No separation between prostitution, politics in Nevada

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Then-Nevada AG Catherine Cortez Masto and sex trafficking advocate and victim Amy Ayoub at 2013 signing of sex trafficking legislation. (Photo courtesy Amy Ayoub)

Amy Ayoub raised campaign money for some of the biggest names in Nevada politics. She was appointed by Gov. Kenny Guinn as the first woman to hold a coveted seat on the Nevada Athletic Commission. 

In 2013, alongside then-Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, Ayoub testified before state legislators, many of whom she had worked for in the past, about a long-held secret.

For six years, Ayoub was a prostitute, a secret she kept for 38 years. 

“I never got a chance to look my pimp in the eyes and say, ‘I am not afraid of you,’” she told lawmakers. 

The measure, Assembly Bill 67, replaced pandering laws with the crime of sex trafficking. 

Ayoub left her political fundraising gig two years before testifying about her experience. She became a public speaking coach. Her client list includes Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who offers a testimonial on her behalf in The Zen Speaker, a documentary about Ayoub’s life. 

Lombardo’s Metro Police vice department was investigated by the FBI for allegedly protecting some pimps and targeting their competitors. The status of that investigation is unknown. 

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Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and victim-turned-advocate Amy Ayoub. (Facebook photo)

Robin Greenspun, who produced The Zen Speaker, finds Ayoub’s professional relationship with the politicians who alternately embrace Nevada’s legal brothels and condemn illegal prostitution to be “one of the greatest parts of the story. It’s also one of the toughest parts of her story that she had to wait so long to speak until her credibility was so solid.”

“The irony is that she helped get them elected in many cases,” Greenspun says. 

Ayoub originally agreed to be interviewed for this story but later declined.

In a world where yesterday’s taboos — weed, sports betting, gay marriage — are accepted as de rigueur, one long-held prohibition — sex in exchange for money — remains largely outside the bounds of even modern-day decency.

And now the debate is spilling into the political arena, as presidential candidates attempt to break out from the pack.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden does not support decriminalization of sex work, but wouldn’t interfere with Nevada’s legal brothels, says a spokesperson. 

“It’s the Vice President’s belief that fully decriminalizing the sex trade means buyers and pimps are let off the hook, and that would, according to experts, increase sex trafficking.”

“Additionally, the Vice President firmly believes that no individual should end up in jail because they are victims of sex trafficking. And we need to make sure we are providing services – housing, health care, job opportunities, and mental health support – for survivors of trafficking,” the spokesman said. 

Kamala Harris, who now says she supports decriminalization of prostitution, opposed efforts in her previous life as a prosecutor. 

In 2008, then-San Francisco District Attorney Harris condemned Proposition K, which would have barred the San Francisco Police Department from using resources to investigate or prosecute suspected prostitutes or prostitution rings.

“I think it’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position,” Harris said.  “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.” 

The measure failed 59 percent to 41 percent.

Harris’ campaign failed to respond to numerous requests to explain the disparity in her current and past positions. 

Elizabeth Warren stated in June that she’s open to the decriminalization of sex work. 

“Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy but they are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship,” a spokesman said. “We need to make sure we don’t undermine legal protections for the most vulnerable, including the millions of individuals who are victims of human trafficking each year.”

But that’s exactly what Warren and the other five U.S. Senators running for president did, according to sex workers, when they supported SESTA (The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017) and FOSTA  (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017). Workers in the sex trade say the laws place them at increasing peril. 

The laws forced on-line sites such as Craigslist and Backpage to remove ads promising sex for sale.

Biden’s campaign declined to comment on the former vice-president’s position on SESTA-FOSTA.

“The assumption is we need all these laws to get rid of trafficking. What they don’t realize is the laws don’t get rid of trafficking but they criminalize and traumatize the victim further,” says Stephanie, a sex worker who is pursuing a doctorate in psychology, and asked that we not use her last name because of the stigma attached to prostitution. 

“If someone is in a coercive situation they aren’t going to escape because they can’t use Backpage. They don’t stop working. They just move into street-based work which is far more dangerous. Statistically, the most dangerous thing is to get in a car with someone.” 

Before the enactment of SESTA and FOSTA, sex workers used technology to screen prospective clients. 

“It doesn’t give you any assurances,” says Stephanie.  “But you can see if there’s an arrest or conviction.”

“Elizabeth voted for legislation to combat online sex trafficking, but she hears and respects the concerns raised by the sex worker community about unintended consequences,” a spokesman for the Warren campaign told the Current

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders discussed decriminalization in May on NPR and said during a stop in Las Vegas earlier this month that he does not equate sex work with human trafficking. 

This year, Nevada lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 151, which ensures state compliance with federal law requiring states to tweak their child abuse and neglect statutes to include sex trafficking.

The measure allows child welfare agencies to open cases, perform assessments, and refer children and families to available resources and services.

“We have a ton of homeless youth in Las Vegas and they very often turn to sex work, People will see that as horrifying,” Stephanie says. “They do it because they don’t have opportunities or options and we criminalize them for surviving, all the while selling Las Vegas as the City of Sin.” 

Nevada has the second-highest incidence of human trafficking cases (5.6 per 100,000 people) behind the District of Columbia (6.1 per 100,000). 

