As Nevada’s legal brothels remain closed, sex workers think bias is at play
When word got to Alice Little that brothels in Nevada would be closing for 30 days to comply with state orders and slow the spread of COVID-19, she brought the two houseplants in her room at the Bunny Ranch down to the front desk and asked the employee there to look after them while she was gone.
Eight months later, Little hasn’t seen her plants again.
Little is one of hundreds of legal sex workers in the state who lost their major source of income when brothels and other businesses shut down mid-March. While most other industries have been able to resume some level of operations, Gov. Steve Sisolak has indicated that the state’s brothels are “not on his radar” to reopen.
Services allowing physical contact around the state have been allowed to resume service, with tattoo shops, estheticians, and massage parlors open since May. Women who work in Nevada’s legal sex industry say they feel they’re being ignored not because of the risk their business poses but because of a bias against their industry.
“I think it’s discriminatory of the governor,” said Kiki Lover, a legal sex worker living in Reno. “He’s discriminating against sex workers.”
Prior to the shutdown, Lover was working five days a week at the Sagebrush Ranch in Lyon County. She’s based locally, so when news came on March 19 that the facility would be closing its doors immediately, she was able to pack up her room and head back home.
But for the women living in the brothel full time, things weren’t as simple.
“The first couple of weeks, they let the girls [stay] that were homeless or lived too far away,” she said. “Then everybody has to get out because at the end of the day ... the brothel can’t just keep you there all the time without you working.”
Legal sex work in Nevada
According to both Little and Lover, it’s common for women from other states to stay at one of Nevada’s brothels for periods of a few weeks or months in order to take advantage of the state’s legal industry before returning back home. Nevada’s legal sex industry is still controversial, often condemned by anti-sex trafficking organizations that say brothels are part of a culture that encourages sexual exploitation, but a lawsuit that sought to ban them was dismissed last year.
Nevada is the only state to allow legal prostitution, but state law requires it to take place in a licensed brothel in a county with a population of less than 700,000.
Clark County is the only Nevada county to exceed that population count, but six other counties — Carson City, Douglas, Eureka, Lincoln, Pershing, and Washoe — have expressly outlawed prostitution. Among the 10 counties where brothels can legally operate, none are operating in Churchill, Esmeralda or Humboldt.
The Mustang Ranch Brothel, officially sanctioned by Storey County in 1971, was the state’s first legal brothel. Joe Conforte, the ranch’s original owner, was forced to forfeit the property to the federal government in 1999, but owner Lance Gilman bought back the buildings and reopened the brothel in 2005.
“We employ 49 people,” Gilman said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Because we’re 24 hours a day, seven days a week — we’ve never closed except for COVID — we have to run a pretty good-sized staff in house.”
Those full-time employees include security, kitchen staff and chefs, bartenders, housekeeping staff, cashiers and “parlor hostesses” who manage in-house operations. In addition to the 49 staff members, there are several hundred sex workers who work at the brothel on a rotating basis.
“We have ladies that work there from all walks of life,” Gilman said. “We have teachers there, we have attorneys there, and we have bookkeepers there. A lot of the ladies in the workforce are without a husband but with children, so they find that working in our industry legally is safe for them.”
Sisolak said during an interview this month at The Nevada Independent’s IndyFest conference that brothels are not his focus when other sectors are still trying to navigate reopening.
“Certainly we’re going to have to look at getting kids back into schools before we look at getting folks back into brothels,” he said. “We’ll be addressing it sometime, certainly, but it’s not in the immediate future.”
Gilman counters that his employees and contractors deserve the chance to resume work just like workers in other industries.
“We’ve been held closed longer than any other business in the state, and still are, and it’s unreasonable,” said Gilman. “We need help.”
Surviving in the interim
Legal sex workers in Nevada’s brothels are independent contractors and not employees, and this status has made it more difficult for those workers to receive supplemental benefits while out of work. Unemployment benefits were not immediately available to independent contractors during the first months lockdown, and although the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) was eventually extended to workers with this classification in May, Lover, Little, and Gilman all said they don’t know any women in the industry who have actually received the benefits they applied for.
