The Death of Deadwood’s Sex Industry — And Why to Revive It

By Ariela Moscowitz, Communication Director, Decriminalize Sex Work


This year’s FreedomFest will take place minutes from the famous Wild West town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Home to legends like Calamity Jane and Alice Ivers, Deadwood was a bustling town with numerous brothels and sex workers from 1876 – 1980, when state and federal authorities shuttered the industry.

Americans who were employed as sex workers and those who purchased sex in Deadwood supported the local economy and many philanthropic endeavors. Now that prostitution is outlawed in South Dakota – as it is in most of the rest of the United States – sex work has been pushed underground, where it is more dangerous for providers and clients and it is harder to distinguish voluntary participation from exploitation.

The various forms of human suffering caused by criminalizing consensual adult sex work are numerous and severe. Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW) is a nonprofit national advocacy organization working to roll back and ultimately stop this ongoing damage. Our mission is to end the prohibition of consensual adult prostitution and to improve policies relating to all forms of sex work.

DSW is pleased to participate in FreedomFest because we know that patrons of this conference understand that consenting adults should be allowed to do what they want with their own bodies without government interference. While we assume most readers of this forum already get it, let’s lay out some of the most salient reasons that sex work should be decriminalized and what DSW is actively doing to reform bad laws.

First, some terminology:

SEX WORK vs. PROSTITUTION: The term“sex work” includes prostitution, pornography, strip clubs, dominatrices, etc. “Prostitution” is a subset of sex work that involves sexual contact. DSW’s primary mission is specific to prostitution, but we also support efforts related to limiting government involvement in adult sex work more broadly, such as fighting to repeal FOSTA/SESTA, a catastrophic federal law enacted in 2018.

DECRIMINALIZATION: Our ultimate policy goal is “decriminalization,” which would mean that consensual adult prostitution could occur in private residences, hotel rooms, and brothels without legal penalties. This is different from legalization, which would imply government oversight, regulations, and likely special taxing of sex workers and their clients. We believe that the state should not control the choices of consenting adults; however, we also think that after prostitution is decriminalized, municipalities should have the opportunity to create legal and regulated brothels if they wish to support such an industry.

Some top reasons that defenders of liberty should support decriminalization:

  1. Any holistic push for criminal justice reform must include sex work decriminalization. Why is that? Because the only two victimless crimes with large numbers of arrests are the drug trade and sex work.


  1. Enforcement of sex work laws is invasive. People are rarely arrested for actual prostitution; instead, they are charged with public indecency, loitering, or attempted prostitution. None of these crimes have victims.


  1. Enforcement of sex work laws is abusive. In some states, it’s legal for police to have sex with prostitutes as a way of “obtaining evidence” of a crime! In other locales, the mere possession of condoms is used as evidence of attempted prostitution. And “John stings” — that is, publicly shaming men by publishing their names and photos in the news after being arrested (not convicted) of attempted (rarely actual) prostitution-related activities — are common.


  1. The criminalization of sex work can result in jail time, public humiliation, a lifelong criminal record that poses barriers to housing and employment, inclusion in public “sex offender” registries, loss of child custody, housing evictions, and more.


  1. Many laws are inadequately enforced, while valuable resources are wasted criminalizing consensual adult prostitution. First, police spend far more time investigating consensual adult sex work than they do human trafficking. Second, sex workers who are assaulted and/or burglarized are effectively prevented from reporting these crimes to police for fear of being arrested. Third, because sex workers are vulnerable and oftentimes homeless, they’re more likely to be victims of rape and murder; sadly, many serial murderers have confessed to targeting sex workers because of their vulnerability and the reluctance of law enforcement to investigate crimes committed against them.


  1. This issue is winnable in the not-too-distant future. First, the available polling indicates 49% support sex work decriminalization in California; 55% support it in DC; and greater than 40% support it nationally. Second, there is no federal prohibition on sex work to contend with.


Here is a sampling of DSW’s activities. Since 2019 DSW:

* FEDERAL LAWSUIT: drafted a multi-organizational amicus brief, spearheading the challenge of the 2018 federal law known as “SESTA-FOSTA,” which criminalizes web-site providers that permit or fail to detect adult match-making that involves money.

* NEW HAMPSHIRE: helped to enact a new law in New Hampshire that prohibits medical professionals from involving law enforcement with patients suspected of sex work.

*NEW YORK: actively participated in the repeal of New York’s Loitering for the Purposes of Prostitution Act, aka the “Walking While Trans Ban,” which was repealed by the legislature and signed into law by New York’s Governor Cuomo on Feb 2, 2020.

*NEW YORK: is lobbying to expand Good Samaritan laws for sex workers and vacatur for victims of human trafficking regarding crimes they were coerced to commit as a result of their exploitation.

*NEW YORK: is lobbying to end the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, which would greatly increase public health.

*RHODE ISLAND: is lobbying for a study commission to investigate the efficacy of the state’s prostitution-related laws.

*RHODE ISLAND: is lobbying for Good Samaritan (also known as immunity) laws similar to that passed in New York above, and for medical privacy similar to that in New Hampshire above.

*NEVADA: is working with a coalition to prevent the creation of new detrimental laws this legislative session and is supporting a safe harbor law for victims of human trafficking.

* METHODICAL PUBLIC EDUCATION: produced an ongoing series of briefing papers and short animations highlighting the reasons to support decriminalization.

* DAME CATHERINE HEALY: Sponsored and arranged a state-by-state tour with Catherine Healy, the architect of the world’s best national decriminalization law in New Zealand. (Queen Elizabeth II had recently bestowed Healy with “Dame” status for her sex work achievements!)



* COMMUNICATIONS & MEDIA: created materials that promote decriminalization and counter prohibitionists and false human trafficking narratives. These materials were quoted in hundreds of media articles, podcasts, television reports.

In the next ten years, with the financial support of our generous donors, DSW will lead the charge to end the prohibition of prostitution across the United States and to once again allow the consenting adults of Deadwood and elsewhere to make personal choices without law enforcement interference.

We invite FreedomFest attendees to learn more about the history of Deadwood’s Brothels and our plans to decriminalize sex work across the nation at our presentation in Rapid City. We look forward to meeting you there.

DSW is a national organization pursuing a state-by-state strategy to end the prohibition of consensual adult prostitution in the United States. We work with local organizations, advocates, and lobbyists to build community support and convince legislators to stop prostitution-related arrests. Evidence shows that decriminalizing sex work will help end human trafficking, improve public health, and promote community safety. Learn more at https://DecriminalizeSex.Work and follow us on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter