Did you know that the brothels of Nevada are facing a possible ban?
In a recent turn of events, a group of anti-prostitution campaigners in Lyon County, Nevada has successful lodged a petition to have the issue of licensed brothels included on the November ballot of the county’s mid-term elections. The simple question being posed to residents is ‘should brothels be banned?’
In this feature, we take a look at the history of legalized prostitution in Nevada and look at the current reasons why brothels could soon be facing a ban. We give you some of the pros and cons of the arguments on both sides as well as look at the possible outcomes of the ballot.
A Brief History of Prostitution in Nevada
Prostitution in Nevada has been prevalent since the days when the territory was widely used for mining about 150 years ago. Brothels were a staple part of rural communities in the 19th century and though times have changed they remained a tolerated part of the landscape.
In the 1930s a law was passed that required prostitutes to submit to weekly health checks but in 1942, President Franklin D Roosevelt passed an order to close brothels near military bases. This had an effect on those bordellos operating near Vegas and Reno and, although it was lifted in 1948, state officials closed down several brothels.
By 1951, both Las Vegas and Reno had closed their red-light districts down under public-nuisance orders; however, rural brothels still continued to operate throughout the state.
In 1971, the owner of the Mustang Ranch near Reno, Joe Conforte, managed to persuade local officials to pass an ordinance to keep his brothel from being closed effectively legalizing prostitution in licensed premises.
Las Vegas county officials feared that this legislation would allow brothels to open near their, now-cleaned up, city and managed to convince the legislature to amend the law to restrict legalization of brothels in counties that had a population of over 700,000 people.
This current legislation remains in place and all counties in Nevada whose last census denotes the population to be under 700,000 people have the right to determine whether brothels may be licensed. Each county has its own licensing laws and conditions, but all women must register with the local sheriff to obtain both a prostitution license and a background check. Once a license is issued, women are required to test regularly for diseases like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis as well as for HIV. Condoms must be used for all sexual intercourse and even for oral sex.
Why Could Brothels be Banned?
The issue of a legalized framework in which prostitution is regulated has always been a contentious one in Nevada. Religious groups have often objected to the notion of the system but have mostly remained inactive on the issue. However, with a rise in the global interest of anti-sex trafficking and the current media attention on women’s rights following the significant revelations about sexual abuse, misconduct and rape with the #MeToo movement, the spotlight, in Nevada, is currently centered on the issue of legalized prostitution.
Specifically, voters in Lyon County have been given the chance to have their say on the issue after the county commissioners added this very issue on the November mid-term election ballot papers.
There is much anger within the community of sex-workers employed across the 20+ licensed brothels in Nevada as well as the many regular visitors and tourists who use the facilities; not to mention many residents and business owners of Lyon County.
If voters agree with the anti-brothel campaigners, then the four licensed bordellos currently operating in Mound House will have to shut up shop.
In Nye County, a similar proposal to put a ballot to the voters fell by the wayside when campaigners failed to get enough signatures to have the measure included. Certainly, the appetite of local residents close to Vegas seems to be one of ‘live and let live’. Yet, the movement has instigated officials to put the whole issue up for debate at the end of January 2019 in the Nevada State Senate.
So, what are the cases being put to the voters of Lyon County to help them decide which way to vote?
The Case for Banning Brothels in Nevada
Besides the argument being run by religious groups over the morality of prostitution and the implied ‘public nuisance’ that they cause, campaigners are mainly focusing on the claims that women who work in brothels are not there by choice.
They argue that prostitutes are often victims of sexual abuse and/or violence in childhood and may have grown up in poverty. They suggest that some women may be being coerced into working in a brothel by an illegal pimp and may be doing so to support some kind of drug habit. They also cite research on studies undertaken in countries where prostitution is legal but where illegal prostitution and trafficking also rises commensurately with demand as a result.
Operating under a banner of the ‘No Little Girl’ (wants to grow up to be a prostitute) movement, anti-sex work crusaders assert that all paid sex work is a violence against women. They argue that although legalized brothels may offer more safety from abuse than those women who work illegally on the streets that there is no legitimate way to defend prostitution. They see sex-work as an exploitative industry.
Another line of objection to the presence of brothels in the county is the claim that the ‘whorehouses’ are putting off large tech firms from moving to the area.
Campaigners are hoping to start a domino effect with Lyon County being the first to initiate a ban and the rest of Nevada will fall in line.
You can find further information on the moral issues being fought for in this commentary of the campaign by the National Catholic Register.
The Case for Supporting Legalised Brothels in Nevada
Whilst there are many people wading in to have their say about the future of Nevada’s brothels, there are few who actually know much about what goes on inside one. This is the principle complaint about the tactics being run by the anti-prostitution campaigners. The women who work inside the brothels in Mound House bridle about being ‘saved’.
Most of the sex-workers who have gone on record are miffed about the claims made by the ‘No Little Girl’ campaigners and say that the stories they tell bear little or no resemblance to their own experiences. Opinion pieces in the press from licensed prostitutes give glowing reports about their working conditions and the freedom they have in the choices they have made as to a career.
As to the issue of illegal pimps being involved in a brothel, there are no means to eliminate this possibility, but this practice is not in the interest of brothel owners who are keen to point out they do not tolerate this.
On the matter of whether brothels are putting off big tech firms relocating to the state should surely be settled by the fact that Tesla’s Gigafactory chose Nevada as a location. The decision was due mainly to the state tax incentives, but it is worth pointing out that the premises are less than 7 miles away from the Mustang Ranch brothel in Storey County.
Lastly, there is an obvious benefit to the brothels of Nevada in terms of the local economy. As legitimate businesses, brothel owners pay federal income tax and local fees and, whilst they do not pay state taxes, they do contribute to the county’s tourism industry.
You can find out more about the compelling arguments for the continued licensing of brothels in Nevada in this great piece published by Christina Parreira, M.A.. A PhD student in the Department of Sociology she is a researcher and proponent of legalized prostitution; she is also a proud (and legal) harlot!
What is the Likely Outcome of the November Ballot?
Campaigners are more than aware of previous attempts to ban prostitution in Nevada with the last proposed referendum in 2004 failing to garner enough support. However, many believe that even if the outcome in November 2018 fails to see an immediate end to licensed prostitution in Lyon County that the movement will have been a success.
Reno lawyer working on the case, Jason Guinasso, has said that simply having the measures on the ballot is a victory as it will mean that the issue will be in the forefront of Nevadans minds, forcing them to think about whether prostitution should be an industry that belongs in the state.
Most observers, including Denis Hof the owner of half a dozen brothels in Nevada (notably all four of those that would be directly affected by the ban in Lyon County) predict that the ballot will fail.
If the ballot is successful, then this could precede a similar victory for campaigners in the forthcoming debates in State Senate at the end of January 2019.
Proponents of legalized prostitution are hopeful that the economics of the industry will help to secure its future. It is estimated that Lyon County receives around $400k-$500k in taxes directly from its four brothels but that Nevada as a state receives around $75 million. However, compared to the income from the gambling industry which nets around $26 billion, the sex industry might not be as important to the purse strings of the state as many would like to believe.
Certainly, the landscape for Nevada’s sex industry is under close scrutiny at the moment and the future looks very uncertain.
For many, it is a simple matter of knowing that prostitution is the oldest business in the world and, if brothels were banned, illegal prostitution would instead, flourish.
Whatever the result in November’s ballot, there is certainly an appetite for change in Nevada, but it seems highly unlikely that the majority of residents want to see an end to brothels. However, popular opinion may not be what settles the future of legalized prostitution in Nevada…only time will tell.
Featured image via Flickr.