March 5, 2019

Will Nevada’s Female-Led Legislature Choose to Reform Its Legal System of Sexual Exploitation?

The following is an op-ed originally published by

It’s big news: female lawmakers now hold 32 of the Nevada state legislature’s 63 seats. Thus, Nevada has the distinction of being the first state in the country to seat a female majority to its legislative assembly.

But, that this momentous occasion has transpired first in Nevada oozes with irony. After all, Nevada is the only state in the country that legally sanctions the buying and selling of women for sex.

The most emblematic measure of women’s true status in any society is reflected in its prostitution laws: are women public sexual commodities under the law or not?

In Nevada, of course, the answer to that question is, “Yes.” Since 1971 Nevada has given its rural counties the right to decide whether or not to legalize brothel-based prostitution. Several of its counties have chosen to do just that.

Under this legal framework, women are consumables.

I recall with sadness the times I’ve visited Nevada brothels while researching the harms of prostitution. Upon my arrival women were lined up and presented as if they were food selections available from Old Country Buffet. The sex acts they were expected to perform were presented to potential buyers as a “menu.”

This food analogy syncs well with Nevada’s most famous sexual exploiter’s view of prostitution. The recently deceased Dennis Hof, former owner of several Nevada brothels, once quipped, “I’m selling sex like McDonalds is selling burgers.” Correction: he sold women like McDonald’s sold burgers.

Yet, on one level Hof was right. Brothels industrialize the provisioning of women for sex much like fast food restaurants churn out meals for the masses, but there are important distinctions. For instance, fast food restaurants aren’t surrounded by iron gates and barbed wire. Nevada’s brothels are.

Fast food chains don’t require their workers to live on premises or take 50% of their earnings. They don’t require their employees to wear lingerie or perform sex acts for customers. Nevada’s brothels do.

At least one of Nevada’s brothel owners also allegedly expected his female employees to have sex with him on demand. Last year charges of rape from multiple women were levied against Hof.

In her account of sexual assault by Hof, prostitution survivor Jennifer O’Kane shared, “I said, ‘Hey, you’re my boss. What are we doing? You’re not a customer.’ And his response was ‘I’m gonna try. I try.’ ”

In a recent interview, when asked about the challenge of fighting sexual harassment in a state that has legal prostitution Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak stated, “. . . I think it’s a big jump to go from sexual harassment to brothels.”

What Governor Sisolak fails to understand is that prostitution IS sexual harassment and assault “for a living.”

Payment for sex, whether money or something else of value, is the hallmark of unwanted sex. People who genuinely want to have sex, have sex. Payment is sexual coercion used to abrogate the lack of consent in sexual exchanges.

One prostitution survivor put it this way, “You have sex when they want, with whom they want, and it doesn’t matter how you feel or anything. You’re locked in a box for two weeks and guys come in and out.”

Thus, prostitution researcher Melissa Farley has explained, “If you remove unwanted sex acts, there is no prostitution.”

As demeaning and exploitive as prostitution is, apparently for the majority of Nevada lawmakers to date prostitution has been their notion of female empowerment.

This is why the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) placed Nevada on its 2019 Dirty Dozen List. Nevada is the only state to ever be named to this list of corporations and other entities that facilitate or profit from sexual exploitation.

NCOSE believes Nevada must be called out for creating a legal system that has fueled decades of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

As the 80th Nevada Legislature begins, its new female-led legislature has a significant choice to make. They can choose to reform Nevada’s prostitution laws by criminalizing brothels and sex buyers, while offering support services for those exiting the sex trade. Or, they can choose to support the status quo and join the long line of Nevada politicians who have chosen to ensure that in Nevada a pool of women are always on supply as public sexual property.

Lisa Thompson

Lisa L. Thompson, Vice President of Research and Education, National Center on Sexual Exploitation

Vice President and Director of the NCOSE Research Institute

As Vice President of Research and Education for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Lisa conducts policy analysis and advocacy, advances understanding of pornography’s public health harms, and liaises with public officials, advocates, and academics to advance strategies combating the web of sexual exploitation, including pornography, stripping, prostitution, sexual trafficking, sexual assault, and more.

Lisa joined NCOSE following two years with World Hope International where as Director of Anti-Trafficking, Lisa oversaw sex trafficking recovery programs in Cambodia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Lisa is a contributing author to Hands that Heal: International Curriculum for Caregivers of Trafficking Survivors, as well as the book Global Perspectives on Prostitution and Sex Trafficking:  Europe Latin America, North America, and Global. Lisa also routinely speaks and trains on sexual exploitation topics for a diverse range of audiences. Lisa served for more than 12 years as the Liaison for the Abolition of Sexual Trafficking for The Salvation Army USA National Headquarters.

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