Harry Reid just called for "an adult conversation" about prostitution. OK, I'm in.
A few years ago, he published a memoir, The Good Fight. When it was released, I interviewed the Senate majority leader about growing up in Searchlight, Nev., a town he said that then had "13 brothels and no churches."
"I learned to swim in a bordello swimming pool," he told me with a laugh. I couldn't resist responding, "Today they call that a Jacuzzi, senator." (I spared him my joke about the backstroke.)
He's no longer in good humor about the oldest profession and seeks to ban it in Nevada, the only state where it is legal in some areas. (It's banned in counties with a population of 400,000 or more.)
"Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment - not as the last place where prostitution is still legal," he said Tuesday.
Reid mentioned that an unnamed businessman contemplating a move to Nevada had expressed dismay that one of the biggest businesses in his prospective new home was a brothel. "If we want to attract business to Nevada that puts people back to work, the time has come for us to outlaw prostitution," he said.
Dennis Hof, famous for owning the Moonlight Bunny Ranch (featured on HBO's Cathouse program) wasn't taking the matter, ahem, lying down. He brought eight "employees" from his brothel in Carson City to the state capital to lobby against Reid. In Charlton Heston-like fashion, he told reporters: "Harry Reid will have to pry the cathouse keys from my cold, dead hands."
Talk about strange bedfellows. The brothel owner's sentiments were echoed by top state officials.
"It's up to the counties to decide if they want it or not," Gov. Brian Sandoval said.
And the state's Senate majority leader, Steven Horsford (no pun intended), said, "I personally do not support prostitution; however, it has been handled by local governments in the past, and it has been a history and tradition."
Well, these gents are right, and Reid is wrong.
Instead of ostracizing Nevada, more states should follow its lead and stop legislating morality. The government has no business determining consensual sex among adults; it does, however, have economic and public-safety interests in taxing and regulating such conduct.
There are many reasons it's time to think outside the, er, square.
First, what's the difference between passing a cosmo down the bar and handing over a Ben Franklin when the aim is to get someone in the sack? They are different denominations of the same currency, and no government should seek to differentiate between them. A society like ours that rightfully does not tell a woman what to do with a pregnancy prior to the point of viability should have a similar hands-off policy regarding her carnal conduct.
Second, no one wants prostitution in residential neighborhoods, which is an argument for, not against, legal prostitution. Like an adult bookstore, it should be subject to zoning. We will never eradicate the world's oldest profession, but we should be able to at least consolidate it in areas with no schools or residences.
Third, legalization presents an opportunity to clean up a tawdry business in the name of public safety. Consider the adult-film industry in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles. There have been times when the industry's largest companies and studios have gone dark on their own volition because stars tested positive for HIV - billion-dollar entities closed on their own initiative. In L.A., the thousand or so porn stars are all tested monthly, and show the results before they can work. Is the system perfect? No. But it is significantly cleaner and safer than the open season on many urban streets right now.
Fourth, in these economic times, why shouldn't the government ring the till? In 2009, a proposal to levy a $5 tax on acts of prostitution in Nevada was estimated to be worth about $2 million a year - a figure that would surely increase if the industry were legalized throughout the state and legitimized by strict government regulation and zoning.
And finally, legalizing prostitution is the ultimate compassionate conservative cause. Face it, there are some among us whose looks, demeanor, disability, etc., preclude any reasonable chance of finding companionship for the short term. Why should they be denied fleeting, consensual physical companionship in as safe and open an environment as possible? Who are we to say that they may pursue any form of recreation they can afford except that which can be accommodated by a willing adult? Aren't the Quasimodos among us entitled to a little happiness, especially in a world where sexual stimulation is everywhere?
Let's stop, er, beating around the bush. It's time to legalize, legitimize, zone, and tax the pants off the world's oldest profession.
Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read all of his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.