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Misconceptions, debates about legalization surround sex work in Nevada

Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
Sex Industry

Sex work and the laws around it can be complex, nuanced and prone to misconceptions — including in Nevada, the only state in the union where prostitution is legal, but only in certain circumstances. Lawmakers, advocates and researchers are often at odds over the best ways to prevent sex trafficking and sexual violence. 

Here’s a look at the facts, misunderstandings and debates happening in Nevada right now around sex work.

Prostitution is legal, but only in specific circumstances.

Despite the popular narrative of “Sin City” having a reputation of anything goes, prostitution is not legal in Las Vegas. In fact, state law prohibits soliciting and purchasing sex unless it takes place in a licensed place of prostitution. Brothels — there are about 20 in Nevada — are only legal in counties with a population of 700,000 or less, making prostitution illegal in Clark and Washoe counties, home to the state’s biggest metropolitan areas. 

According to Barbara Brents, a sociology professor at UNLV, there are an estimated 500 people who have legal worker cards to sell sex in brothels, though that statistic is a few years old.

However, some sex workers interviewed by The Nevada Independent — who wished to remain anonymous because their work is illegal — said that working in a brothel is not a viable option for everyone. 

“They don't really protect you. You have to pay so many fees to even work there. You can't even leave the premises for weeks at a time, depending on how long your tour there is,” said an independent sex worker who had friends that worked at a brothel in Pahrump.

The independent sex worker said traveling to Pahrump from her home in Las Vegas wasn’t possible because of her responsibilities to her pets. She also preferred sex work outside of the brothels because of spotty cellphone service in the more rural areas where they are located and the requirement to register with law enforcement as a sex worker.

It is hard to quantify the number of sex workers.

Quantifying how many sex workers there are in Nevada is quite difficult, according Brents, who specializes in studying sex work.

“There is no statistically reliable way to know,” Brents said, citing definitional problems such as what constitutes sex work, what acts are being done and how often and for how long the person is engaging in the work. “It is like estimates on other kinds of gig work, only much of this is illegal.”

Brents said that in the wake of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act passed in 2018, sites such as Backpage began to censor ads for sex work. Sex work advocates had viewed those sites as databases to gauge not only the number of sex workers in an area but potential sex trafficking cases, and the suppression of those ads made the number of sex workers in a given area nearly impossible to track.

“You could ask the police for estimates, but keep in mind they usually only see those who rotate through the criminal justice system, and most don't,” Brents said.

Debate about how harshly to punish buyers of illegal sex work 

Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) and Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) in particular have said they want to protect residents against sex trafficking as major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Formula 1 make their way to Las Vegas, though researchers have found that there is no connection between major sporting events and higher rates of sex trafficking.

This legislative session, lawmakers are trying to reduce buyers’ demand for sex by putting higher fines and more extensive jail time in state law for those who buy sex, also known as johns. There are also several bills extending jail time for sex traffickers, particularly those who traffic children (including SB170, SB138 and AB157, all of which died).

Sgt. Scott Smith with the Regional Human Exploitation and Trafficking (HEAT) unit in Northern Nevada was one of the presenters of AB145, a bill that would impose harsher penalties for those purchasing sex illegally and that passed in the Assembly unanimously. It calls for fines of at least $800 and up to 364 days in jail at the first offense, rather than the $400 fine that is in state law now.

“Right now there’s very little repercussions, kind of like a traffic citation … your family may not even find out,” Smith said. “But if you get arrested, have to go to court, go to jail, more people are going to find out.”

However, sex workers and advocates from the Las Vegas Red Umbrella Collective — a group that works to provide support to sex workers through community events, mutual aid and political activism — say AB145 needs a more nuanced discussion.

Victoria McMahan, who works with the Las Vegas Red Umbrella Collective and is a Ph.D. student at UNLV studying sex work and the sex industry, said what Nevada lawmakers are striving for now is a Nordic model of prostitution — a system that punishes buyers rather than sex workers, as opposed to the Australian model that decriminalizes sex work. 

However, McMahan said, doling out harsher punishments for buyers may have detrimental effects for sex workers.

“Because clients are taking on more risk, it puts pressure on the sex workers to not screen as much, not take deposits, charge less, all these kinds of other exploitative factors because the clients feel entitled to those accommodations, because they're the ones then being criminalized,” McMahan said in an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Instead, McMahan said she would like to see decriminalization of sex work rather than legalization or further criminalization.

Debate over legalization vs. decriminalization has picked up recently.

The debate between legalization, decriminalization and outlawing prostitution altogether has been going on for decades, with activity ramping up in recent years. 

Though Nevada has legalized prostitution, meaning it is legal under certain circumstances and the people working as legal sex workers are registered with the sheriff’s office in the county where they work, many sex workers, consumers and advocates are calling for decriminalization.

Decriminalizing sex work would mean the removal of criminal penalties for those selling and purchasing sex as well as laws prohibiting prostitution. Decriminalization would mean law enforcement would not have a basis to arrest people participating in sex work — a move that advocates say would encourage sex workers to report cases of trafficking and assault without fear of repercussions.

The Red Umbrella Collective also said decriminalization would give sex workers freedom to dictate their own services, where they practice and prices, rather than working through a brothel owner, if they wish to do so. 

A Safer Nevada, a political action committee based in Las Vegas, made efforts to put a question to legalize sex work within city limits on the 2024 ballot. However, the initiative did not receive enough signatures by the deadline to make it on the ballot.
Opponents have also pushed for big changes in the last decade or so. In 2011, then-Sen. Harry Reid called on state lawmakers to outlaw brothels in Nevada, and in 2018, sex trafficking survivor Rebekah Charleston filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Reno in an effort to overturn state law allowing rural brothels across the state. Her suit was later dismissed by the court.


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