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The Indy Explains: How legal prostitution works in Nevada

The Chicken Ranch brothel in Pahrump as seen on Thursday, April 19,2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Nevada’s unique status as the only state in the union with legalized prostitution has once again come into focus as efforts to ban brothels in certain counties crop up and as the state’s most famous brothel operator runs a campaign for an Assembly seat.

“Nevada is probably the last live-and-let-live state in the country, and I’m a live-and-let-live kind of guy,” said Dennis Hof, the brothel proprietor who’s seeking a place in the Legislature, in his 2015 biography.

But tourists seeking to take advantage of all the state’s vices should beware: There are strict limits to where sex can be sold, and even people who have worked in the brothels are divided on whether Nevada’s model is a good one.

Here are some things you should know about legal prostitution in Nevada:

People stand outside the Chicken Ranch brothel in Pahrump on Thursday, April 19, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

How long has prostitution been legal in Nevada?

The state’s earliest brothels date back to Nevada’s early mining days in the 19th century. Elsewhere in the country, the sale of sex was not widely barred before the 20th century, but was subject to vagrancy and “streetwalking” bans that would have limited prostitutes’ activities outside of indoor brothels.

The movement against prostitution after the Civil War was closely linked to the abolition of slavery, and started with efforts to fight the licensing of houses of prostitution in many states, according to a history provided as part of a Ninth Circuit Court decision on brothel advertising. From 1911 and 1915, there was a wave of laws passed against people who profited off putting women and girls into prostitution.

But Nevada was a holdout, and brothels were openly operated and “tolerated,” if not explicitly allowed, for decades. Still, it wasn’t until the Storey County Commission officially sanctioned Joe Conforte’s Mustang Ranch Brothel in 1971 that the state had its first legal brothel, historian Guy Rocha told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Where is it legal?

Nevada law prohibits solicitation and prostitution unless it takes place in a licensed house of prostitution. State law bans licensed brothels in counties with populations of 700,000 or more (currently Clark County, home of Las Vegas).

Only 10 counties in Nevada allow prostitution, and even then, only within licensed brothels. Churchill County allows prostitution, but the last brothel license was surrendered in 2004.

Esmeralda, Lander, Mineral, Nye and Storey County allow brothels throughout. Elko, Humboldt, Lyon, and White Pine County only allow brothels in some incorporated communities.

Prostitution is illegal in Clark, Washoe, Carson City, Pershing, Douglas, Eureka and Lincoln counties. That includes Las Vegas and Reno, as well as the state capital.

How many brothels are there?

A count by the L.A. Times in early May revealed there are 20 operational brothels in Nevada.

Nye County has four, including two owned by Dennis Hof. Lyon County has four, all of which are owned by Hof.

There is also one in Storey County, the Mustang Ranch in Sparks; one in Mineral County, the Wild Cat Brothel in Mina; two in White Pine County, the Stardust Ranch Brothel and Big 4 Ranch in Ely; one in Lander County, Hot Desert Club Girls in Battle Mountain; and seven in Elko County, the Dove Tail Ranch and Sharon’s Brothel and Bar in Carlin, the Desert Rose Gentlemen's Club, Inez’s D&D, Mona’s Ranch and Sue’s Fantasy Club in Elko and Bella’s Hacienda Ranch and Donna’s Ranch in Wells.

Does Nevada tax prostitution?

Although brothels and prostitutes pay a state business license fee, there is no excise tax on sex acts.

In 2009, Democratic then-state Sen. Bob Coffin introduced a bill to apply a $5-per-day tax for customers buying prostitution services. With an estimated 400,000 customer days in Nevada legal brothels each year, the measure was expected to bring in $2 million.

The bill failed a committee vote and didn’t move forward in the Legislature even though prostitutes and others in the industry voiced their support for a tax. Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons had earlier expressed his disapproval of the bill, telling NPR: "I'm not a supporter of legalizing prostitution in Nevada. So by taxing it, there's a recognition of the legality of it. And that's all I want to say."

Has Nevada tried to end legal prostitution?

In 2011, Democratic then-Sen. Harry Reid called on legislators to ban prostitution in a speech to lawmakers.

“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, adding that he’d met with visiting business leaders who were shocked to learn there were operational brothels in Storey County.

But legislators never took up the cause, and Gov. Brian Sandoval said the matter was up to individual counties.

A new movement to ban prostitution in select counties has cropped up this spring. Efforts are underway to ban prostitution in Lyon and Nye counties through county-wide votes.

Can brothels advertise?

Nevada law prohibits brothels from advertising in jurisdictions where local ordinances or state statutes ban prostitution. In jurisdictions where brothels are allowed, it’s illegal for them to advertise “in any public theater, on the public streets of any city or town, or on any public highway.”

Sheri's Ranch brothel in Pahrump is seen on Thursday, April 19,2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

How much do services cost?

It varies. Brothel workers say they negotiate their own rate with customers for “parties,” or sexual appointments, based on what customers choose from a menu of services.

A girl will take a client into her room, negotiate a price and collect a payment before offering up the service. Christina Parreira, who works at one of Hof’s brothels, told The Nevada Independent she generally does not have intercourse with a client for less than $1,000.

Lengthier interactions, such as an overnight stay or the “Girlfriend Experience” that also includes date-like, non-sexual activities, can go for about $1,000 an hour. Hof includes details in his autobiography of men paying for lengthy, lavish “parties” that would last days, weeks or even months, with one topping out at more than $2 million and lasting five months.

T.J. Moore, who worked as a house parent and then as a madam at the Love Ranch South brothel from 2013 to 2015, said the girls usually try to agree to come to an agreement on a minimum price and not go below that. But sometimes, they break the agreement because they want the business.

Moore said that sex often went for $300 to $400, although it can go lower. She said she once booked a “party” for $80.

How much are the prostitutes paid?

Workers for Dennis Hof say they keep half of their earnings, with the house keeping the other half, but they also have to pay rent, food, transportation and other costs associated with brothel operations.

Prostitutes must also pay for weekly STD tests and sex worker registration cards, which vary in price by county. Nye County charges prostitutes $150 each quarter to register, plus another $150 annually; there are 97 prostitutes registered in the county for the current quarter.

Workers are independent contractors and get business licenses from the State of Nevada.

“They operate like any other independently licensed business,” Hof wrote in his book. “They don’t get health benefits, vacation pay, or retirement, and they are responsible for their own taxes.”

Some, like Moore, are critical of calling the arrangement “independent,” citing policies governing when prostitutes can leave the premises and pressure to aggressively market themselves on online message boards.

How much revenue do brothels bring local governments?

It varies by county.

Last fiscal year, Nye County collected $141,779 in revenue from worker registration cards and brothel license fees.

Nye County brothels themselves face different licensing fees depending on size. Brothels of up to five prostitutes pay just over $2,300 per quarter. Brothels with 26 or more prostitutes working at once would pay $46,900 per quarter.

Lyon County brothels pay anywhere from about $20,000 to $26,000 a quarter in licensing fees, depending on how many rooms are in the business. In a year, the county brings in about $384,000 in brothel license, liquor license and business license fees from the four establishments.

“Those taxes support doctors, a police force, EMTs, and even the public schools,” Hof wrote in his book.

How old do you need to be?

It varies by county. For example, Nye County requires prostitutes to be at least 21 years old. In Lyon County, they must be 18.

What is it like?

Parreira, a doctoral candidate at UNLV, conducted research in brothels for her dissertation. The Hof-owned Alien Cathouse said she could conduct her research as long as she was also working in the brothel as a sex worker, and she did just that in 2014.

“I never had sex for money before...and I didn’t think I could do it,” Parreira told The Nevada Independent in a podcast interview.

But Parreira, who had done some exotic dancing and adult webcam acting, said her work at the brothel was just a job, albeit one that provided companionship and sex as a service. Brothel work became “a lot of fun” and Parreira enjoyed Alien Cathouse’s “familial atmosphere.”

A typical day in the brothel started at 11 a.m. The sex workers had to be ‘show ready’ by then meaning they were showered, groomed and dressed in lingerie ready to be selected by a client. The women line up when a client arrives so that person can pick who they want to “party” with.

“It’s a hard job,” Madam Suzette Colette Cole of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch wrote in Hof’s book. “Every day is a party for the client, but it can be hard on the girls, both physically and psychologically. The lineup alone can be really hard on them. Client after client comes in and the new girl doesn’t get picked, and she begins to feel bad.”

Hof said in his book that one of his core principles is ensuring girls can turn down clients if they want to. Parreira and Ruby Rae, a prostitute who works in one of Hof’s brothels, insist the principle is upheld.

“In the brothels, we have the choice, always, to say which clients we will say yes and no to,” Rae wrote in an op-ed to The Nevada Independent.

Much of the work is done online, with prostitutes posting frequently on brothel message boards to draw in prospective clients. Prostitutes at Hof’s brothel are warned not to discuss prices over state lines to avoid running afoul of state and federal laws.

Do prostitutes enjoy the work?

Women who are or have been employed in Nevada’s brothels and spoke to the The Nevada Independent in interviews have offered widely different assessments of the work.

Lexi James of Love Ranch North attended a Lyon County Commission meeting to oppose efforts to shut down brothels there.

“They are trying to say they’re saving our lives but they are really just trying to save our souls. And I’m good. I have a very close relationship with God. I don’t need anyone religious stepping in and telling me what I do for a living is wrong,” she said. “What I do is not sex. I sell love. I provide services to disabled clients, widowers, divorcees, helping couples spice things up.”

Cara Rain, another brothel worker, said voters who are deciding the fate of brothels should learn more about it.

“I think they need to educate themselves on all of this completely,” she said. “I chose this profession without ever being in the sex industry prior and I’m completely happy here.”

But Moore said the real experience was nothing as glamorous as what appeared on the HBO reality show Cathouse. She said many girls came in with substance abuse issues and in dire economic straits and struggle to make decent money.

“I really did think it was a better place for the girls,” she said, but changed her mind “having seen them come and leave in no better position.”

“Contrary to what they say, ‘you don’t have to be with a guy,’ if you’re not doing your parties and you’re not making money, they get on your case,” she said.

Hof acknowledged in his book that many of his working girls have had a dark past.

“I get another question all the time, and it’s this: ‘What kind of girl becomes a prostitute?’ Well, all sorts of girls. But if I’m going to be honest, some of them come from pretty fucked-up families. I’ve had plenty of girls who were abused,” he said.

Diana Grandmaison, a former pornography actress who spent about four months working in Nevada’s legal brothel industry in 2009, said the pay was barely enough to get by and the experience was demeaning. She said she’s evolved over the years and is now completely against prostitution, legal or otherwise.

“The fact of putting a price on a human being or body part is, to me, inhumane,” she said. “Now I’m totally against it, I want the entire thing shut down and I want it illegal across the nation and across the world.”

Soni Brown, Megan Messerly and Daniel Rothberg contributed to this report.

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