The Politics of a Prostitution Sting

What’s the point? Are the laws protecting and empowering women?

Joshua Longobardy

Jody Williams, a former sex worker who was making a quarter million a year in the early '80s, before she was arrested, and who then turned her talents toward helping to recover women, body and soul, from the quicksand business, brought her support group to Las Vegas because people said that her services here would be in high demand. "And it's true," she says. "I've been in a lot of cities around this country, and it's a whole other story here." The presence of prostitutes in the Las Vegas Valley is overwhelming, undeniable, in your face, and that's the reason, says Lt. Curtis Williams of Metro's vice section, the police have been so busy busting hookers as of late.

On the final weekend of June, Metro put into effect Operation P.I.M.P.—Prostitutes Incarcerated by Metropolitan Police—fishing for streetwalkers on Boulder Highway, Fremont Street, Tropicana Avenue, between the I-15 and Decatur Boulevard, and the Strip, and in the end they netted a total of 184 prostitutes, johns and pimps from every school of life.

During the first weeks of July, officers went deep-sea diving in hunt of the clandestine brothels submerged in both rich and poor neighborhoods, for prostitution is a classless reality, and they resurfaced with several girls in handcuffs, some much more surprising to their neighbors than others.

And then on Thursday, July 20, in a wealthy senior community, police took a late-night excursion to an illicit house where women serviced rich men they had lured with sex and cocaine from the nearby golf course. They arrested three: two prostitutes, with 20 years' difference in age, and the madam of the discreet brothel.

But even Lt. Williams knows that in Las Vegas prostitutes are as plentiful as the fish in the sea: No matter how many times the police cast their net, there will always be more—and chances are they'll learn to swim a little deeper, in depths untouched by light.

"We measure success by canvassing the community," says Lt. Williams. "We see if the number of calls to Metro are reduced; we ask citizens and business owners if they've noticed a reduction ...

"You're never going to eliminate prostitution—but you can reduce it, by the number of stings, the amount of attention you give it."

Metro makes over 4,000 arrests a year in cases related to prostitution. And while specific information regarding the manpower and resources utilized by the vice section, an undercover unit, is considered by officials to be confidential, up to 90 officers are employed for large stings such as P.I.M.P.

Which "is a lot of time and energy wasted on a victimless crime," says Lois Helmbold, chair of the women's studies department at UNLV, "especially when it could be used on serious crimes."

It is a notion harbored—and voiced—by many, including academics, prostitute advocates and civil rights activists.

"The only victims are the girls who are arrested," Helmbold says. She invokes Emma Goldman, a reputable feminist from the 20th century who left an enduring thought when she wrote that the only difference between a prostitute and a wife is the magnitude of payment and the duration of services. "It's true!" says Helmbold, with her typical exuberance. "Nothing's changed!"

And further: "It's all about image. Las Vegas is sold as a sexual license—and everyone knows the casinos are crawling with working girls—yet they want to keep the hookers off the streets. Oscar Goodman, who wants brothels Downtown, has the same take on them as he does the homeless: Sweep them all under the rug!

"If you don't know by now, this is a very contradictory town."

Of course, it's not Metro's choice to criminalize prostitutes; rather, it is their duty. As police officers they are obligated by occupation and oath to enforce the law, and according to the Clark County Code, as it stands, engaging in or even soliciting sexual conduct for a fee is a crime.

"The morality of the law is not our field," Lt. Williams says. "That's up to the lawmakers."

Richard Ziser, chairman of Nevada Concerned Citizens, a group that hands out endorsements with great diligence every election season, says that the community is better off when the police put pressure on the prostitution business.

"From our perspective—a moral perspective—prostitution is definitely wrong," says Ziser. "It's a misuse of women, and it should not be condoned."

Nonetheless, he's not sure criminalizing the girls is the answer.

"Maybe it's not a matter of arresting them; but rather, we should be getting them help."

Rehabilitation programs are tough to establish, according to Jody Williams, who has set up alternative-sentencing programs back East, and in Canada. For prostitutes are best served by ex-prostitutes, just as alcoholics listen most to those who can relate, and "the government is not very big on giving whores money."

She says, "It's funny: The government has no problems giving money to drunks, but they won't give anything to whores. They had to come up with a whole new term—human trafficking—just so they could give help under its name."

That's the reason, Williams continues, sex workers are such solitary women, even in the midst of people: it's the societal stigma attached to the business.

It's the reason, she says, she's lost either her home or her job every time she's appeared on television to spread the gospel of her recovery program, Sex Workers Anonymous (formerly Prostitutes Anonymous).

"I appeared on Geraldo one time, and when I got back home [in California] I found an eviction notice on my door," she says. "I asked the landlord what the problem was and she said, ‘I won't have any whores living here!' And that was being five years out the business."

And it's the reason the laws remain the same, says Helmbold, reverberating a thought common among the working girls themselves. The religious mores of the past continue to persist into this trimillenium.

"We're supposed to have a separation between church and state," states Helmbold. "And we definitely do not!"

And let's not forget, she says: Hypocrisy keeps prostitution illegal.

It's common knowledge that there have been several judges and prosecutors who've at times solicited the loveless love of illicit women, not only because it is published on the front pages of newspapers around the country when they are caught with their pants down but also because they too are susceptible to the urges of the body. Williams says just about every prostitute has a story of pleasing a public servant, or of sedating a law enforcement agent with her devices, and that if she had to give an estimate from her prodigious experience in the business, half of the justice system has experienced the businesslike love of sex workers.

"After I got busted and started working with county officials in Southern California to set up rehabilitation programs for prostitutes," says Jody Williams, "I came across a probation officer who had been one of my clients. To say the least, he was very uncomfortable.

"I really think that the system is scared to give prostitutes a voice in anything because they're scared of what we might say."

In any event, prostitution continues to be criminal, much to the consternation of UNLV professor Barbara Brents, one of the foremost researchers on the sex industry, who after her many studies concluded that the best thing to do now is to end the criminal policies surrounding prostitution.

Her thesis is that the many ills associated with sex workers—drugs and weapons and formidable pimps; the reasons everyday citizens abhor the presence of prostitution in their communities—would dissipate with legalization.

Earlier this month Brents met with prostitutes, business owners and social workers at the Palace Station for an unprecedented convention on prostitution advocacy. Afterward, several of them demonstrated in front of the Regional Justice Center in Downtown Las Vegas, calling for the legalization of the world's oldest profession.

Professor Kate Hausbeck, Brents' colleague at UNLV and a fellow researcher in the largely unexplored oceans of the sex business, hit the crux of the issue when she proposed a series of questions:

"Are criminalization policies doing anything to stop prostitution? Are they protecting and empowering women? Are they making our communities safer?"

Lt. Williams of Metro's vice squad says that if the people feel the laws should be changed, then his unit would have no problems acting accordingly. But until then, their job is to continue to enforce the law.

No one, however, is foolish enough to believe the laws would be easy to change. They sit atop centuries of governing puritanical values.

Helmbold puts it this way: "Who in this country has more power: the politicians or the prostitutes?"

In the end, legal and illegal—just like right and wrong—are easily transferable terms for Jody Williams, and the only thing that matters in her mind are the actual individual women: their lives, their bodies, and their spiritual and mental health.

"When alcohol was made legal again, did that solve the internal problems drinkers faced? It's no different with the prostitution."

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