• Brooke Ruhl

Nevada & Prostitution: Have we legalized human trafficking?

While task forces are popping up across the United States to combat the issue of Human Trafficking, Nevada presents a particularly troubling concern.

The International Labour Office estimated that in 2016, 40 million people were the victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. Over three quarters of that estimate are presumably women. The estimates show that for every 1,000 people, 5.9 of them are victims to modern slavery. The 2019 Nevada Census estimated around 3 million people living in Nevada, meaning there is an estimated 16,500 human trafficking victims in the Silver State.

But what about the definition of human trafficking is tricky in Nevada?

“Commercial sex acts” is specifically stated in the definition of human trafficking. While that definition may be sufficient in other places, it loses clarity in Nevada. That raises the question: how do you combat a life-threatening issue affecting millions of lives worldwide, and thousands of lives statewide, when part of the definition is legal in Nevada?

John Vanek, the author of The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery, explained this unique issue.

“It’s an interesting relationship. People may think ‘how does human trafficking affect where I live?’ but in Nevada, the more important question may be, ‘how does where I live affect human trafficking?"

Nevada is the only place in the United States with legal prostitution. Sex work is a thriving industry in Nevada, and in the state’s 16 counties, prostitution is legal in 10 of them. A highly controversial topic throughout Nevada’s history, legal prostitution is now proving to be a very difficult obstacle for those trying to combat human trafficking.

Thousands of women in Nevada make their living in sex work. One woman, who asked to be kept anonymous explains that while she feels comfortable in her career, she knows many women who are not. It is any interesting relationship, because the vast majority of sex workers in Nevada are sex workers by choice. But the issue is when the lines get blurred. Vanek explains there is a big issue of sex workers being low risk targets for human trafficking.

“They are already in the business. There are no red flags, nothing is out of the ordinary. One minute they are sex workers by choice, the next they are sex slaves by coercion.”

This raises questions in the minds of anti-human trafficking professionals. Questions like, “How do we define human trafficking in Nevada?” or “How do we prosecute human trafficking in Nevada?”

Vanek, who has assisted in multiple anti-human trafficking task forces nationwide, explained how a sex trafficking scenario in California could be prosecuted successfully, but the same case in Nevada may not even make it to trial.

“A pimp in California can present a sex worker with the idea they have no other option, and boom. With a knowledgeable investigator, a knowledgeable prosecutor, and a cooperative victim, in California that would be enough. But given that same situation in Nevada, you would probably have a really hard time making a criminal case.”

As of now, these questions will go unanswered. But Vanek and colleagues are working to understand these questions, and attempting to find reasonable solutions. The story is still developing.

Melissa Farley, the author of Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections interviewed many sex workers at some of Nevada’s most popular brothels. Sex workers told Farley that they consider the brothels “pussy penitentiaries” as they feel more like a jail than they do a job.

“Concrete compounds, bars on the windows, panic buttons that are worn out in every room from aggressive johns, it’s horrible. It doesn’t look like a place you should keep animals let a lone people,” One interviewee said.

Throughout her interviews, Farley also learned that many of the women struggle with untreated mental health issues. Some struggling with anxiety and depression, some with unaddressed sexual trauma, and some with conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“Even though they make the choice to be sex workers, there is a good chance they may not be all in their right mind while making the choice.”

One of Farley’s interviewees, Chong Kim, who survived her beginning as a prostitute describes the owners of Nevada’s brothels as “Worse than any pimp. They imprison and abuse these women and the state protects them while they do it.”

But some interesting points to take from this may be to try and realize what the definition of human trafficking in Nevada should be, and whether someone may be a victim or not.

The definition of human trafficking and modern slavery in Nevada is undoubtedly different than the definition for the rest of the country or world. It may be a question of consent, of working conditions, of ways out. According to Vanek and Farley, amongst other professionals, there needs to be a clear cut definition that separates human trafficking from legal prostitution in the state. Vanek also makes the point of saying Nevada needs to have a firm understanding of how human trafficking criminals can be prosecuted, and how more resources for victims should be available.

Check out both Vanek & Farley's books on Amazon to learn more about these issues!

Tweet me!

@Brooke_Ruhl and use the hashtag #BRuhly_Trafficked


Brooke Ruhl

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Brooke Ruhl

University of Nevada Reno

2020 by Brooke Ruhl.