One of the most frustrating stories to hit my inbox this week involves Sheri's Ranch, a legal Nevada brothel, and Seeking Arrangement.com, a "sugar dating" website that connects wealthier paramours with sexier ones. The brothel is calling for law enforcement to crack down on sites like Seeking Arrangement, which it calls "the next phase in the evolution of illegal online prostitution."
"The courtesans and staff of Sheri's Ranch are prostitution experts, so we know prostitution when we see it," said Sheri's Ranch spokesman Jeremy Lemur in a press release. "We're concerned that sugar dating websites, platforms promoting prostitution and operating without interference from law enforcement, may one day negatively impact our legal prostitution business."
In other words, he's rent-seeking. Like taxi cartels that oppose Uber and dentists who want to ward off unliscenced teeth whiteners, Sheri's Ranch wants to use government coercion and force to see that it retains it's prized economic footing. It's not that Lemur & Co. oppose prostitution per se, only illegal prostitution. And it just so happens that they've cornered the market on the legal kind.
On the one hand, it's understandable: in places like Nevada where prostitution has been "legalized"— but not decriminalized—the government sets strict parameters for who can operate a sex business and how. Sheri's Ranch and its employees surely have to jump through all sorts of regulatory hoops and pay regular fees to retain their government permission slip to operate. And it's got to be frustrating to see other people profiting from prostitution without giving their proper cut to the state.
However, I have no sympathy for people whose reaction is to insist that the state screw everybody over equally, instead of maybe getting a little less grabby with everyone.
Lemur says "the attempt to 'sugar coat' illegal prostitution through sugar baby dating sites is nothing more than a callous action taken by opportunistic, morally compromised entrepreneurs who appear to have found a loophole." Pot, meet kettle. It's easy to see why brothel owners are pleased with the legal sex-trade monopoly they've got going in certain places. It's not so easy to see how this benefits sex workers or their clients.
Sure, brothels provide certain advantages, and I know there are many sex workers who are happy working at them. But there are also many who are happy (and more profitable) working independently. Under a system of prostitution decriminalization, neither would face police harassment and jail time.
Total decriminalization is where many people get lost on legalizing the sex trade—they can see how allowing consenting adults to exchange money for sex isn't all that bad, yet they think this should only be permitted under certain narrow, state-approved circumstances. Maybe it all has to happen in designated brothels, or sex workers must be licensed and undergo regular state testing. This, say many, is for sex workers' and clients' own well-being.
But under a system of total decriminalization, brothels could still exist, medical paperwork proving clean health could still be used by sex workers as a selling point, and an optional credentialing system could still be employed. The only difference is that police couldn't throw a sex worker in jail for working from her own home, or arrest a client and post his picture online for receiving a blowjob from someone with expired paperwork. The difference is we wouldn't be wasting law enforcement resources trying to determine the precise line where dating websites cross over into prostitution, nor ruining people's lives for stepping over this line.