Nevada legislators sat in stunned silence when U.S. Sen. Harry Reid proposed outlawing the state’s brothels last week, but the working girls and brothel employees are speaking loud and clear.
They suggest the Senate majority leader should clean up Las Vegas’ illegal prostitution if he’s serious about polishing the Silver State’s tarnished image.
They say Sin City is where the five-term senator should find offense — with its illegal, exploitative, dangerous and flourishing sex trade — rather than on the legal, safe and taxpaying brothels that dot the rural landscape of 10 of the state’s 17 counties.
That’s the typical response offered up last week after Reid suggested the time had come to close down the 25 or so rural Nevada houses of prostitution — the only place in the United States where they exist.
"This is a non-important issue," said longtime state Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora. "We have to deal with education, the budget, public lands, water, rural health. We’ve got our plate full."
"Stunned silence, I think, would best describe our reaction," said Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon.
They said there is no appetite in Carson City to close down the industry.
The View from the Brothels
The true image killer isn’t legal sex for sale, say those who work in brothels, but the illegal sex that’s sold in Las Vegas.
"That’s the elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about," said "Rio," the manager of the Love Ranch brothel in Crystal, about 20 miles north of Pahrump on state Route 160.
Rio, who spent 14 years as a working girl in legal brothels, said prostitution should be legal and regulated in every state, not abolished in the only state it is currently allowed. "You make it legal in every state and you take working girls off the streets," she said. "You eliminate the pimps that beat them up and take all their money."
For the working girls — they prefer that term to prostitute — life in a legal brothel is, more than anything else, a safe haven.
"I do this because it’s a very safe environment," said Karmen Leigh, 41. "I’m not willing to risk the streets. I’ve heard the horror stories."
She, too, thinks Reid should focus on illegal prostitution, the human trafficking of women and girls, the fact the ubiquitous escorts don’t get checked for sexually transmitted diseases, as they are weekly in the brothels.
"If I could tell Larry Reid or whatever his name is — I’m not really into politics as you can tell — it would be to let the small towns make their money," she said. "The girls with HIV aren’t here. It’s the escorts down in Vegas that bring the disease. If I could just put that to him, I would."
Statistics seem to support her contention. According to Las Vegas police spokesman Bill Cassell, the department’s vice unit made 4,542 arrests in 2010. Of that figure, 2,772 were selling or buying sex; the remainder included arrests for pandering (pimps), grand larceny, "trick rolls" — assaulting a customer and taking their wallet — and other crimes associated with prostitution.
On the books are the names of 500 HIV-positive prostitutes arrested by Las Vegas police over the past several years.
Reid spokesman Zac Petkanas said the senator’s comments were a small part of his speech, and he said Reid is adamantly opposed to illegal prostitution.
"Senator Reid is committed to fighting the illegal sex trade and protecting children (and) securing resources for Nevada’s law enforcement community to combat these crimes" Petkanas said in an e-mail. "He will continue working with Nevada’s law enforcement professionals to bring these perpetrators to justice."
Petkanas declined the opportunity to soften Reid’s comments to lawmakers, but he did explain how the brothel issue was part of a much larger approach to economic development.
"In his speech, Senator Reid identified several concrete steps to get Nevada’s economy on track, including investing in clean energy jobs, improving our education system to train a competitive work force and projecting the right image to attract new business and jobs," Petkanas said.
He reiterated the position Reid staked out Tuesday: "Business leaders have told us that people have difficulty moving their children to an area where they can look out of a school bus window and see a brothel. They may not put out press releases announcing why they didn’t choose Nevada, but it is a very real challenge."
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Brothels typically are tucked out of the way and advertising restrictions prohibit them from posting signs or putting up material that some might consider offensive.
"They fly below the radar," said Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo.
"They’re not in your face, they don’t stick a thumb in your eye and they seem to want to comply with the norms of the counties they are in. They try to be good neighbors."
DeMeo, who also is a member of the county’s liquor and licensing board that oversees Nye’s seven brothels, said about 200 working girls registered with the county in 2010.
He said he respects Reid, but wants individual counties to decide the fate of legal brothels.
The sheriff said major developers were not in the least offended by the presence of brothels during Pahrump’s historic growth spurt between 1994 and 2007, when the town grew by a staggering 28,000 residents and more than tripled in size.
Only once in that time was a serious effort made to shut down the brothels in Pahrump — on moral and religious grounds — and the dust-up had little to do with the actual brothels.
Ron Trummell, a Baptist minister, led the revolt in 2004 after former brothel owner Joe Richards opened an all-nude gentleman’s club right on the main highway, complete with oversized images of nearly naked women on the outside walls and equally risqué billboards to advertise the establishment.
Richards, who recently sold his Crystal brothel to Dennis Hof, waged a 30-year battle with Nye County and Pahrump officials, who kept him from opening additional brothels closer to Pahrump, and the massive client base in Las Vegas.
He opened The Kingdom Gentleman’s Club to spite his adversaries, and nearly killed the goose that lays the golden eggs in the process.
Trummell on Friday said Reid’s call to outlaw brothels will not spark a new effort to ban them in Pahrump. He said he was discouraged and saddened when other pastors refused to support him in the past. He remains, however, in adamant opposition to prostitution, solely on Christian values grounds.
"I don’t buy the economics. I don’t buy these women aren’t victims," he said. "But I’m against prostitution because of the word of God."
Trummell believes the women who work in brothels are exploited and the counties sanction the abuse. "If being a legal prostitute is such a great job, why don’t you ever see them at Pahrump Valley High School on Career Day?"
A Historical Perspective
Brothels existed in Nevada when it was still a territory in the 1850s when silver and gold were discovered in the Comstock, but while other states eventually abolished red light districts, Nevada went in the opposite direction. The modern debate seems to ask: Are Nevada’s brothels a barbarous relic of the past or do they enhance the state’s libertarian, live and let live reputation?
The industry was made somewhat legitimate in 1971 when the infamous Joe Conforte lobbied to have his Mustang Ranch brothel near Reno licensed.
Later that year, lawmakers passed a law banning legal prostitution in counties with more than 400,000 people.
It is in those large counties, however, where the sordid underbelly of illegal prostitution is exposed for the world — and business people — to see, say brothel advocates.
"Illegal prostitution in Las Vegas is the real black eye on the state," said Debbie Rivenburgh, the longtime general manager at the Chicken Ranch brothel located on the outskirts of Pahrump, 60 miles west of Las Vegas.
The Chicken Ranch has a storied history, both bloody and bawdy — it served as the inspiration for "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" — but for decades the well-kept brothel has sat at the end of Homestead Road and minded its own business.
And business has been good.
It’s the Economy, stupid
"We take in several hundred thousand dollars a year," Sheriff DeMeo said of fees paid to the county.
The brothels and working girls, considered independent contractors who are responsible for their own taxes, are licensed quarterly.
The fees vary depending on the size of the operation, but both the brothels and the women pay. Nye County recently doubled its fees. They range quarterly from $5,000 for small brothels with just a few girls to $37,500 for bigger houses such as the Chicken Ranch, with the blessing of owners, DeMeo said.
Much of the money is used to help fund emergency services and a veterans assistance organization, the sheriff said.
In Storey County — home to Virginia City and the Comstock — brothels pay $100,000 a year to stay in business. The figure is just $200 a year in Battle Mountain, the Lander County mining community that straddles Interstate 80 240 miles east of Reno.
And while critics of Reid’s proposal are easy to find — Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has long advocated legal prostitution in the state’s largest city — the senator does have supporters.
Candice Trummell is the daughter of Ron Trummell, the anti-brothel minister. She was a 25-year-old Republican Nye County Commissioner in 2005 when she wore a wire for the FBI, which was investigating Richards for bribery and wire fraud.
Candice Trummell, who now works in Washington, D.C., officially opposes brothels on moral grounds, and like her father she rebuts those who claim legal prostitutes are safer than their streetwalking counterparts. She is the executive director of the Nevada Coalition Against Sex Trafficking.
"Today Senator Reid stood up for families," Candice Trummell said in an e-mail. "Senator Reid knows what it is like to stand up to corruption. He wore a wire for the FBI just like I did. And while he and I are of different political parties, we both agree that people deserve the right to fair government and women deserve opportunities to earn a livable wage without being forced to succumb to rape multiple times per day."
Reid also has a powerful ally in Steve Wynn, the casino baron who has suggested an end to legal brothels since 1988.
An Exercise in Academics
Banning legal brothels would do nothing to curtail illegal prostitution, said Dr. Kate Korgan, who helped conduct a decade-long study of Nevada’s sex industry. Korgan, a sociologist and associate dean of the graduate college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, co-wrote the recently published "State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland" with Barbara Brents, also a UNLV sociologist and professor.
Korgan called Reid’s comments "peculiar," although she agrees Nevada needs to attract jobs.
After 10 years of looking at both legal and illegal prostitution in Nevada, Korgan said she couldn’t understand why Reid would go after brothels when illegal sex is so prevalent.
And she isn’t necessarily against the illegal sex trade, insofar as it contributes to the state’s overall economy.
"The sex trade gives Vegas its unique character," she said, pointing out the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority actually capitalized on the lure of sex with the now iconic "What happens here, stays here" marketing campaign.
"That kind of promotes that image, don’t you think?"
Perhaps Rivenburgh, the general manager at the Chicken Ranch, best explained the brothels’ position thusly: "We provide a valuable service to the working girls and the men, the tourists. They don’t take anything home with them when they come here. There has never been a case of a (legal) HIV-positive prostitute, but there are hundreds of them in Vegas. As for the image problem, it isn’t the brothels that have those people down on the Strip thrusting fliers in people’s faces. It isn’t the brothels with the billboards or the handbills. It isn’t the brothels that have pimps beating up women and children and clients. The Las Vegas Strip is where the image problem is."
A working girl named Alicia puts it even more succinctly: "This is Nevada. Aren’t we all about girls, gambling and partying? Isn’t that the image we’ve projected for decades?"
Contact Doug McMurdo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.