Two former sex-trafficked women are suing the state of Nevada, its government officials, and private brothels and escort services for violating the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by allowing sex slavery – in the form of legal and illegal prostitution – to occur within the state’s boundaries.

The two plaintiffs, going by the pseudonyms “Angela Williams” and “Jane Doe” out of fear of possible retribution for initiating the lawsuit, are represented by attorneys with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE). Filed in federal court, the complaint alleges that the women were both induced through force, fraud and coercion to engage in commercial sex in Nevada’s legal sex industry, including legal escort agencies, legal strip clubs and a legal brothel. The lawsuit also seeks relief for those women still trapped in the industry.

Importantly, the lawsuit alleges that the state knows that many women in the state’s brothel and escort services industries are trafficked, are forced to perform the work they do, and indeed, are held captive by brothel and escort service owners in some instances.

The two women’s stories are heartbreaking tales of being groomed at young ages by pimps, and then transported or sold into sex slavery in various places throughout the United States, including Nevada. The Nevada situation is exponentially worse than in other states because of its 1971 law that legalized prostitution in several of its counties. While permitting prostitution only in counties with less than 700,000 people, the law has led to the expansion of illegal prostitution in other locations where it is prohibited, such as Las Vegas.

Because Nevada has become the de facto destination for sex tourism, the state benefits from the taxes it raises from the state’s legal brothels, whose annual revenues are estimated at $75 million, according to the plaintiffs. Additionally, the illegal sex trade in Nevada, which prospers as a direct result of the state’s legal sex trade, generates a staggering $5 billion per year in estimated revenues. All of that business, both legal and illegal, reflects ongoing sex tourism, which in turn results in massive tax revenues to the state.

In addition to 13th Amendment violations, the complaint alleges that the Nevada state government is well aware that young women are being forced by fraud or coercive means into prostitution in the state, and the state’s complicity therein equates to a violation of federal sex trafficking laws.

The lawsuit seeks to have the federal courts declare that the Nevada state law permitting prostitution in certain counties to be unconstitutional, and for an injunction preventing the state and private defendants from implementing or enforcing any of the state’s legalized prostitution laws. Additionally, the lawsuit seeks damages against the city and sex industry defendants, plus an award of attorneys’ fees.

NCOSE issued a statement explaining the reasons for bringing the lawsuit.

“Nevada’s legal prostitution system has inherently contributed to the sex trafficking of these plaintiffs for both the benefit of sex buyers who flock to Nevada and for the profit of Nevada and its tourism industry. The plaintiffs were subjected to violence, threats, and other forms of control by sex trade profiteers, which is precisely what the Thirteenth Amendment forbids. Ultimately, these Nevada defendants must be held accountable for enabling this abuse,” said Christen Price, NCOSE senior legal counsel.  

A similar case was filed on behalf of the two women by NCOSE in 2020 but was dismissed by the federal courts because the women were no longer involved in the sex industry. The new lawsuit hopes to overcome that technical problem by also suing on behalf of women still currently employed in the state’s legalized prostitution industry.

 The personal stories of these two women involved in the lawsuit expose the lies that legalized prostitution is a mere “business transaction” or that women engaged in it are “empowering” themselves. The best way to empower women caught up in this industry is to use all the tools available to us to end their bondage to the pimps, brothel owners and sex traffickers who profit from their misery.

Hopefully, this lawsuit will be an important step toward that goal.

Photo from Shutterstock.