The tone of systematic, institutionalized degradation is set by the mayor, Oscar Goodman, who told me in an interview that the city would reap “tremendous” benefits if a series of “magnificent brothels” could be established to cater to johns from across the country and around the world.
“I’ve said there should be the beginning of a discussion of that,” said Mr. Goodman, a former defense lawyer for mobsters who unabashedly describes his city as an adult playground where “anything goes — as long as you don’t go over the line.”
Most of the lines in Vegas have long since been erased. It is without a doubt, as the psychologist and researcher Melissa Farley, says, “the epicenter of North American prostitution and sex trafficking.”
Vegas is a place where women and girls by the tens of thousands are chewed up by the vast and astonishingly open sex trade. You can be sitting at a traffic light and a huge mobile billboard will drive past, promising, “Hot Babes — Direct to Your Room.”
I was drawn to this story by an advance copy of Ms. Farley’s book-length report, “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections.” It’s being published online today.
The report explores what Oscar Goodman doesn’t appear to understand: the horrendous toll that prostitution, legal or illegal, takes on the women and girls involved. If you peel back the thin, supposedly sexy veneer of the commercial sex trade, you’ll quickly see the rotten inside, where females are bought, sold, raped, beaten, shamed and in many, many cases, physically and emotionally wrecked.
Start with the fact that so many of those who are pulled into the trade are so young — early-20s, late-teens and younger. Child prostitutes by the hundreds pass through the Family Division courtroom of Judge William Voy, who views the hapless, vulnerable girls as victims and tries to help them. The girls he sees are as young as 12, with the average age being 14.
He told me about a 14-year-old who was seven months pregnant by her pimp. She was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease, had a drug problem, was undernourished and still craved a relationship with the pimp. “These cases will tear your heart out,” the judge said.
Ms. Farley was asked to study the Nevada sex trade and its consequences 2 ½ years ago by John Miller, who at the time headed the U.S. State Department’s effort to fight human trafficking around the world. Prostitution is legal in some parts of Nevada but not in Vegas, where 90 percent of the state’s prostitution occurs. Vegas is a world-class embarrassment to any U.S. official attempting to reduce prostitution and trafficking in foreign countries.
“We did surveys of people on the street,” said Ms. Farley, “and nearly half thought prostitution was legal in Las Vegas. Guess why that is? Massive advertising.”
There are more than 150 pages of ads in the Las Vegas yellow pages for “college teens,” “mature women,” “mothers and daughters,” “petite Japanese women,” “Chinese teens in short skirts” and every other variation imaginable. I asked Mayor Goodman about that, and he said: “We’ve changed that a little bit. They used to have pictures.”
Sex clubs with teenage girls dancing nude and offering lap dances to johns are legal, ubiquitous and widely advertised. Many of those girls are either prostitutes or one short step away.
What is not widely understood is how coercive all aspects of the sex trade are. The average age of entry into prostitution is extremely young. The prostitutes are ruthlessly controlled by pimps, club owners and traffickers. In the case of legal prostitution, they are controlled by their own pimps and the brothel owners — pimps who have been legalized by the state.
The women are exploited in every way. Most of the money they receive from johns goes to the pimps, the brothel owners, the escort service managers and so forth. Strippers and lap dancers have to pay for the right to dance in the clubs, and the money they get in tips has to be shared with the club owners, bartenders, bouncers, etc.
Huge numbers of foreign women are trafficked into Vegas. The legions of Asian women in the massage parlors and escort services did not come flocking to Vegas from suburban U.S.A.
Mayor Goodman said that he is no fan of illegal prostitution, but is convinced the legal variety could be a boon. He is proud of his city’s tourist slogan: “What happens here, stays here.”
Back in the ’90s, Las Vegas tried hard to promote a family-friendly image.
“That ended when I became mayor,” said Mr. Goodman.