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Legal brothels provoke conflicting opinions

Like infinite numbers of women before her, Heather Robbins came to Las Vegas with a bit of luggage and a big dream: to someday become a showgirl; or at the very least, to dance in a strip club and maybe work her way up by catching the attention of somebody influential.

Like the thousands before her, the 22-year-old arrived by bus, fleeing a dysfunctional relationship, a negligent family, and desperate poverty in inner-city Indianapolis.

Within the first week here, she managed some job interviews but never a job.

By week two, she was ripping through her meager savings just to keep a place to sleep.

By week three, she was turning tricks on Fremont Street. She did this for a month with help from a man who seemed to be “a nice enough guy.”

“Until he ended up going gorilla on me when I tried to keep some of the money for myself,” said Robbins from the Love Ranch, a legal brothel north of Las Vegas and her de facto safe house. “He started beating the (expletive) out of me, and I thought, “This is NOT what I came to Las Vegas for. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ ”

She remembered hearing a show in which Howard Stern, the famous radio shock jock, mentioned the Love Ranch. It sounded good to her.

OFF THE STREETS

No discussion of prostitution and sex trafficking in Nevada would be complete without mentioning Nevada’s unique status as the only state where prostitution is legal.

At last count, there were just under two dozen active brothels scattered across half of the state’s 17 counties.

By law, brothels are allowed by local option only in sparsely populated counties. Counties with populations larger than 400,000 — Clark and Washoe — are prohibited from legalizing the practice.

As a result, Robbins, whose working name waivers between Riley and Sapphire, is out in the middle of nowhere, 90 miles north of Sin City in Crystal, a dusty town with a couple of brothels and not much else. A big trip to her now is down the road to visit an abandoned brothel soon to become a brothel museum. When a Coca-Cola truck drives by, she says, with the earnestness of a child, “Look, it’s the Coca-Cola man!”

While she might feel like she’s living on an island, the bottom line is that she feels safe in Crystal.

“There were times when I thought I was going to die out there,” Robbins said of her Fremont Street experience as she relaxed in the afternoon sun, tanning in the nude with her Love Ranch co-workers. “Here I’ve got a home, I’ve got sisters, I’ve got family, and they’re all looking out for me.

“It’s something I’ve never had before. Not even close.”

Now, she says, she can choose her customers and require that they wear condoms — something that wasn’t an option when she sold herself in the back seats of cars or in the dark corners of downtown.

And now here’s the best part of all: She gets the money. She is an independent contractor renting space to do business, not a sex-trafficking victim and property of a pimp.

She keeps half of what she makes, with the other half going to the house. She claims her share is as much as $10,000 a month.

And her only expenses?

That would be $15 a day for room and board (bar drinks extra), and an initial $125 for a medical exam followed by regular weekly checkups at $65 each.

That’s according to Emery Lesco, manager of the Love Ranch. He jokingly refers to himself as the pimp; but all joking aside, he said, Robbins has been good for business, and the business has been good for her.

“When she first came here, because she was from the inner-city, every other word out of her mouth was the ‘f’ word,’’ he said. “But we’ve made a real lady out of her.”

“Now go clean your room,” he told her, sounding more like a father than a manager.

She stomps off, but does what he says.

DREAMING OF EXPANSION

Her story might be seen as an endorsement for the legalization of prostitution beyond Nevada’s rural counties, but the prospects of that are slim.

“It ain’t ever gonna happen. It’s just politically impossible,” said Dennis Hof, who owns six of the Silver State’s brothels and who appears in the HBO reality show “Cathouse.”

Hof, on occasion, goes on rants in favor of more brothels and less streetwalking.

While lawmakers have on occasion considered amending the law, Hof said he has learned not to hold his breath. Still, he’s thankful the legal brothels are specifically exempt from the provisions of AB67, legislation aimed at harsher penalties for pimps operating outside the law.

“In the end,” he said in a telephone interview from his infamous Moonlite Bunny Ranch near Carson City, “you’re going to piss off the hard-core conservatives and the liberal women; in the end, you’re going to have that little old lady who’s going to care; and if it’s just one little old lady, then that’s one too many.”

But that doesn’t stop Hof from ranting. He bought his first brothel in 1993 and since then has cast a wishful eye on setting up shop in Clark and Washoe counties.

The brothel law is a relic of an era when gaming operators wanted to make casinos seem more like family-friendly entertainment, he said.

“And we see that didn’t go over too well, did it?” Hof said. “We now know that ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’ except for the STDs, which are on the next plane out and on their way home back to the wives.”

VIRTUAL PRISONS?

Melissa Farley, who has written extensively about prostitution, cautions against legalization as a solution. A feminist, clinical psychologist and researcher from San Francisco, she said Nevada brothels are nothing but jails for virtual sex slaves whose every move is regulated while they’re working.

“They are brainwashed and imprisoned,” she said. “The women are constantly monitored by ubiquitous electronic surveillance. Cashiers and assistant pimps listen in on intercom systems to ensure that pimps are not cheated out of their half of the women’s earnings. When women want to run an errand outside the brothel, they are usually accompanied by the pimp’s escort, whose time they are required to pay for.”

Representatives of the brothel industry and prostitutes dismiss that as nonsense. They say any electronic surveillance is limited, and done for the safety of the prostitute. When not on the clock, prostitutes are free to come and go as they please, they say.

“When somebody has a bone to pick and doesn’t believe in the concept of legalized prostitution, they’re going to find ways to talk or write negatively about it,” said George Flint, the chief lobbyist for Nevada’s brothels.

Flint said the industry has seen better days. He notes that there were twice as many brothels when he started his job in the mid-’80s.

Just as the recession hit the construction business with a thud, the same is true of legal prostitution, Flint said.

“Guys just can’t afford a girl anymore,’’ he said. “The disposable income is gone.”

With fewer viable brothels, he said, “More girls are hitting the streets.”

As for Robbins, the future is uncertain. The most important thing is that she feels safe where she is.

“It’s a nice place to stay and save up money until I figure out what I’m going to do with my life,” she said.

Contact reporter Tom Ragan at tragan@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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