Why Are Brothels Illegal?

by Laurence M. Vance
Nov. 23, 2012

In contrast to the boring and predictable presidential candidates, there are some unusually colorful candidates who somehow manage to get into office each time there is an election. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was twice elected to the California governorship. Professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. Singer Sony Bono was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives until his life was tragically cut short in a skiing accident. Comedian Al Franken is currently the junior U.S. senator from Minnesota.

Sometimes a candidate who dies during an election campaign gets voted into office anyway. The most famous example is Melvin Carnahan (1934--2000), the former governor of Missouri who was elected posthumously to the U.S. Senate. In the county in Florida where I live, the deceased tax collector Earl K. Wood, who died from natural causes at age 96 just a few weeks before the election, was recently reelected to a 12th term as Orange County Tax Collector by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.

The most interesting person to be voted into office in the recent election has got to be brothel owner Lance Gilman. He won 62 percent of the vote for a seat on the county commission in Storey County, Nevada.

Gilman is the current owner of Nevada's infamous Mustang Ranch brothel in Storey County, east of Reno. Originally opened in 1971, it became Nevada's largest and most profitable brothel before being seized by the federal government in 1999 after its owner was convicted for tax fraud and racketeering. After the furniture, paintings, and accessories were auctioned off in 2002, the buildings were purchased by Gilman and reopened in a new location in 2005. He won the right to the name and branding in 2006.

Although brothels are illegal in most parts of the United States, it is obviously not the case in Storey County, Nevada. And it is not the case in other parts of Nevada either. Licensed, regulated brothel prostitution is permitted in 10 of Nevada's 17 counties, although brothels are currently operating in only 8 of them. Under state law, Nevada counties with a population of under 400,000 are allowed to license or prohibit brothels, but incorporated cities may prohibit brothels in counties where they are legal. Because prostitution is illegal in Nevada's more heavily populated counties (such as Clark County, home to Las Vegas), the brothels are generally located in rural areas.

But why are brothels illegal in Nevada's other counties and why are they illegal everywhere else in the United States?

Now, for the record, I don't patronize brothels, don't want to patronize brothels, don't want a brothel in my neighborhood, don't know anyone who patronizes brothels, don't recommend that anyone patronize brothels, and would not want any women I know to work in a brothel.

But neither do I believe in using the power of government to prohibit, regulate, or punish voluntary, consensual, peaceful behavior that my neighbors, friends, and I may not personally approve of. That is the difference between libertarians and statists of all varieties -- Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, progressive, and moderate. Libertarians believe that consenting adults have the fundamental right to do anything that's peaceful as long as they don't aggress against someone else's person or property while they do it.

But if frequenting a brothel on private property with the owner's permission and paying for sex with a willing participant is engaging in a peaceful activity agreed to by all parties, then why are brothels other than the few operating in Nevada illegal?

The main objection from most people would be that patronizing brothels is immoral.

But there are serious problems with using the power of government to legislate and regulate morality and prohibit and crusade against immorality.

To begin with, many Americans, if not a majority of Americans, would unite in saying that adultery, fornication, homosexuality, and cohabitation are immoral -- even if they themselves engage in any of these things. Yet what percentage of those Americans would call for government at any level to outlaw and punish any of them? Rather small I suspect. And what about other immoral things such as lying, gluttony, lust, greed, envy, pride, and drunkenness? Does anyone really think that the government should concern itself with them?

So why are brothels illegal?

Another objection raised is that, unlike adultery, fornication, homosexuality, and cohabitation, the immoral behavior in brothels involves the exchanging of money. But here we have another problem. Frequenting strip clubs, producing or purchasing pornographic magazines or movies, and gambling, which are all generally viewed as immoral, all involve money as well. Yet in most areas of the country, one can visit a strip club, view pornography, or gamble -- all without interference from the government as long as certain guidelines are followed. In fact, in 43 states (and the District of Columbia) the state government runs a gambling enterprise -- the state lottery.

So why are brothels illegal?

It appears that the only reason that people and governments want brothels to be illegal is that they combine sexual immorality with the exchanging of money. But here we run into another problem. There is little difference as far as morality is concerned between paying $50 to a brothel for 15 minutes of a woman's time and paying $50 for dinner and a movie for 15 minutes of a woman's time.

So why are brothels illegal?

The real reasons brothels are illegal have nothing to do with their being a danger (supposedly) to public health, safety, or morals.

Brothels are illegal because government's attempts to legislate and regulate morality and prohibit and crusade against immorality are woefully inconsistent, arbitrary, and nonsensical.

Brothels are illegal because of the failure to distinguish between vices and crimes.

Brothels are illegal because of the failure to discern that every crime needs a victim.

Brothels are illegal because of the failure to recognize the right of consenting adults to do whatever they want on their property or with the owner's permission on someone else's property.

Brothels are illegal because of the failure to understand that it is not the purpose of government at any level -- federal, state, or local -- to regulate or monitor Americans' sexual activities.

Brothels are illegal because of the failure to acknowledge that it is the business of families, friends, business associates, ministers, religious organizations, and social institutions to shape Americans' moral values and educate them about the nature of brothels -- not that of the government.

Brothels are illegal because of the failure to adopt the freedom philosophy.

Brothels are illegal because puritanical busybodies, nanny-statists, and government bureaucrats think it is their business to mind everyone else's business.

It goes without saying that in questioning why brothels are illegal, no advocate of a free society is condoning or excusing in any way human trafficking, kidnapping, child prostitution, rape, forced prostitution, or the sexual exploitation of women. These things currently occur all over the world even where brothels are illegal.

Brothels need not exist in a free society, but their absence should not result from governments’ having made them illegal.
Laurence M. Vance is a columnist and policy adviser for the Future of Freedom Foundation, an associated scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and a columnist, blogger, and book reviewer at LewRockwell.com. He is also the author of Christianity and War and Other Essays against the Warfare State and The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom. Visit his website: www.vancepublications.com. Send him e-mail.

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