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«Cheryl Radeloff, Women’s Studies, Minnesota State University, Mankato Barb Brents, Sociology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Robert Futrell, ...»

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Sex Panics? HIV and the Regulation of Prostitution in


Cheryl Radeloff, Women’s Studies, Minnesota State University,


Barb Brents, Sociology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Robert Futrell, Sociology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Presented at the American Sociological Association Annual

Meetings, Philadelphia, August 2005

Please cite! Just send us an email and let us know.

Correspond with Barb Brents, Department of Sociology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV 89154-5033, brents@unlv.nevada.edu 1 “15 Las Vegas Hookers infected with AIDS” Headline, LasVegas Review Journal, July 20, 1989 Intro When news of prostitutes with AIDS hit the press, it could have meant the end of legalized prostitution in Nevada. Disease panics helped institute the criminalization of prostitution in the United States in the years prior to World War I and helped keep prostitutes stigmatized and criminalized “folk devils” for the past 100 years. There has been only one exception to criminalization in the United States. Nevada is the only state that kept a small, informally and ambivalently regulated brothel system in its sparsely populated rural counties. The AIDS panic of the 1980s could have been the death knell for Nevada’s legalized system, and brought it in line with the rest of the country.

Instead, the AIDS panic strengthened the legal prostitution industry in Nevada.

In this draft of this paper we will tell the story of why the panic around AIDS resulted in the strengthening of legalized prostitution. Responses to panics have historically reinforced dominant social values. The AIDS panic reinforced regimes of sexual regulation that supported heterosexual monogamy, female sexual passivity and containment of sex to the private or intimate sphere. In this case, while the policy response did reinforce heterosexuality, it put cracks in the dominance of monogamy and female sexual passivity. It provided health protections rather than stigmatizing female prostitutes. It institutionalized a commodification of sexuality. We believe this story has implications for understanding the role of sex panics, and the ways in which morality, gender and the economy figure in sexual regulation in late capitalist consumer society. We are still struggling to make sense of this story. At the end we will examine a number of themes we think are important.

We are anxious to hear responses to this paper to help us think about how to generalize about sex panics in late capitalist culture from this case.

To be sure, Nevada’s policy response to the national HIV panic in the 1980s was contradictory. Nationwide, when prostitutes joined ‘’gays” as “high risk” and hence potential vectors introducing AIDS to the heterosexual population, states and cities passed laws reinforcing

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state to enact a strict law mandating felony manslaughter and a maximum of 10 years in jail for anyone convicted of soliciting while knowingly HIV positive.

Yet at the same time, Nevada stood alone nationwide in strengthening regulations on legal prostitution by mandating HIV testing and condom use for prostitutes working in legal brothels.

While on the surface, this still controls primarily women’s sexuality and reinforces heterosexuality, it was a stark contrast to laws nationwide that further stigmatized prostitutes. Nevada’s policies functioned to further legitimate commercialized sex by institutionalize and bureaucratize legal prostitution and legitimating brothel owners.

These seemingly contradictory approaches to the regulation of sexuality and prostitution raise a host of questions. What drove the development of these policies? Given that Nevada penned one of the more punitive approaches to HIV and prostitution, why didn’t Nevada also follow the punitive path of the rest of the nation, and the path historically followed, and criminalize prostitution entirely?

HIV Crisis in the U.S.

The panic surrounding AIDS epidemic focuses public discourse in ways that reinforced the dominance of heterosexuality. At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, biomedical and social morality discourse focused on gay men, the population in which AIDS was first noticed and was the most virulent (Treichler 1999). AIDS was labeled as a “gay disease.” However, once women and prostitutes began to become infected, they were prioritized for intervention. This was despite the continuing health threat to homosexuals, and despite the evidence that HIV in the prostitute population came through drug use and dirty needles rather than through “promiscuous” sex.

Lipson (1997) observes that state- rather than federal-level interventions dominated the first twenty years of public policy response to HIV/AIDS. “Nearly eighty percent of the states formed an AIDS task force, commission, or other advisory group to review state policies and recommend changes to the governor or the legislature, long before the federal government organized such a

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Policy responses that were proposed and/or instituted at the state level were frequently controversial. The issues that states had to resolve in AIDS/HIV policy included the process of establishing screening programs; deciding whether testing should be voluntary, mandatory, and/or directed toward specific groups in the population; developing surveillance programs that maintained individuals’ right to privacy while protecting the public’s health, assuring legal protections for those infected or affected by AIDS/HIV (housing, employment, insurance, and medical care); allotting a budget for care, prevention, and education; and coordinating medical and social service care for infected individuals. Almost every state passed legislation supporting prevention education efforts directed toward the general public, health professionals, and those described as engaging in high risk behaviors. One policy that faced almost universal defeat was premarital testing (Lipson 1997).

Nevada tended to follow national trends in enacting policy regarding blood screening, surveillance, voluntary testing initiatives, prenatal screening, and prisoner testing. Nevada, like the rest of the country, did not institute quarantine procedures (Ziegler 1988). However, Nevada health officials chose to first address prostitution before these other issues.

Methods This paper examines Nevada’s response to the AIDS panic by exploring the policy making process creating HIV policies toward prostitutes in the 1980s. To contextualize this policy, we also examine Nevada’s brothel legislation in two other time periods. The first period covers the role of disease rhetoric in closing quasi legal prostitution in Las Vegas in the 1940s. The second period covers the legalization of brothel prostitution in Nevada in 1971.