“Many sex workers found it difficult to apply for those or are still pending and waiting to get those funds,” Little said. “As we know, here in Nevada it took many months after the shutdown for the CARES Act to actually kick into gear, and sex workers are really left with zero options.”
Brothels were not eligible for the Small Business Administration loans that many businesses took advantage of earlier this year, but Gilman did manage to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for the restaurant attached to Mustang Ranch, the Wild Horse Saloon.
Additionally, Gilman’s business was eligible for federal small business grants distributed by Storey County. Storey County is the only county that participated in the grant program, funded through federal coronavirus relief funding, in which legal brothels operate, and the decision is up to each county to determine what businesses are eligible. Gilman is a county commissioner in Storey.
Even after receiving between $150,000 and $350,000 in PPP loans, Gilman says he still eventually had to furlough his employees, and the contractors at Mustang Ranch who are not bona fide employees were not able to receive any supplemental income through these loans.
Without unemployment benefits, many women in the industry have tried turning to creative options to make up for lost income, including phone sex lines and cam work. Both Lover and Little have been utilizing the online platform Onlyfans, a content-sharing platform that allows users to charge for access to videos, photos, and direct messaging.
“It’s all online, and that has been keeping me afloat, but it’s nowhere near what I’d make at the brothel of course,” said Lover. “But, it’s been paying the bills.”
According to Little, however, online options are only viable for women who have already built a client base willing to pay for access to their content. Little bills herself as Nevada’s highest-paid legal sex worker and had standing appointments with clients that had to be cancelled because of the shutdown, but most women in the brothels make money from walk-in clients.
“I’m successful at a level that most ladies aren't, and even then I had to take a look at things and figure out, ‘Oh, I need to scale back,’” Little said. “My real concern is for the ladies who just recently got started in this industry. What are they supposed to do?”
Little said she knows some women who have had to start working independently without the protection of a legal system.
“They bought into the legal system, paid their taxes … only to be shut down and be worse off than they would have been working at any other job,” Little said. “The fault doesn’t lie with the women for making the choices that they’re making at this point. It, if anything, weighs on the sheer economics of our country and the lack of protections available to sex workers.”
Multiple counties are allowing brothels to provide non-sexual escort services, but escorts are not allowed to utilize brothel facilities. Little told the Reno-Gazette Journal that her clients are unwilling to travel for these services and are instead waiting for brothels to reopen. Escort services also pose the same difficulties for women who are just starting out and don’t have an established client base who will seek them out for these services.
To those who think sex workers should find new jobs, Little says the stigma of their current job is a major barrier.
“What do we expect sex workers to do, put down on their resume, ‘Was a sex worker at the Bunny Ranch for five years,’ and then go work as a cashier?” Little said. “I’m not sure what a reasonable expectation is here just given the sheer amount of stigma that comes with being associated with the industry.”
Losing their safety net
Beyond the difficulty in leaving, many women also have no desire to leave the industry as long as they can continue to work safely.
Although contractors working in brothels still had to pay for their own medical services, brothels did provide access to weekly testing, and being a legal sex worker provides a degree of protection for women because they can report incidents of violence or harassment without fear of charges for illegal prostitution. Women who have lost that option and are now transitioning to independent or survival sex work also lose those protections.
Service providers are seeing first hand how difficult it is for women in the industry, especially during the pandemic. The Cupcake Girls, a nonprofit organization based out of Las Vegas and Portland that offers support to women currently or previously involved with the sex industry, has seen a massive increase in demand for its services throughout the past several months.
“We saw [a] 150 percent increase in support requests,” said Jenny Fay, the organization’s executive director for Nevada. “Communications with clients … the number of emails, phone calls, meetings, year over year in those months it went up 600 percent.”
The Cupcake Girls does outreach at strip clubs and legal brothels, refers clients to partner organizations and offers intensive case management. Fay noted that, through its counseling services, the organization saw a 300 percent increase in reports of domestic violence.
