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A Ballot on the Brothels of Nevada

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A prostitute at Moonlite Bunny Ranch, one of Dennis Hof’s brothels, struggling to stay awake after a long shift, Nevada, January 2008

The legal brothels of Nevada, in remote counties away from the big cities and dotted amid expanses of deserts and mountains, have become an institution. Brothels like them have existed in the state since around 1870—seen as part of the fabric of society by some, loathed by others. Today, though, this Nevadan institution—unique in the United States, where prostitution is otherwise illegal—is under threat from a proposed change to the decades-old legislation that permitted it.

There are legal brothels in Lyon, Nye, Lander, Elko, White Pine, Mineral, and Storey counties. There are three other counties where prostitution is legal but there are no brothels, while prostitution is currently illegal in Nevada’s Clark, Douglas, Eureka, Lincoln, Pershing, and Washoe counties, as well as in Carson City. Residents in Nye and Lyon counties have been collecting petition signatures for a ballot measure in November’s elections that would shut down the brothels.

At a meeting of the Lyon County Commissioners in May, the commissioners unanimously agreed to put the question of legal brothels on the ballot. Nye County officials decided this month not to hold their own ballot but to introduce the issue for debate at the next session of the state legislature at the end of January 2019. The Legislature will address whether to ban brothels statewide in all counties: Joseph Hardy, a Republican in the Nevada Senate, is reportedly submitting a bill draft request, the preliminary stage of any legislation, to argue for the repeal of legalization. 

If the voters of Lyon County say in November that they no longer want brothels in their county, the commissioners will take action to end legal prostitution there, which would involve closing four of the state’s twenty-one legal brothels. Nye County will be Senator Hardy’s initial focus in his legislative effort, so another four legal brothels in that county could close. Whether other counties in Nevada would then follow suit is an open question, but a vital precedent could have been established by Lyon. There has never been a reversal of legalized prostitution anywhere in the world, despite campaigns in every country where this applies.

The issue has acquired greater visibility since Dennis Hof, the owner of seven legal brothels in Lyon and Nye counties, the author of a best-selling book about his career as a pimp, and a star of the HBO adult reality TV series Cathouse, won a Republican primary recently ahead of November’s elections for the Nevada state Assembly (the lower house of the Legislature). Hof will be the favorite to win in GOP-leaning District 36 (which spans Nye County and portions of Lincoln and Clark counties), and he has campaigned on a pro-Trump, anti-establishment ticket. Yet, even as he runs for state office, his business empire—built on prostitution—is in doubt.

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The history of legal prostitution lies in the American towns that sprang up in Nevada in the late 1800s with the silver- and gold-mining boom. The male-dominated nature of mining work created a parallel industry for women who came to sell sex, whether pimped by a third party or out of economic desperation. This historical precedent eventually led to the Nevada State Assembly’s passing a bill, in 1971, to give any county within the state the right to host legal brothels. More than thirty brothels were in operation at the height of the legal trade in the 1980s.

Legalization in limited areas creates a climate that helps to normalize prostitution in general: pimps become businessmen, prostitutes become independent contractors, and the men who pay for sex become clients. And what goes for legal brothels dictates norms even where the trade is criminal. Despite the fact that brothels are illegal in Las Vegas, that city is a major sex tourism destination, and accounts for some 90 percent of the prostitution that takes place in Nevada. While an estimated 1,000 women are working in Nevada’s twenty-one legal brothels, approximately 30,000 women are thought to be operating in the Las Vegas area alone.

A 2011 estimate puts the annual value of the Nevada legal sex industry at $75 million, while illegal prostitution in Vegas grosses around $5 billion annually; another estimate values the combined trade at more than $7 billion a year. For comparison, the latest figures released by the Nevada Gaming Control Board show that Vegas’s more famous industry, gambling, netted the state economy some $26 billion during 2017. According to one campaign group, Nevada’s number of prostituted persons per capita is 63 percent larger than the state with the next highest rate, New York. Nevada’s illegal sex market, generated in part by legalized prostitution, has more than 19,000 women and children being trafficked, bought and sold for sexual acts annually.

