Las Vegas: Pimp my tax code

Who’s skeptical of proposals to legalize and tax Las Vegas prostitutes? The answer might surprise you


SO it’s come to this. The state of Nevada — hard up for cash and low on options — may have to start turning tricks.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Legal prostitution has existed since the first prospectors drifted into the Silver State. But the state is just now getting wise to something sex workers have known for a long time: selling sex can be a lucrative business. Licensing and taxing legal brothels in the rural counties could generate between $500,000 and $1 million in taxes.

Figures like those make state Sen. Bob Coffin and Mayor Oscar Goodman wonder what kind of money could be made by bringing brothels into Clark County, the only place where prostitution is illegal under state law. After all, the illicit trade here is thriving. It dwarfs the legitimate prostitution that takes place in the state’s three dozen brothels. If we could get $1 million from 300 licensed prostitutes, imagine how much revenue the state could generate by certifying and taxing the hookers already working the state’s largest city. We’re sitting on a veritable gold mine.

But gold is a natural resource — as inanimate as they come. Legalizing prostitution, on the other hand, has real human consequences for workers and their clients. Hookers who go legit in one of rural Nevada’s legal brothels can expect less freedom, less autonomy and less control of their personal information, says Susan Lopez of the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Las Vegas. Brothel owners aren’t exactly progressive when it comes to workers’ rights.

“It’s more about quarantining those dirty whores,” she says.

Some brothels have policies that require prostitutes to remain on the premises for the duration of their contract. The women have to undergo onerous STD testing (their clients do not) and in some cases have their names entered on a government registry, which could haunt them if they try to leave the industry.

Brothel owners generally take about half a woman’s fee. And if brothels based in other counties chose to move their businesses to Clark County, it could hurt independent contractors and madams operating outside the law.

There’s no question that laws against prostitution harm women working in the industry. The nature of their work keeps prostitutes from turning to police when they’ve been raped or assaulted and makes them an easy target for predators. Lopez would like to see prostitution decriminalized, so that all the laws against it are removed from the criminal code, but not legalized into a bureaucratic mess of regulations that turn tax assessors into the people’s pimps.

Crystal Jackson, a sociology grad student at UNLV who studies Nevada’s brothels, has a more generous opinion of the legalization model, but still says it’s flawed. On lockdown, the practice of confining women to the brothel premises, she says it is, in some cases, the only reasonable way to house legal prostitutes passing through town for a few weeks.

“People freak out when they hear the word decriminalization,” Jackson says. “They think it’s like the Wild West with no regulation whatsoever.”

Small brothels would still be subject to zoning and public health restrictions, but the women might have more power over their managers, who would have to abide by OSHA and other regulations. Sen. Coffin, for his part, would also be open to initiatives that would help women working illegally as prostitutes.

“I think we can do more for sex workers,” he says. “The prostitutes right now, in places where it’s illegal, they’re in danger and their customers are not safe either.”

Last updated on Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 12:09 am

Link to original story on City Life

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