By BOB HERBERT
I must have hit a nerve. While in Las Vegas last week, I interviewed the mayor, Oscar Goodman, who enthusiastically explained how legalizing prostitution and creating a series of “magnificent brothels” could be a boon to his city’s development.
Vegas is already a paradise for pimps, johns and perverts, and I accused the mayor in a column of setting the tone “for the systematic, institutionalized degradation” of women.
Mr. Goodman was not pleased. He snarled to the local press that he had no use for me, and added, “I’ll take a baseball bat and break his head if he ever comes here.”
The mayor, who made a name for himself as a defense lawyer for mobsters, loves to slip into a clownish, tough-guy persona. (He never lets anyone forget that he had a walk-on as himself in the movie “Casino.”) But behind his bluster is a serious issue that should be addressed.
A lot of people more thoughtful than Oscar Goodman believe that prostitution should be legalized as a way of protecting and empowering the women who go into the sex trade. I’ve lost patience with those arguments, however well meaning. Real-world prostitution, in whatever guise, bears no resemblance at all to the empowerment fantasies of prostitution proponents. I have never seen such vulnerable, powerless women as those in the sex trade, legal or illegal.
At Sheri’s Ranch, a legal brothel about an hour’s ride outside of Vegas, the women have to respond like Pavlov’s dog to a bell that might ring at any hour of the day or night. It could be 4 a.m., and the woman might be sleeping. Or she might not be feeling well. Too bad.
When that electronic bell rings, she has five minutes to get to the assembly area, a large room where she will line up with the other women, virtually naked, and submit to a humiliating inspection by any prospective customer who happens to drop by.
“It’s not fun,” one of the women whispered to me during a tour of the brothel.
The first thing to understand about prostitution, including legal prostitution, is that the element of coercion is almost always present. Despite the fiction that they are “independent contractors,” most so-called legal prostitutes have pimps — the state-sanctioned pimps who run the brothels and, in many cases, a second pimp who controls all other aspects of their lives (and takes the bulk of their legal earnings).
They are hardly empowered. Years of studies have shown that most prostitutes are pushed into the trade in their early teens by grown men. A large percentage are victims of incest or other forms of childhood sexual abuse. Most are dirt poor. Many are drug-addicted. And most are plagued by devastatingly low levels of self esteem.
And then there are the armies of women and girls who are trafficked into the sex trade by organized criminals, both inside and outside of the U.S.
That a city, a state or any other governmental entity in the U.S. could legally sanction the sexual degradation of women and girls under any circumstances, much less those who are so extremely vulnerable, is an atrocity. And if you don’t think legalized prostitution is about degradation, consider the “date room” at Sheri’s. That’s a small room where a quiet dinner for two can be served. Beneath the tiny table is a couple of towels and a cushion for the woman to kneel on.
The only one empowered in that situation is the john.
Mayor Goodman’s concept of magnificence notwithstanding, Nevada’s legal brothels are not nice places. “The only place I’ve ever had a gun pulled on me was in a legal brothel,” said Melissa Farley, a psychologist and researcher who has studied the sex trade in Nevada for the past two and a half years.
Ms. Farley, who is in her 60s and has the demeanor of a college professor, was threatened at gunpoint by a legal pimp who didn’t like her attitude. “I tried to change the look on my face in a hurry,” she said.
Any honest investigation of the facts, as opposed to abstract theories, of prostitution — in any form — would reveal a horror show. That’s why the authorities in so many other countries that have given an official green light to prostitution, including Germany and the Netherlands, have been revisiting their policies.
Legal prostitution tends to increase, not decrease, illegal prostitution, in part by creating a friendlier climate for demand. It tends to increase, not decrease, sex trafficking. And the recent explosion of prostitution in all its forms promotes the sexualization of girls at ever younger ages.
Oscar Goodman should be viewed as a wake-up call. As a society, we should be offering help to the many thousands of women who would like to escape prostitution, and providing alternatives to those in danger of being pulled into it.