Bella Mansfield, Esq.

Bella Mansfield, Esq. is a sex worker-turned-attorney. Her passions include mermaids, vanilla cupcakes and providing holistic legal services based on models of self-determination and transformative justice. She dreams of a world where sex work is decriminalized and the prison industrial complex has been thoroughly smashed.


via Flickr user Craig Walkowicz

via Flickr user Craig Walkowicz

One of the many questions OkCupid users can answer to determine compatibility with potential mates is “Should prostitution be legal?” The answer options are:

  1. Yes, absolutely
  2. Yes, only if it were regulated
  3. I don’t think so
  4. ABSOLUTELY NOT (emphasis theirs)

In my four years of using the site, I’ve noticed that those who choose answer “2” frequently add something in the comments about regulations being necessary to protect workers from harm. Somewhat less frequently someone comments that regulations protect the health and general well-being of the public. My sample size is, of course, limited, but that thinking isn’t all that different from members of the general public who support legalization. Legalization, the thinking goes, would protect the public from the perceived health risks associated with prostitution by mandating testing, provide states with tax money (which relies on the false assumption that sex workers don’t currently pay taxes) and would control when and where sex work could be done. And, if prostitution was legal, sex workers would be safer because they would feel more comfortable utilizing the criminal legal system.

What they forget is that we have an example of legal prostitution in the United States: regulated, licensed brothels in the state of Nevada. While legalization provides benefits to the state, the workers are still treated as second-class citizens. Nevada has been home to brothels since the late 1800s, and the first licensed brothel opened there in 1971. Currently, there is no statute explicitly stating that prostitution is legal, but under state law, counties in Nevada with populations under 400,000 can allow brothels. These brothels are the only places in the United States where one can engage in legal prostitution, and the people doing this work are governed by three different sets of regulations: state laws, county laws and brothel rules.1 While the state laws are easy to access and review, county laws are less so, and brothel rules are not available to the public. The small size of the counties and towns that the brothels are in means that rules frequently change depending on the mood of the sheriff. This form of legalization is a combination of modern business law and Wild West attitudes. [READ MORE]

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Lenora Ivie Frago

Lenora Ivie Frago

Last week, social media flooded with outrage over the acquittal of Ezekiel Gilbert for the murder of Lenora Ivie Frago. On December 24, 2009, Gilbert and Frago met via Craigslist and agreed that he would pay her $150 for her time as a companion. Time, Gilbert argued, that was supposed to include sex. Frago left without having sex with him, fee in hand. Gilbert then decided that her fee was now stolen goods and shot her to reclaim his property. Frago later died due to her injuries and Gilbert was charged with murder. A Bexar County jury acquitted him, leading the sex worker community and people with general good sense to ask: how in the hell did this happen?

Jury trials are, in theory, supposed to be fairer than bench trials as they are decided by a panel of people who bring a variety of life experiences and thoughts to the table. Both sides of have the chance to weed out a few jurors who they think have too much bias during jury selection, but there is simply no way to weed out all jurors with bias. There is also no way to ensure jurors are actually listening to testimony or understand the law. I’ve seen trials where jurors literally fell asleep and then went off to a small room to decide the fate of another human being.

In this case, prosecutors needed to convince these twelve people that Gilbert had committed the act of murder according to the state’s definition. If the facts did show that Gilbert committed murder, there was still a way to find him not guilty: his attorneys could show that he had a plausible affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is a defense that argues the defendant’s actions may meet the elements of the crime, but his actions had good (and legal) reason behind them. [READ MORE]

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