Prostitution has made the legal brothel owners powerful, wealthy men. Nevada’s legal brothels, hailed as safe, benign, and desirable, work as a propaganda machine for the illicit Vegas sex trade. From the ads for escorts on hotel key cards, to the young men out on the streets handing out cards with promises of “A girl to your room faster than a pizza,” as well as women visibly plying the trade both on the streets and in hotel lobbies, illegal prostitution flourishes in Las Vegas—to the extent that many johns have no idea that the business isn’t legal in Vegas. There is big money to be made there from sex tourism, and as with any illegal activity, there are links with police corruption.

Melissa Farley, a psychologist and researcher, and author of Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections (2007), has written extensively on Nevada brothels, interviewing women, johns, and brothel owners. “Legal prostitution in Nevada and its illegal offshoots provide a welcoming environment for local pimps and also for international pimps and johns,” says Farley. “Both legal and illegal prostitution support organized crime, which in turn corrupts the political and judicial system.”

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Dennis Hof, owner of several Nevada brothels, promoting his book at a trade fair in New Jersey, November 13, 2015

In the show Cathouse, supposedly a fly-on-the-wall depiction of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, one of Hof’s brothels, the women appear liberated and happy in their work. They tell viewers that this is simply a job like any other; the clients are lovely, and living in a brothel with other women is akin to a permanent pajama party. But my research suggests that life for the women in Nevada brothels bears little resemblance to this rosy picture.

I first visited the brothels of Nevada in 2011 to research the effects of legalized prostitution. I wrote to Hof, telling him I was a reporter interested in writing about how legalization worked. I was welcomed with open arms. When I arrived, Hof exclaimed, “Any publicity is good to sell pussy!” During my visit, I saw Hof treat the women as merchandise, and witnessed first-hand his employees’ misery. Hof referred to the women as “hoes,” and, as several attested to me, he would often grab their breasts and crotches when they walked past. The women who worked in his brothels were required to line up whenever a john appeared, and were told they were not to smile or move; instead, they should stand very still, staring straight ahead. I also witnessed Hof demand sex from any of the women who took his fancy.

Hof profits from legalized prostitution, so it makes sense that he would promote it as a viable business model. But Hof goes further than this; he uses his significant public platform to make claims about legalization’s being the solution to trafficking and other criminal activities in the sex trade. “The legal environment is like the world’s greatest singles bar,” he told me when we met in 2011 at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. “There is no trafficking, no rape, no HIV, no illegal activity. It’s safe here.” In 2015, Hof announced that he is working with state legislators to discuss ways to end trafficking. He described this as his “last goal in life.” “I hate traffickers,” Hof told me. “They give our business a bad name.”

Trafficking is certainly a problem in Nevada. The US-based Human Trafficking Hotline has reported year-on-year increases in the number of cases of human trafficking in Nevada since 2012, with 199 recorded last year, and identifies Nevada as one of the top sex-trafficking destinations in the country. But supporters of legalized brothels in the state get around the issue by reframing trafficking as voluntary “migration for sex work,” while many pro-legalization lobbyists flatly deny that trafficking exists except in a tiny minority of cases.

Police officers and NGOs that offer legal services, counseling, and support to leave the sex trade across the state have told me that there are numerous underage girls being trafficked in Nevada. In Las Vegas alone, approximately 400 children per year are picked off the streets from prostitution by law enforcement and child protection services. In the 2014 documentary Trafficked no More, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said the youngest trafficking victim prostituted in Las Vegas was a thirteen-year-old girl. According to reporting by the Las Vegas Sun, trafficking victims are shipped into Nevada brothels with fake documents, and there is an entire system in place to provide falsified information such as fake Social Security numbers and residency permits, facilitating the prostituting of these girls.

A major plank of the pro-brothel lobby’s argument is that legalization solves the problem of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but it’s clear this isn’t the case. The state board of health requires prostituted women to undergo regular testing for STIs, but the johns are not required to prove that they, too, undergo such tests. Additionally, the “condom rule” in brothels is unenforceable. What I saw in the legal brothels in 2011 was disturbing: women were wearing Band-Aids on their arms to cover needle marks from blood tests, with their names and date/time of the tests on a list that was visible to all—undermining the presumption that condoms should always be used. Men told me they would negotiate with each woman as to whether or not they would wear a condom. As one punter said to me: “She’s been tested, she’s clean, it’s just fine.” There are no figures on the rates of HIV infection in legal prostitution in Nevada because of the assumption that, under legalization, there is zero transmission. But STI rates in general—and the incidence of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, in particular—are on the rise across the state.

