Wearing a T-shirt with the words "Will Work For Sex" on the front, Robin Head stood outside Palace Station and proudly said that she worked in the sex industry.

from the AP

Head, who said she was the former owner of an escort service in Houston, was among 150 sex workers, business owners, academics and social workers who gathered in Las Vegas this week for a convention that brought prostitutes, pimps and professors together to talk about the sex industry.

"This is the first of its kind," said Robyn Few, a former prostitute and the executive director of Sex Worker Outreach Project USA.

"In the past, these (conventions) have been led by academics for academics, or led by sex workers for sex workers. This brought them all together."

The event was sponsored by national organizations like Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, COYOTE and Desiree Alliance, and the attendees came from as far away as Hong Kong to discuss everything from better Web sites to the creation of prostitution advocacy groups. It also included workshops on tantric sex and lectures ranging from decriminalizing prostitution to how to deal with disabled clients.

Kate Hausbeck, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociology professor who participated in the convention, said, "Overall, the biggest issue was looking at criminalization policies and asking, are they doing anything to stop prostitution? Are they protecting and empowering women? Are they making our communities safer? Are they improving the health, safety and well-being of prostitutes?"

The convention’s organizers chose Las Vegas because Nevada is the only state in the nation that has legal brothels. It is empowering for prostitutes from elsewhere to be shown that "there is legalized prostitution in our country," Few said. Nevada has 28 operating brothels in 10 rural counties.

But the nation’s only legal bordellos aren’t a model for all advocates of legalized prostitution, said Priscilla Alexander, a 67-year-old advocate of prostitutes’ rights. "Nevada brothels often hire women to work for just weeks at a time, require prostitutes to live on the premises and mandate costly STD tests too frequently, she said.

"Most sex workers don’t want to work in those restrictive conditions," she said.

Few said that even if the convention fails to advance the call for legalizing prostitution, it did accomplish another of its goals because it helped sex workers feel less isolated, Few said.

The term "sex worker" applies to not just prostitutes but anyone who earns money by providing sexual services: adult film actors, nude models, exotic dancers and phone sex workers, for example.

"A lot of people came out of the closet," Few joked, saying that some a of the lecturers and outreach workers admitted during the convention to working in the sex industry. "It’s like AA."

Others who attended the four-day conference looked at it primarily as a way to teach younger sex workers how to be safe in an industry often equated with violent pimps and drug-addicted street walkers, not with the well-dressed and generally playful group who stood outside Palace Station.

Natasha Sommers, a transgender adult entertainer from Seattle, spoke at the convention about ways to educate and empower the "next generation of sex workers."

"When you are a sex worker, you are considered less than human," Sommers said, standing next to a conventioneer wearing a T-shirt that said "Sluts Unite."

On Thursday, a handful of conventioneers held a demonstration at the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas.

"Our number one goal is to end the criminalization of prostitution," said Barbara Brents, assistant professor of sociology at UNLV. "Here are a system of laws created that are not designed to deal with the problem."

One sex worker who demonstrated on the front steps of Clark County’s courthouse, who identified himself as Starchild, said consensual sex between two people shouldn’t be a crime simply because money is exchanged.

"No one is getting hurt," he said.

Dressed in a fishnet shirt, the candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors said he has worked as an escort and doesn’t want any more regulations in the sex industry, saying that there is no evidence that regulations could make sex work more safe.

In Nevada, brothels are legal only in counties that approve them. Prostitution is not legal in Clark County.

The Metropolitan Police Department has recently started cracking down on prostitutes in Southern Nevada. At the end of June, the Metropolitan Police Department’s vice unit conducted a weekend sweep of street prostitutes that netted 184 arrests during the two-day operation, dubbed Operation PIMP, for Prostitutes Incarcerated by Metropolitan Police.

Lt. Curt Williams of the Las Vegas police vice squad said Thursday that he didn’t think prostitution should be legalized because of the other crimes associated with it, such as robberies, beatings and drug use.

"From our perspective, we don’t think that legalizing it (prostitution) could alleviate those problems," he said.

But to Elizabeth Nanas, a 33-year-old former sex worker-turned academic, the police are part of the problem. Nanas, who worked as a stripper and then as an escort for several years, said she was harassed by police while working and once was arrested after giving an officer in Michigan a sexual favor, she said.

"As a ‘criminal,’ I realized there was no justice for me," she said outside Palace Station. "Who could I go to when the cops are the ones who commit the crimes?"

She said that experience led her to pursue a career in academics and advocacy so she could help other sex workers. As one of the organizers of the conference, she was proud that so many people involved in the sex industry, even some "johns," attended the convention.

Few said she was also pleased that the convention and demonstration downtown brought attention to sex workers.

"As long as it’s criminalized we’ll never be safe," she said.

Alexander said sex workers’ claims of rape and violence too often are ignored by police, and some departments use scant evidence, like carrying condoms, as cause for arrests.

But she said one of the most pressing threats to sex workers were anti-human trafficking laws passed on the federal and state level that can be interpreted as applying to strippers, dancers and escorts.

"Most human trafficking is not about sex work, it’s about construction," Alexander said.

Federal officials say 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked to the United States a year; about 75 percent of federal prosecutions have involved sex trafficking.

From left, Robin Head, Priscilla Alexander and Jenna Jasmine, attendees of the "Re-Visioning Prostitution Policy" conference, relax Thursday outside Palace Station, where sex workers, business owners, academics and social workers attended a convention.

Soulstice, of San Francisco, holds a sign while attending a rally Thursday on the steps of the Regional Justice Center.
Photo by The Associated Press.

Advocates for sex workers unfurl a banner Thursday outside Palace Station, where a four-day conference regarding sex workers’ rights and decriminalization of prostitution had just wrapped up.

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