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Rethinking Red Lights: An Economic Approach to Appalachian Prostitution Laws

Rethinking Red Lights: An Economic Approach to Appalachian Prostitution Laws

Kandi Spindler 

Society is beginning to seriously consider legal prostitution by turning to European models as guidance for policy issues.[1] Yet forsaking the financial incentives prostitution creates laws that are blind to the reality of sex worker. The gap between the reality of prostitution and the law becomes more troubling in rural areas, especially Appalachia, where a failure to account for local conditions exists because legislators are too far removed to know what those conditions are.[2]

American law needs to view prostitution for what it is: an industry driven by conventional economic supply and demand.[3] In Appalachia, where women combat the most oppressive forms of poverty,[4] sex provides an otherwise impossible income. Accepting the role of economics in prostitution is crucial because “there can be no useful approach to solve any of the problems in or around the sex industry” without acknowledging “the unique economic need sex work fulfills . . . money as a motivation for working in the sex industry[.]”[5]

Accordingly, this Note advocates for realistic prostitution laws that balance state interest in controlling prostitution with a fair and indispensable income for rural women. In keeping with the principle that better laws come from the people, this Note uses a firsthand study of rural prostitution to evaluate the laws’ effect. This study compares McDowell County, West Virginia—where prostitution remains criminalized—with Elko County, Nevada, one of the few American counties with legal brothels.[6]

Part I discusses the flaws of both West Virginian and Nevadan prostitution laws, namely the law’s flawed reliance on property concepts as a conduit for regulations.[7] Property-centric laws are irrelevant to real world prostitution because they build on two large misconceptions. First, using property as a conduit for regulation is flawed because prostitution is transitory while property is inherently unmovable. Second, by assuming that the property owner exercises complete authority, the law misdirects its force at the wrong individuals. Resolving these misconceptions through economics redirects legal focus to the role of human beings. Part II thus proposes a solution for effective rural prostitution regulation through a new American model for legal prostitution that allows for corporate access to rural areas in the form of a parent-subsidy structure. With the current payment difference between $15-$25 for services from a McDowell County sex worker and a $365 average rate for a Nevada employee in a small brothel,[8] profitable brothels operating under a parent-subsidiary model hold promise for effective state oversight and the financial success of rural women.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] May-Len Skilbrei & Charlotta Holmström, Is there a Nordic Prostitution Regime?, 40 Crime & Just. 479, 499 (2011) (extensively overviewing Nordic prostitution laws, yet admitting that “[i]t is difficult to say anything conclusive about the relationship between prostitution law and the size and composition of the prostitution market.”).

[2] Jane Scoular, What’s Law Got to Do with It? How and Why Law Matters in the Regulation of Sex Work, 37 J. of L & Soc’y 12, 13 (Mar. 2010).

[3] Alys Willman-Navarro, Money and Sex: What Economics Should Be Doing for Sex Work Research, Research for Sex Work 9: Global Network of Sex Work Projects at 19 (2006),

[4] Lisa R. Pruitt, Place Matters: Domestic Violence and Rural Differences, 23 Wis. J. L. Gender & Soc’y 347, 395 (2008) (quoting Cynthia M. Duncan, Persistent Poverty in Appalachia: Scarce Work and Rigid Stratification, in Rural Poverty In America 112, 131 (Cynthia M. Duncan ed., 1992)).

[5] Jo Weldon, Show Me the Money: A Sex Worker Reflects on Research into the Sex Industry, Research for Sex Work 9: Global Network of Sex Work Projects 14 (2006),

[6] Any county that may legally grant a license for the operation of a brothel, which is the only form in which legal prostitution may occur in Nevada, must have a population of 700,000 or less. Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 20 § 244.345(8) (West 2015).

[7] In West Virginia, a nuisance based on prostitution enjoins the “the owner, agent, or lessee of any interest in any such nuisance, together with the person employed in or in control of any such nuisance . . . .” W. Va. Code Ann. art. 9 § 61-9-2. Nevada likewise specifies that “[t]he maintenance and operation of [a] house of prostitution . . . being a nuisance under the common law and being within the definition of a nuisance . . . [is] properly enjoined and restrained by the district court.” Cunningham v. Washoe Cnty., 203 P.2d 611, 613 (Nev. 1949).

[8] Sex-In-Nevada’s Ongoing Pricing Survey Results for Years 2011 through 2013,, (last visited Jan. 31, 2016).

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