workers and a vast majority of prostitution in the state continues to occur illegally


                            What is the lawsuit against Nevada's 'pro-prostitution' laws? NCOSE says legalization leads to trafficking
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Earlier this year, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) Law Center decided to argue against Nevada’s pro-prostitution law that they claim "conflicts with federal laws that ban sex trafficking and violates the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on any form of involuntary servitude." According to their website, the NCOSE is a nonprofit organization "with a focus on a wide-ranging and interrelated array of topics including, but not limited to, child sexual abuse, child-on-child harmful sexual behavior, compulsive sexual behaviors, demand for sexual exploitation, illicit massage businesses, image-based sexual abuse, institutional sexual abuse, men’s violence against women, the neurological impacts of sexual trauma, the public health harms of pornography, prostitution, sex trafficking, sexual harassment and assault, sexual objectification, stripping, as well as the intersection of these issues with technology."

What is Nevada's 'pro-prostitution law'?

Nevada is the only state to allow legal prostitution, but state law requires it to take place in a licensed brothel in a county with a population of less than 700,000. However, local governments also have the power to outlaw prostitution, so just because a county has less than 700,000 residents doesn't necessarily mean that prostitution is legal there. Throughout large parts of Nevada, including Las Vegas, both prostitution and solicitation are illegal. Therefore, engaging in prostitution, or offering or agreeing to engage in prostitution, is illegal in certain parts of Nevada. It is also illegal to induce, force, or arrange for another person to unlawfully engage in prostitution, or to enter a part of Nevada where prostitution is practiced, encouraged, or allowed, for the purpose of engaging in prostitution. Offenders who violate this law are guilty of pandering. 

Who are the plaintiffs of the NCOSE lawsuit?

The plaintiffs in the current lawsuit are not NCOSE, but two women who were were sex trafficked due to Nevada’s system of legal brothels and are "seeking to hold the state responsible for protecting the sex trade and enabling slavery," according to a statement from Christen Price, legal counsel for the NCOSE, who will argue the case with Nevada-based attorney, Jason Guinasso.

According to NCOSE, plaintiff Bekah Charleston was a 17-year-old runaway who came under the control of her trafficker who swiftly brought her from Texas to Nevada to be sold in Las Vegas and into a brothel. She was held in virtual captivity in a Nevada brothel, regularly raped, and forced to perform sex acts upon fear of beatings and other abuse. Plaintiff Angela Delgado-Williams is a survivor who has a similar story of being preyed upon, lured, abused, controlled, and then eventually sex trafficked in Las Vegas.

What does the lawsuit state?

The NCOSE will argue that Nevada’s prostitution scheme, including the way it is promoted and advertised, conflicts with tough federal laws that ban sex trafficking and taking women across state lines for purposes of prostituting them as well as the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on any form of involuntary servitude upon which the federal anti-trafficking law is grounded. The lawsuit seeks an order that would void any county ordinances licensing brothels, invalidate the state law permitting prostitution, and provide exit services and resources to women prostituted through Nevada's legal brothels.

Doesn't legalization make prostitution more regulated?

According to NCOSE, legalization does not necessarily make Nevada a safe space for sex workers. According to data analysis by the organization, the vast majority of prostitution in Nevada continues to occur illegally, with at least 90 percent of prostitution in Nevada estimated to occur outside of the legal brothel system. This is consistent with studies from other countries where prostitution was legalized but continued to be operated in an illegal and unregulated manner. According to a 2009 study by the London Metropolitan University cited by the NCOSE, attempts to regulate prostitution as a form of work like any other had failed, leading to unchecked growth and lack of enforcement in illegal sectors, and no improvements in levels of violence, reducing stigmatization, reducing reluctance to report violence to police, or access to health services.

A 2013 study of 150 countries from the London School of Economics found that wherever prostitution was legal, sex trafficking tended to increase, not decrease. Similarly, another study from the same year analyzed 39 nations and found that sex trafficking was most prevalent in countries where prostitution was legal. The reason for this was attributed to legalization leading to increased demand, and therefore empowering sex traffickers to continue to exploit vulnerable girls and women.

A Creighton University analysis of prostitution advertising in Nevada found that 72 percent of Nevada’s sex providers have at least some indicator of being young, with the potential of being underage or working in groups likely to have an active facilitator. Moreover, a 2018 audit of Nevada legal brothels in Lyon County found that 30% of the women had red flags for sex trafficking. NCOSE argues that legal prostitution leads to an increase in child sex trafficking and has failed to protect women from sexual exploitation, violence, or psychological trauma. A survey of 45 women who had experienced prostitution in the state's legal brothels showed that more than half the women gave all or part of their income to their trafficker, more than 80 percent of the women reported wanting to escape prostitution, 23 percent self-reported they were prostituted as a child, half the women reported being prostituted illegally, and 47 percent of the women stated there was pornography made of them while in prostitution. Additionally, nearly half the women reported they had been homeless, and a similar number reported being verbally abused while in prostitution in Nevada.

Is this the first lawsuit against Nevada's legal brothels?

The short answer is no. A lawsuit that aimed to eliminate Nevada’s legal brothels was dismissed in October 2019 by a federal court judge who rejected the notion that it conflicts with federal laws. Chief US District Judge Miranda Du wrote in the order, "While the Court empathizes with Plaintiffs for their lived experiences, the Court cannot adjudicate Plaintiffs’ claims because Plaintiffs fail to establish standing to confer jurisdiction upon this Court." This meant that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law in question.

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit were Bekah Charleston and Angela Delgado-Williams, who are the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit. The complaint -- which named the state, the Legislature, and Governor Steve Sisolak as defendants -- argued that legalized prostitution in rural counties contradicts two federal laws that criminalize human trafficking across state lines for the purpose of commercial sex acts. The current lawsuit is an appeal of this decision and will be argued before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on December 9, 2020.

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