Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2014

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Hands tied on prostitution

With high-profile reports on prostitution in Las Vegas and recent national press attention scrutinizing Nevada's sex industry, one local observer had a novel idea: In the interest of education, distribute a study on legal brothels to the Metro task force that tackles human trafficking in the valley.

It was an idea that set into motion a series of events some argue is evidence the government's effort to combat human trafficking is being used to advance an agenda to abolish prostitution, one that prohibits certain discourse on prostitution and , in so doing, hinders real study of the subject.

The idea was floated in an e-mail sent Aug. 27 by Christina Hernandez, director at Las Vegas' Rape Crisis Center, to Terri Miller, director of Metro's Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery. In the e-mail, acquired by the Sun, Hernandez cheerily suggests that a 2005 study by UNLV sociologists Barbara Brents and Kate Hausbeck might make an informative read.

Of the 25-page study, titled "Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada, Examining Safety, Risk and Prostitution Policy," Hernandez wrote: "It's an amazing article. These professors have done extensive work with our brothel system here in Nevada. I believe the more information we can get out there the better."

Then she signed off: "Thanks!"

Miller wrote back 54 minutes later: No dice. She can't pass the study out. She's not allowed.

Then she signed off: "Thanks for understanding."

Metro's anti-human trafficking program, ATLAS, is sustained by a $370,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Like all other bureau-funded projects that combat or investigate human trafficking in the United States, ATLAS is not allowed to use grant money to "promote, support or advocate" the legalization or practice of prostitution.

This "special condition," made clear to all grant recipients, reflects the federal government's view that prostitution is fundamentally oppressive and inexorably linked with human trafficking.

It's a funding caveat that might go over like gravy in any other state.

But in Nevada, with its legal brothels and permissive "culture of prostitution," as researcher Melissa Farley described it this month, determining what does and doesn't promote, support or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution is complicated.

And controversial. Brents and Hausbeck, authors of the report in question, say their work advocates nothing. It's an interpretation of the data uncovered in research, peer-reviewed and published in an academic journal, where personal opinions are edited out, Hausbeck said.

The hang-up is that their research indicates the state's legal brothels minimize the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and the threat of violence for prostitutes thus employed.

So Miller, trying to play by the rules and keep her program going, chose to err on the side of caution. She determined the study appeared to violate the grant condition and decided it was best left undistributed to other ATLAS members.

"We are talking about a very large grant and program here, and I am not going to do anything to jeopardize the grant," Miller said when asked several days later.

Critics of the policy say Miller's caution illustrates how a rule that deters grant recipients from discussing certain aspects of prostitution for fear of losing funding inhibits unbiased, academic study of the subject.

Hausbeck calls it an attack on science. Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, says it "flies in the face of the First Amendment."

"When you have a preconceived position that is being touted and even legitimate academic research that reaches different conclusions is banned from the government-supported approach, then you are not really dealing with research anymore," Lichtenstein said. "Then you're really dealing with propaganda."

Farley, a California-based researcher who recently released an almost 300-page study titled "Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada, Making the Connections," completed research with help from federal grant money. In the study, Farley concludes legal prostitution does not make prostitutes safer and that "prostitution is sexual predation, plain and simple."

That Farley could receive federal money to conduct her research while the UNLV sociologists seemingly cannot is frustrating to the professors , who argue that the grant stipulation precludes any sociological finding before research has begun.

"How a public agency can be allowed to promote one side and not the other is contradictory , " Brents said. "Prostitution is much more multifaceted. People do it for different reasons, and it's not so simple."

Privately, those familiar with the grant stipulation say local nonprofit agencies receiving federal money earmarked for anti-human trafficking efforts worry that handing out condoms will jeopardize their eligibility to receive the federal money, lest condom distribution be seen as a tacit support or promotion of prostitution.

Calls to local nonprofit agencies went unreturned. So did several calls to officials at the Justice and State department s . The State Department also has a policy of denying grant money to foreign nongovernmental organizations that support legal, state-regulated prostitution.

Hausbeck says officials in Washington, D.C., keep a close eye on Nevada's legal prostitution while maintaining a pointed distance.

The professor traveled to Tampa, Fla., in 2003 with then-U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden to attend a federal conference on human trafficking where then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush were featured speakers. After the conference, Bogden began plans to launch a task force addressing human trafficking in Las Vegas. It was assumed that Hausbeck would be a member, "exactly the kind of person you'd want on the task force," Bogden said.

There were concerns. Bogden sensed there might be problems with Hausbeck's work studying legal brothels, and wondered whether it would jeopardize the task force's ability to get government money. "I had my suspicions," Bogden said.

Hausbeck pulled out of the project shortly after for fear of hindering progress.

That task force went onto become ATLAS, and Brents has continued to do research without federal money.

"The point of scientific inquiry is that we follow the facts and the data," she said. "We draw conclusions without regard for politics."

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