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The ballot measure on brothels is the result of years of campaigning by a coalition of local residents, feminists, and conservative moralists. Some academics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), defend the brothels. Barb Brents, a sociology professor there, whom I heard give a keynote speech on the topic at a conference in Vienna, in 2015, supports legalization on the grounds that prostitution can be “empowering” for certain women and reduce stigmatization. Another staunch supporter of legalization is Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University and the author of Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business (2013). In a recent article for the Reno Gazette Journal, he argued that “The logic of legalization is similar to that for marijuana and casino gambling: the principle that tolerating consensual vice is far superior to criminalizing it, forcing participants underground and perpetuating the risks and harms inherent in any black-market enterprise.”

Christina Parreira is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada studying prostitution in the state’s legal brothels. As part of her research, Parreira lived in a legal brothel and sold sex herself for thirty-six days, interviewing twelve other women during that time. She is a firm advocate of legalized prostitution and an effective publicist for Dennis Hof. “As a licensed prostitute and PhD student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I can tell you that what I want is to continue to have the freedom to choose to work in a safe environment, where I can practice a trade that I love, lawfully and prosperously,” she wrote on the Bunny Ranch blog. “Sex work is definitely not my last resort or my only option—it is my choice. I’d like to continue to have the opportunity to make that choice legally.”

An argument commonly made in favor of a legalized system is that it safeguards workers’ rights for the women. But these women are strongly discouraged by their bosses from unionizing. As the labor researcher Gregor Gall notes in his 2016 book Sex Worker Unionization, legalization has not resulted in women in prostitution becoming unionized—including in Nevada—which shows that:

[T]he absence of prostitute unionization is not just an issue of prostitution being unlawful. This outcome has been influenced by the isolated geographical location of the brothels (where the women are live-in workers for the periods they work there), a paternalistic but authoritarian management enforcing strict rules, and prostitutes are not employed (being independent contractors instead).

Among the opponents of the legal brothels are scholars and activists (myself included)—both inside and outside the state—who are deeply critical of the Nevada model, which they say presents selling women’s bodies as no more pernicious or complicated than retailing fast food. While the supporters of legal brothels like Hof’s say that it is only their legalization that keeps the police from persecuting the women, I’ve found that, in practice, legalization means the police adopt a totally hands-off approach toward the pimps and traffickers. Removing all criminal penalties from the sex trade, I believe, merely normalizes the buying and selling of women’s bodies. Legalization offers no protection for the women themselves, and legitimizes pimping and sexual commodification—though I firmly support the decriminalization of those who are prostituted (predominantly women, of course). For, as Rachel Moran, a sex-trade survivor and the author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (2015), asks: “Why should women be punished for their own abuse?”

I interviewed some fifty women who had previously been involved in prostitution for my 2017 book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. Every one of my interviewees, many of whom were prostituted under legal or decriminalized systems in Germany, Holland, Australia, and New Zealand, told me of endemic violence from brothel owners, feelings of stigma and shame, and a lack of services to support women leaving the sex trade. I have also interviewed women who had been prostituted in Nevada brothels. One told me that she felt men are encouraged to treat the women “like candy in a store, and not like a human at all.”

The campaign to repeal legalization in Nevada is supported by organizations from outside Nevada such as the San Francisco-based NGO Prostitution Research & Education. There has long been a vocal human rights-based movement against legalized prostitution in the US. A sex trade survivor named Evelina Giobbe founded Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt (WHISPER) in 1985. “I call [Nevada brothels] the factory farming of sex,” she told me last year. “The number of johns women see, the lack of control they have over the choice of johns and the ‘services’ they provide, the lack of control they have over their health regarding condoms… They are not only preyed upon by pimps, they’re preyed upon by the brothel owners economically. It’s a really bad deal for women.”