Domestic violence rates have been increasing across the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and, in Nevada, service providers have been working to address that need and find ways to help those who may be stuck at home with an abuser and unable to find assistance.
The most dramatic increase noted by the organization, however, was a 1,100 percent increase in the number of individuals reaching out for financial support such as grants for rental assistance and utility payments compared with the same period in 2019. While the organization does not have statistics on how many of the individuals reaching out were previously working in legal brothels, Fay observed that the increases in need have been “across the board.”
“Whether it was somebody working in the legal brothels, or somebody working in a strip club, or somebody doing street based sex work, it seems from what we’re seeing, there is a need, especially, for financial support,” she said. “There’s just less money being made in any way right now in our city especially.”
What does social distancing look like in a brothel?
When asked during an IndyFest panel about brothels reopening, Sisolak said he doesn’t know how people would social distance in brothel, and that it’s up to brothel owners “coming up with a plan.” But those in the industry say they have submitted plans to the state only to be met with silence.
Gilman first submitted reopening plans in May to the COVID-19 Task Force and the health department as well as to the Local Empowerment Advisory Panel which helped develop reopening guidelines for Nevada businesses. He also submitted a letter with the plan attached to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
A representative said that Michael Brown, the office's executive director, received the letter and responded to Gilman, saying the reopening request, "could be considered at a future phase in the State's re-opening plan."
Gilman says he is uncertain where in the process the request is being rejected and is looking for clarity from the state.
“Where we’re being held is an unknown right now,” he said. “We’ve had no feedback of any kind that anyone rejects them … So why we’re not open is an absolute unknown puzzle, and we need to be told.”
The reopening plan includes procedures for screening employees, customers and contractors, limiting the number of customers and contractors in the building, sanitizing procedures and mask use requirements, and procedures for containment in the case of a positive test or failed screening.
Gilman’s proposal would allow the brothel to operate without physical contact, essentially allowing the non-sexual escort services currently allowed by the county to take place within the brothel facility.
“In this industry, much, if not the majority, of the courtesan-customer interaction does not involve physical contact even during normal business operations,” Gilman wrote in the plan.
The bar would also remain closed to customers under Gilman’s plan, but the kitchen would be able to operate to prepare food for guests, which would then be packaged and delivered to rented rooms.
The letter sent on behalf of the ranch to Brown also indicated that the brothel had been implementing safety protocols prior to its official shutdown.
“We took temperatures at the door with trained personnel, we took temperatures of every employee and every working lady prior to starting their workday every day,” Gilman said in the letter. “We use gloves, alcohol wipes and all forms of sanitary protocols. These are everyday standard procedures.”
Gilman is not the only brothel operator who’s taken steps to assure the state of the industry’s safety standards. At an Oct. 8 COVID task force meeting, Trudy Kevoian, the general manager of the Chicken Ranch in Pahrump, attested to the sanitation of her business.
“When it comes to safety and sanitation,” she said, “I would say our front bars inside of the brothels far exceeds those of Walmart or any of the bars that are currently open and have been given the opportunity to bring their people back to work and let them provide for their family.”
Lover agreed that transitioning the already clean environment of the brothels into a COVID-compliant workplace would be simple, but she believes that physical contact can still be part of the job, using the same mask rules and appointment-only system that massage parlors in the state have been utilizing.
“The brothels are one of the cleanest places you could actually be or go,” she said. “So just let us reopen, we can just put on a mask! We can definitely do our jobs with a mask on. It’s not that hard.”
Little also emphasized that she believes reopening can be done safely. Without effective guidelines that ensure safety for women in the industry, including access to COVID testing, Little said she may not return.
“I would probably leave the industry,” Little said. “We need to have less ladies working. We, ideally, need to have people not coming in and out of the ranch hanging around the bar and drinking … I feel it’s very, very doable, but you can’t do it without some reasonable change.”
This story was updated Oct. 26 at 12:00 p.m. to include information provided by the Governor's Office of Economic Development.