Caught in the life: The business of prostitution

Prostitution, out of the shadows
Prostitution, out of the shadows 08:49

Unlike Seattle, Las Vegas cracks down on everyone -- the sellers as well as the buyers. Lt. Spencer doesn't see that as victimizing the victims. In her experience, the arrests help identify those too afraid to identify themselves.

She told Cowan that numerous survivors have told her that being arrested saved their lives. "We open the door for help. And if we don't do that, who's going to do it? If I don't offer them help, who's gonna? No one. There's no one gonna help them."

Re-thinking just how, or even whether, to crack down on prostitution has been making headlines. Last year, while acknowledging the harm that comes with the sex industry, Amnesty International called for the de-criminalization of consensual sex work, saying laws against that force women into the shadows, which can compromise their safety.

"It doesn't help people with no options to take away their source of income, but it sounds good," said Caroline McLeod, who calls herself a sex worker, not a prostitute. She's a Seattle mother of two who, despite the fact it's illegal, sees it as her right to run her body as a business.

"I choose this," she told Cowan. "I say to people when they say, No one would choose this, I say, I do. I choose this because I'm proud of what I do."

She knows she's largely the exception, and sympathizes with those who aren't doing this willingly. But she says the best way to protect them, and at the same time to preserve her rights, is to legitimize what she does. "It would bring it out of darkness and back streets, and into the light," she explained.

What might decriminalization look like?

McLeod says just the way she practices her sex work now.  She has no pimp, and doesn't roam the streets. She works out of a condo she rents with two other women. And, she says, they all have strict safety guidelines.

"All of my clients need to have references from other sex workers," she said. "And if they don't have references, then a potential client would have to give me their real first name and their real workplace, and I will call them at work through the main switchboard and verify all of that."

Her point -- and this is controversial -- is that sex traffickers don't generally trade in places where buying sex is permitted. And that, she says, keeps everyone safer.

"There is a huge population of sex workers who are doing this in a healthy way," said McLeod. "And you don't see us, 'cause we're not causing problems."

Sherri's Ranch may be the halfway point in the debate over prostitution. It's one of a handful of brothels in rural Nevada were prostitution is legal, but regulated under state law.

Allissa, a single mom, left working the streets of Seattle to move and work here instead, where she says she feels someone is watching out for her.

"You come here, and you sit down and you tell me this is what I want to happen," she said. "I want this and this and this to happen, and I tell you what I'm going to charge for that, and what I'm comfortable with doing, and what the rules are, and that's what happens. There's no gray area."

"So what do you say to people who think that this is just a crazy lifestyle and no single mom should be doing this?" Cowan asked.

"I tell them it's not their life!" Allissa laughed. "And you don't walk in my shoes every day. I actually live a very clean, safe life, I go home and do my cooking, cleaning chores.

"I mean, you don't grow up thinking I want to be a prostitute when I get older, but, I mean, things happen in your life, and you make different decisions."

Dena, the brothel's madam, says state regulation gives those working in the sex industry at least some protection.  "The state's watching us, and they're not going to play with any funny business, so everything is up-and-up legit," she said.

Still, critics say anything short of outlawing prostitution altogether amounts to the legal acceptance of objectifying women.

But Dena says that's not what this is about; she sees it as giving women a choice, and offering a safe place to make a new start.

"This is just a means to an end," she said. "This should be a stepping stone into something better and greater."

Allissa, Caroline, Marin … each a different face of an age-old question: Is prostitution an illicit vice or a lawful business? Is it sex work or sexual exploitation?

The divide is deep, and the battle lines are being drawn. However uncomfortable, an issue long in the shadows seems to be hiding no more. 

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