That view is gaining currency. Contrary to Hof’s claims, many of those selling sex from legal brothels have spoken openly about abuse and violence from johns, mistreatment by brothel owners, and their desperation to get out of the sex trade. In May, a number of women who have worked in Hof’s brothels told The Nevada Independent about their experiences of sexual assault, harassment, and, in one case, alleged rape by Hof. (He has denied that allegation, and has never been charged or convicted on the basis of other complaints.)

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A prostitute waiting for a mandatory weekly doctor’s visit at the Love Ranch, a legal brothel near Carson City, Nevada, November 18, 2010

Lance Gilman, who was elected as a Storey County commissioner by a wide margin in 2012, is currently trying to increase the number of brothels permitted in his county. I visited one of the existing ones, the Mustang Ranch, near Reno, in 2011. Gilman is firmly pro-legalization, but he admits that the legal brothels can themselves act as a magnet for dangerous johns. “As soon as you legalize, it turns the predators loose,” Gilman told me. “You have to regulate. We have a stable of a thousand [women].” But his caution seems more about protecting his business interests than the welfare of his employees—in fact, he proudly told me that the Mustang Ranch is modeled on a prison and referred to the women as “inmates.” Gilman also designed a game called “Hunt a Ho,” in which johns pay to “hunt” women in the desert with paintball rifles. Upon catching a woman, the john is rewarded with sex. “We get the girls, they are the prey, hunters come find ’em,” said Gilman to his former partner and one-time brothel manager, Susan Austin, in a promo video for another brothel-based reality TV show, Mustang Ranch: Labor of Love, which aired in 2012.

So much for Parreira’s “freedom.” A door-to-door saleswoman who came to sell “hooker chic” to the women in the Bunny Ranch told me that her sales are “very healthy” because the women are required to have an extensive wardrobe and they’re not going anywhere. “They are always in and available for my sales pitch,” she said, “because they are not allowed out.” The women have to pay for all of their ‘working’ clothes, as well as pay for rent and all of their food while living in the brothel.

Last fall, during a trip to New York, I met with Annie, a woman who had worked in three separate legal brothels in Nevada between 2012 and 2015. Annie was nervous and seemed traumatized by her experiences, but told me she was determined to “speak the truth” about legalization. “The brothel owners are worse than any pimp,” she told me. “They abuse and imprison women and are fully protected by the state.” It is widely known that the brothels are difficult to leave. “There is no such thing as popping out for cake with a girlfriend,” Annie told me. “We have to ask permission, and are not allowed to keep our car keys once we sign the contract to work [in one Nevada brothel].”

Unsurprisingly, faced with the threat of losing the ballot measure, the brothel-keepers are fighting hard to keep their businesses legal. In a letter written by Dennis Hof’s lawyer, Mark Wray, and sent to Lyon County court officials (and seen by the author) before the decision was made to allow the vote, Wray claimed that closing the brothels would have “an immediate negative fiscal impact on the local economy,” despite failing to provide any specific evidence of this. But local anti-brothel campaigners have relayed to me their confidence that a “strong collaborative effort across different community groups” will prove effective. Activist groups such as the No Little Girl and End Trafficking and Prostitution have teamed up with local Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce, political clubs, and NGOs established to campaign against violence against women to publicize “the truth about legalization.”

Gilman is only too aware of how big a business prostitution is, once it has the legal stamp of approval. Both he and Hof could be elected officials after November’s election, and it’s safe to assume that they will continue to work hard to defend their interests in legal brothels. A majority of feminist sex-trade abolitionists with whom I’m in contact, though, are concerned that the Nevada campaign to repeal legalization is too narrowly focused and does not address the wider picture. If the only result is that the legal brothels are shuttered, it will likely be the women who are then criminalized for prostitution—something feminist abolitionists passionately oppose. There are also few services around to support women’s leaving prostitution safely, which is yet another consequence of legalization (for why, the argument goes, would you need support and counseling to leave a “legitimate job”?).

And if the legal brothels are closed down, what of the illegal ones? Even if the ballot measure to end the brothels in Lyon County passes, no one should expect prostitution and sex trafficking to end in Nevada. But with the false claims of the regulated, legal brothels out of the way, the abuses of the state’s far greater, unregulated, and illegal sex trade would come into sharper focus.