In 2018, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police identified 139 adult victims of prostitution and 123 minors. 

“Why are there 13- and 14-year olds being picked up by Metro for prostitution?” asked Stephanie. 

“I have a million questions why these kids aren’t with their parents.  A lot of these kids get kicked out of their houses because they are queer or because they aren’t living the way their parents want,” Stephanie says. 

“Someone solicited them and they realized, as a person who is homeless, this is a way they could survive and get what they need,” says Stephanie, who believes “if sex work were legal it would be a lot easier to identify minors who are in the trade.” 

“In Australia, because sex work is legal, sex workers tend to be the ones to stop that from happening,”  Stephanie says. “Right now, you can’t go to the cops and tell them about the 13-year-old working the corner. You can’t tell the cops you got beat up. In that sense, criminalized prostitution is very much like illegal immigration.” 

“The evidence is clear that criminalizing prostitution may deter a few individuals, but our research suggests that when prostitution is criminalized — sex workers are less safe and too scared of being penalized to report crimes to the police,” Professor Barbara Brents of UNLV and Associate Professor Sarah Blithe of UNR wrote in the Reno-Gazette Journal last year. 

“We literally make money on the backs of promoting sex and promiscuity here,” says Stephanie.  “We spend millions and millions promoting this very sexy idea of Las Vegas. The perception of the public is that sex work is legal here.” 

Perhaps not coincidentally, Nevada has the second-highest number of sexual harassment complaints per capita, behind only Washington D.C.

Gov. Steve Sisolak made ending sexual harassment in the executive branch of state government his first order of business by appointing a task force to examine state policies. 

“We continue to work with the Department of Administration on revising and enforcing a robust sexual harassment and discrimination policy for the executive branch,” Sisolak’s Chief of Staff Michelle White told the Current

But Sisolak has taken no action to address sexual harassment among privileged gaming licensees. Instead, he’s counting on a trickle-down effect, says White. 

“We are hopeful that the collection and review of sexual harassment and discrimination policies from licensees leads to an increased focus and awareness on the issue and reduces inappropriate behavior, while encouraging reporting if misconduct occurs.” 

The Nevada Gaming Commission, which is sitting on a proposed regulation that would require licensees to report the number of sexual harassment incidents and claims filed each month, has also failed to take action. 

Attorney General Aaron Ford, who is defending Sisolak and the state’s legal brothels in a federal lawsuit filed by former sex workers, is simultaneously prosecuting cases of sexual trafficking initiated by his predecessor, Adam Laxalt.  Ford has not filed charges against any alleged sexual traffickers since taking office in January, according to spokeswoman Monica Moazez. 

Ford draws a distinction between prostitution and sex trafficking in his motion to dismiss the federal suit against the state. 

“There is no conflict between federal law and Nevada law here because federal law does not criminalize prostitution and both Nevada law and federal law criminalize sex trafficking wherever it occurs in Nevada,” Ford wrote in his motion. 

“Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean people aren’t being used and being hurt,” says Greenspun.

Chuck Muth, government relations counsel for the Nevada Brothel Association, bristles at the conflation of legal sex work and the illegal trade. 

“Are you saying the presence of legal brothels in rural towns like Elko and Ely is fueling demand for commercial sex services in Las Vegas and Reno?” asks Muth. “You can’t blame that on the legal brothels.  They’re not allowed to advertise. The advertising ban is in state law.”

“People are shocked when they learn it’s not legal outside the brothel system,” says Stephanie. “We spend so much money advertising sex and not only is it not legal but we arrest people for engaging in it.”

Stephanie, who facilitates group therapy for sex workers, says workers are emotionally shattered, not only by coercive pimps but by law enforcement efforts.

“Because of the way we view sex work, if people hear you have a problem they say ‘you should just leave,’” Stephanie says. “To most people, anything bad that befalls you is your fault.” 

Stephanie says she frequently testifies before the Nevada Legislature, where she says few lawmakers grasp the difference between sex trafficking and sex work.

“The only thing anyone wants to talk about is trafficking,” she says. 

Lawmakers too often default, she says, to policies supported by law enforcement — mainly more raids.

“My experience is police involvement and raids are extremely traumatic. The entire system is incredibly abusive to these people,” she says.  “When law enforcement comes in and tries to ‘rescue,’ they do it through raids. These women who are coerced into sex are arrested, beaten, and taken to jail without their clothes.” 

“This is not how people leave coercive sex work situations.  What we find is that most people get out because they have a friend or a co-worker.  Not because of the police,” says Stephanie.

Sex trafficking raids in massage parlors and other establishments often snare undocumented immigrants, says Stephanie, who recalled one such incident. 

“When you look at the actual charges, no one was charged with sex trafficking,” she says. “They arrested thirteen women and all were undocumented.  It got rid of the people we don’t care about — people who are expendable.” 

Greenspun, who grew up in Las Vegas, admits she never gave much thought to the sex trade.

“I did know it was much more acceptable here than somewhere else.”

Producing the documentary and meeting the women who have been victimized by the trade has given her a new perspective. 

“I happen to think it’s a horrific way for anybody to have to live.”

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

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