Nevada brothels house the only legal prostitution in the United States. Why then does Nevada have the highest arrest rate per capita? Join The Oldest Profession Podcast host, Kaytlin Bailey, to learn why the legalization of sex work as seen in Nevada brothels does not work, and what we should be pushing for instead (Spoiler Alert: It’s the decriminalization of sex work).
Nevada has a long, sordid history of a booming economy rooted in sexuality and sex work. According to the Nevada Brothels Association, legal prostitution in Nevada grosses about $75 million annually, while illegal prostiution in the Las Vegas area grosses $5 billion. Nevada is the only state that legally permits sex work, but the state’s most populated counties, Clark (which contains Las Vegas) and Washoe (which contains Reno), are among those that do not permit prostitution. As of February 2018, there were 21 legal brothels in Nevada, and they’ve been permitted since the 19th century. However, while the state-regulated houses of prostitution are big moneymakers, illegal sex work gleans 66 times the profit than legal brothels, and most of this business occurs in Reno and “Sin City” Las Vegas.
Legalizing sex work is a hot topic, mainly concerning public health and taxation. Within the legalization framework, sex workers and legal brothels are required to register with local law enforcement, submit to weekly chlamydia and gonorrhea testing, as well as monthly HIV screenings. Considered independent contractors, these legal sex workers must file 1099s with the IRS. Some state legislators have advocated for additional taxing of Nevada brothels to increase revenue and the legitimacy of the sex industry.
However, legalizing sex work and decriminalizing sex work aren’t two sides of the same coin; in fact, they’re two different coins. Regulations put in place by state government to legalize sex work do not offer the protection sex workers need and criminalizes the practice even further. The legalization of sex work, specifically the registration of sex workers, can push people into illegal settings to try to increase wages, blocks people’s ability to organize, increases the likelihood of violence, diminishes the ability to negotiate salaries, and impacts how people are able to utilize their earnings.
The decriminalization of sex work makes positive strides on many fronts. Decriminalization leads to labor justice; sex workers are given more control over their wages, are encouraged to seek safe working conditions, and there’s the ability to unionize for labor rights.
Decriminalization helps to combat violence against sex workers, including police brutality, eliminates the stigma of a criminal record, improves responses to human trafficking, and ensures prompt justice measures for sex workers. Finally, decriminalizing sex work improves public health outcomes. Financial autonomy ensures that sex workers have access to contraceptives and access to health services. Decriminalization isn’t just a sex work issue, it’s an issue of human rights, and that impacts us all.
“I believe humans should have autonomy over their own bodies and they get to make their own decisions… I am open to decriminalizing sex work. Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy and are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse.” – Sen. Elizabeth Warren, June 2019
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
Heineman, Jennifer, Rachel T. MacFarlane, and Barbara G. Brents. Sex Industry and Sex Workers in Nevada. (2012): 1. This report examines sexuality as a core feature of Nevada’s tourism economy and argues the sex industry will continue to maintain its place as a large part of the state’s future economy.
Brents, Barbara G., and Kathryn Hausbeck. State-Sanctioned Sex: Negotiating Formal and Informal Regulatory Practices in Nevada Brothels. Sociological Perspectives 44, no. 3 (September 2001): 307–32. This article offers a sociological analysis of Nevada’s sex industry and public policies centered on sex work. Link to source.
Digital Sources and Podcasts
Barber, Alicia. “Reno’s Red Light District: The Colorful History of Brothel’s in Washoe County.” Time and Place with Alicia Barber (KUNR Public Radio, April 24, 2019). Historian Alicia Barber, Ph.D. is the former director of the University of Nevada Oral History Program and her research focuses on the American West. This episode centers on Reno’s red-light history from the 19th to 20th centuries. Link to podcast episode.
The Mob Museum. “Bonus: Season 2 Epilogue,” Mobbed Up: The Fight for Las Vegas. Mobbed Up explores the history of organized crime in Las Vegas through the eyes of law enforcement, crime syndicate members, journalists, politicians, and sex workers. Link to podcast episode.
Oney, Steve. “The Little House in the Desert,” The New York Times (New York) September 1, 1985, Section 7, Page 6. A book review of the 1985 publication of The Nye County Brothel Wars: A Tale of the New West. Link to article.
Nevada Brothel Association, “History.” Accessed January 10, 2022. An overview of Nevada brothel history. Link to source.
Leonard, Kristyn. “Legal Sex Worker Sues Sisolak, Wants State to Reopen Brothels or Allow Sex Workers to Work from Home,” The Nevada Independent, October 30, 2020. A 2020 article about the lawsuit against Nevada governor Steve Sisolak’s decision to keep legal brothels closed during the COVID-19 pandemic despite permitting other businesses to open. Link to source.
Books and Media
The State: Patriarchal Laws and Prostitution written by Kathleen Barry Link to Source.
The Brothel King: Dennis Hof on Prostitution, Wild West Libertarianism, and “Pimpin’ for Paul” Link to YouTube.