Our data includes documents and interviews in the public health, legislative and criminal justice bureaucracies in the state. We analyze legal statutes and codes, health department records, state legislature proceedings, and personal notes from policymakers to determine key actors and policy frames that were most important to the policy making process. We also examine newspaper

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three arenas. We draw on these to conduct a close analysis of the primary legislation, its key proponents, and the interest groups who developed Assembly Bill 550, which criminalized HIV positive prostitutes, and the sections of the Nevada Administrative Code (NAC) dealing with testing and condom use in legal brothels.

Framing prostitution policy There are three factors that have framed policy debates around prostitution in Nevada. The first is the fear of prostitutes as vectors of disease. Fears of prostitutes infecting soldiers were key in criminalizing prostitution in the years around World War I. At the same time, the ability of regulated prostitution to prevent disease has also been a key part of the policy debate in favor of keeping it legal. These debates played a key role in the few other cases where prostitution was briefly legalized in the U.S., in St. Louis and in Minnesota (Best 1998; Gilfoyle 1992; Hobson 1990; Luker 1998).

The second factor framing policy debates is the way commercialized prostitution is embedded in the local economy. The tenacity of prostitution in the mining West until well after World War II had much to do with the role of brothel owners as businessmen and land owners in small mining and ranching towns. While mining has a pattern of boom and bust, brothels may provide a relatively stable base in small towns. Predominantly male labor that supplies ranching and mining provides a reliable customer base. But as tourism has come to small western towns, small brothels have become less central to the economy.

The third is the role of morality politics in sexual regulations. Morality politics has played heavily in nationwide debates. However, the politics of Nevada and much of the west has been infused with a libertarian “morality,” that rejects moral judgments by others as much as it rejects the right to make moral judgments on others.

To understand how these three factors affected Nevada’s response to the AIDS crisis, we examine the debates framing policy decisions at two previous time periods. The first is the closure of Las Vegas prostitution in the 1940s, the second is the “legalization” of brothel prostitution in the

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Ending legalized prostitution in Las Vegas – 1940s Fears of venereal disease among soldiers spurred strict anti prostitution laws during World War I and closed many brothels in the United States. Those that remained in the Western U.S. were ordered closed during World War II by the federal government. Las Vegas and Reno city leaders only reluctantly closed their brothels when the federal government threatened to take over law enforcement. At the end of World War II, however, while rural Nevada enthusiastically reopened their brothels, Las Vegas and Reno governments voted to keep the brothels closed.

The reasons for both the reluctance to close, and the eventual decision to keep them closed revolved around two issues, tourism and venereal disease.

Las Vegas had a vice district known as Block 16 where prostitution occurred in brothels and rooms in the backs of bars. In this area, prostitution was not officially regulated, nor was it illegal.

However, city code required prostitutes to live on premises, and prostitutes were regularly tested by local doctors for venereal disease (Washburn 1999:29). At the start of World War II when federal officials were pressing for closure, one of the main reasons city leaders cited for wanting to keep Block 16 open was the idea that the city’s venereal disease problem could be better contained because prostitutes in brothels could be tested. The LV-Boulder City Journal wrote that "the police... were alarmed and unhappy about the closing [of Block 16]. They knew that streetwalkers would again become a problem, that venereal disease rates would probably go up, and that the city's families would be subject to attacks” (Rocha 13-14 1975, quoted in Henry Benjamin and R.E.L. Masters Prostitution and Morality NY: Julian Press 1964 p. 431). Streetwalkers in this context, just as they would become in the 1980s, were the vectors of disease, but regulated and controlled prostitutes in brothels were not.

But newspaper articles reported an additional reason for keeping brothels open, the tourist economy. The late 1930s and 1940s saw a media fascination with the Old West in dime novels, and popular magazines. Downtown Las Vegas capitalized on the image with a marketing theme “Old

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called “Las Vegas’ number two tourist attraction,” by local newspapers (LVERJ, July 9, 1937:2 cited in Washburn 1999:34-35.) Las Vegas Mayor Howell C. Garrison said, "Closing of Block 16 will bring about an undesirable situation in Las Vegas. Were it within my legal power to do so, I would not approve the closing order" (LVERJ Oct 11, 1941:3 cited in (Washburn 1999):50.) Just four years later, when the war was over and federal jurisdiction over prostitution ended, the very rhetoric that had supported the brothels prior to World War II was now used against it. On January 4, 1946 the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and other groups met to discuss closing the brothels. Opponents centered their debate around venereal disease. Dr. S. L. Hardy of the LV Hospital Association claimed that rates of venereal disease “had shown a definite decline since Block 16 had been closed.” Marjorie Gaston of Nevada public health department also argued that “Medical inspection of prostitutes is untrustworthy, inefficient, gives a false sense of security and fails to prevent the spread of infection,” to justify her opposition to the brothels. Maude Frazier, superintendent of schools reported that venereal disease was reported in the schools before the war, and since Block 16's closure no venereal disease had been reported.(LVERJ Jan 5, 1946:1, cited in Washburn 1999:67-69, Moehring 1989:61). Thus, the fear of disease was key in justifying closing the brothels.

But also, Las Vegas economic situation after World War II, had changed dramatically.

Between 1940 and 1950 the greater LasVegas area population had increased from 14,000 to 46,000 (Nevada State Data Center). Gaming passed mining as Nevada’s number one industry, and the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce changed its marketing from the old west theme to a desert vacation resort with a more seductive, classy set of images of scantily clad women on golf courses, swimming pools, and sexualized images of showgirls.

From the perspective of the gaming industry and their new marketing company, this classy vision did not mesh with open, visible, legalized prostitution. The gaming industry officially came

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