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Las Vegas sex workers demand rights, respect

Strippers, hookers and academics joined together in front of the courthouse in downtown Las Vegas to call for more legal protection and decriminalization of the world’s oldest profession.
People gather on the steps of the Las Vegas Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas on Thursday in support of sex worker rights and legalized prostitution in the United States.
People gather on the steps of the Las Vegas Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas on Thursday in support of sex worker rights and legalized prostitution in the United States.Laura Rauch / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Strippers and hookers are trying to get some respect in Sin City. The so-called sex workers demonstrated Thursday on the steps of the courthouse in downtown Las Vegas. They’re calling for more legal protection and decriminalization of the world's oldest profession.

Starchild, a 36-year-old former Army Reservist, stood amid rallying sex workers in Las Vegas on Thursday and boasted of his bid for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“And that ballot is going to say ‘escort/exotic dancer,’” he said, beaming.

Protesting prostitutes, strippers and men and women of the night said they came to the downtown courthouse steps to try enable others like Starchild — active advocates for sex workers. The group called for more respect and stronger legal protections for legal and illegal workers in the sex industry. They complained that a series of new anti-human trafficking laws restrict their freedom and called for the decriminalization of the world's oldest profession.

“No one here would say prostitution is good for everyone,” said Elizabeth Nanas, 33, a former prostitute and sex worker advocate who organized the rally to cap off a three-day conference. “We’re saying the attention and money should be spent on areas where there are problems.”

Allegedly restrictive conditions
Organizers said the conference, sponsored by the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, was the largest meeting of academics, advocates and prostitutes in nearly 10 years. On the agenda were discussions on police brutality, online organizing and a lecture about journalism for sex workers.

“Overall, the biggest issue was looking at criminalization policies and asking, are they doing anything to stop prostitution? Are they protecting and empowering women? Are they making our communities safer?” said Kate Hausbeck, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociology professor and advocate. “Are they improving the health, safety and well-being of prostitutes?”

The group met in a state in which 10 rural counties allow prostitution in 28 operating brothels.

But the nation’s only legal bordellos aren't a model for advocates, said Priscilla Alexander, a 67-year-old activist with COYOTE, a sex workers’ rights organization. Nevada brothels often hire women to work for just weeks at a time, require prostitutes to live on the premises and mandate costly STD tests too frequently, she said.

“Most sex workers don’t want to work in those restrictive conditions,” she said.

Alexander said sex workers’ claims of rape and violence too often are ignored by police, and some departments use scant evidence, like carrying condoms, as cause for arrests.

‘We’re like courtesans’
She said one of the most pressing threats to sex workers were antihuman trafficking laws passed on the federal and state level that can be interpreted as applying to strippers, dancers and escorts.

“Most human trafficking is not about sex work, it’s about construction,” Alexander said.

Federal officials say 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked to the United States a year; about 75 percent of federal prosecutions have involved sex trafficking.

“We just want the government off our backs,” said Starchild, adding he used the conference to link up with other sex workers interested in restoring the “spirituality and dignity” the profession enjoyed in Elizabethan England.

“We’re like courtesans,” he said.

Pushing for legalization
Hausbeck acknowledged that the political climate may not be ripe for a mass decriminalization movement.

But she and other advocates won the sympathy of 76-year-old Mary Ellen Hopkins, a quilting expert who held a seminar in the conference room next to the sex workers’ meeting.

Hopkins said she and the quilters at first laughed at their neighbors and then listened to their arguments. She ended up outside the courthouse addressing reporters in front of a banner reading, “Support your local sex worker.”

“I think it’s better to legalize it,” she said. “If you legalize it, maybe you'll get rid of all the ugly stuff that comes with it.”