Two alleged victims of sex trafficking victims in Nevada are taking their case to a federal appeals court in an effort to shut down the nation’s only legal brothels.
Rebekah Charleston and Angela Delgado-Williams sued the state in 2019 saying its legal brothel industry violated their constitutional rights and federal sex trade and slavery statutes. Both women say they were forced into prostitution, trafficked, and abused in Nevada because of its 1971 prostitution law. A federal judge dismissed their case, ruling they could not sufficiently prove the harm they endured resulted from the state’s laws. Lawyers for the women will argue their case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Dec. 9.
In the United States, legalized prostitution occurs in only seven rural Nevada counties with a total of 21 legal brothels. Recent attempts to decriminalize prostitution have made little headway in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
Legalizing prostitution does not empower women or create safer conditions for them, Charleston said. She told how a trafficker took her from Texas to Nevada after she ran away at age 17. She said she was repeatedly raped and abused in a legal brothel: “I think once you’ve lived a single day in the life, once you’ve had a single act of prostitution, you know … prostitution is about the power and control men have over women’s bodies, that women are a commodity to be bought and sold.”
Nevada has the nation’s highest rate of illegal sex trade—63 percent more than New York’s and nearly double that of Florida, according to a 2018 study by the Human Trafficking Initiative. The state’s sex tourism “thrives on the demand that Nevada’s legal scheme has bolstered,” said Christen Price, an attorney with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and co-counsel in Charleston and Delgado-Williams’ case. The lawsuit argues the state’s legalized brothel industry violates the 13th Amendment by creating conditions that enable slavery in the form of sex trafficking and involuntary sexual servitude.
Charleston escaped sex trafficking with the help of a church and federal authorities: “This case … gives me hope that no other woman has to go through what I went through.”