Legalize Prostitution to Fight Sex Trafficking? Sex Workers Say "Yes"


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When California passed the anti-sex trafficking measure Proposition 35 in 2012, an overwhelming 81 percent of voters chose "yes on 35."

After all, who could be against a law that sought to crack down on traffickers of juvenile sex slaves?

As it turns out, some of the most outspoken opponents of the law were sex workers themselves. They balked at the provision requiring sex traffickers to register as sex offenders, fearing that the overly broad definition of trafficker could ensnare them, their customers, and their family members. The anti-pimping provisions, they argued, blurred the legal lines between coercive underage trafficking and consensual, adult prostitution.

"They're calling themselves the anti-trafficking lobby, but they're really a group of people primarily against commercial sex work," says Mariko Passion, a San Francisco-based sex worker, artist, and self-described "whore revolutionary."

Other sex workers echo Passion's anti-Prop. 35 sentiments. One Los Angeles-based prostitute, who asked to be known only as "Holly" for fear of legal reprisal, says that she freely chose her line of work following the 2008 housing crash. She had grown tired of the corporate rat race and wanted to go "off the grid." Holly, who runs her own online escort service, says the draconian provisions of Prop. 35 have made her less likely to report an assault and that she resents those who think of her as a victim in need of salvation.

"The difference between human trafficking and prostitution is coercion," says Holly. "I'm not a victim. I'm not being coerced. But the law doesn't see me that way."

What might an alternative system of legalized sex work look like? Reason TV traveled to the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in rural Nevada, to try to answer that question (note: link to Bunny Ranch may not be safe for work). Proprieter Dennis Hof says that legalization is the fastest, most efficient way to battle underage sex trafficking and other ills associated with prostitution. He points to the remarkably high rate of HIV infection among prosititutes in nearby Las Vegas where, contrary to popular belief, sex work remains illegal and underground. By contrast, he says, under the state's regime of mandatory testing, there has never been a documented case of HIV among licensed workers in Nevada's brothels.

"When you legalize something, it takes all the nonsense out of the business," says Hof. "It takes the criminals out of the business. It puts money into the coffers of society, instead of taking it out to police this ill [of sex trafficking]."

Can legalized prostitution do more good than celebrity-backed anti-trafficking organizations could ever hope for? Watch the video above for the full story, and scroll down for downloadable versions.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Associate Producer Will Neff. Shot by Sharif Matar, Alex Manning, and Neff. Approximately 8 minutes.

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