Prostitution in Nevada

Nevada is one of only two U.S. states that allow some legal prostitution; in most of its counties, brothels are legalized and heavily regulated. (In Rhode Island, the act of sex for money is not illegal, but street solicitation and operation of a brothel are.)

Legal situation

Under Nevada state law, any county with a population of less than 400,000 as of the last decennial census is allowed to license brothels if it so chooses. As of the most recent census in 2000, only Clark County (which contains Las Vegas) had a population above 400,000. Incorporated towns and cities in counties that allow prostitution may regulate the trade further or prohibit it altogether.

As of July 2004, brothels are illegal under county or municipal law in Washoe County (which contains Reno), Carson City (an independent city), Douglas County, and Lincoln County. Eureka County neither permits nor prohibits licensed brothels and does not have any. The other 11 counties permit licensed brothels in certain specified areas or cities.

The precise licensing requirements vary from county to county. License fees for brothels range from an annual $100,000 in Storey County to an annual $200 in Lander County. Licensed prostitutes must be at least 21 years old, except in Storey County and Lyon County, where the legal age is 18.

State law requires that registered brothel prostitutes be checked weekly for several sexually transmitted diseases and monthly for HIV; furthermore, condoms are mandatory for all oral sex and sexual intercourse. Brothel owners may be held liable if customers become infected with HIV after a prostitute has tested positive for the virus.

Nevada has laws against engaging in prostitution outside of licensed brothels, against encouraging others to become prostitutes, and against living off the proceeds of a prostitute.

For many years brothels have been restricted from advertising their services in counties where brothel prostitution is illegal; however, the state law restricting such activity was overturned in 2007.

Legal brothels

About 30 legal brothels existed in the state in January 2004, employing about 300 female prostitutes at any given time. All but the smallest ones operate as follows: as the customer is buzzed in and sits down in the parlor, the available women appear in a line-up and introduce themselves. If the customer chooses a woman, the price negotiations take place in the woman's room, which are often overheard by management. The house normally gets half of the negotiated amount. If the customer arrives by cab, the driver will receive some 20% of whatever the customer spends; this is subtracted from the woman's earnings. Typical prices start at US$100 and average about $300 for half an hour of intercourse and oral sex. The prostitutes almost never kiss on the mouth.

Brothels do not have preset prices, the only known exception being Shady Lady brothel on Route 95, approximately 30 miles north of Beatty. Generally, the closer a brothel is to Las Vegas, the higher the prices. Thus Sheri's Ranch and Chicken Ranch, both located in Pahrump, are on the whole more expensive than other brothels. Sheri's Ranch is the larger of the two, and may have upwards of 20 prostitutes on its premises at any given time. It is also the more expensive of the two, and generally the most expensive legal brothel in Nevada.

Brothel prostitutes work as independent contractors and thus do not receive any unemployment, retirement or health benefits. They are responsible for paying Federal income tax and their earnings are reported to the IRS via form 1099-MISC. Nevada does not have a state income tax. The women typically work for a period of several weeks, during which time they live in the brothel and hardly ever leave it. They then take some time off. It has been argued that the tight control that brothels exert over the working conditions precludes the women from legally being classified as independent contractors.

Since 1986, when mandatory testing began, not a single brothel prostitute has ever tested positive for HIV. The mandatory condom law was passed in 1988. A study conducted in 1995 in two brothels found that condom use in the brothels was consistent and sexually transmitted diseases were accordingly absent. The study also found that few of the prostitutes used condoms in their private lives.

Illegal prostitution

Prostitution outside licensed brothels is a misdemeanor in Nevada. The big casino towns of Reno and Las Vegas have worked to expand their tourism base by attracting families to the hotels and casinos. Accordingly, the state legislature has made prostitution illegal in both Clark and Washoe Counties and law enforcement agencies have tried to eliminate the once rampant street prostitution. Nevertheless, prostitutes continue to work in casinos, where they wait in bars and attempt to make contact with potential clients.

Escort services offering sexual services euphemistically as 'entertainment' or 'companionship' are ubiquitous, with about 140 pages of the Las Vegas yellow pages devoted to "entertainers". Similar ads are present in newspaper boxes all along Las Vegas Boulevard. From the Strip to downtown Fremont Street at most bus stops and many street lights, a large collection of free flyers offering escort services with semi-nude pictures are available (see photo above). Moreover, smaller hand sized flyers are dispensed to tourists and others along the Las Vegas Strip, often right in front of the most high end hotels and casinos, by hired workers, many of whom are undocumented workers from Mexico; these flyers also graphically depict female 'personal' entertainers or escort services. Despite the attempt to make Las Vegas more family-friendly, such advertising for these services are protected by the First Amendment and goes on undisturbed by police or hotel security.

Also, some gentlemen's clubs on the Strip offer VIP rooms, which claims to put the client in a private room with the dancer, and the client is given permission to do what they want with the dancer. More often than not, this offer is a scam, where the dancer proceeds to entice the client to spend money on expensive drinks, stringing him along. This continues as long as the customer keeps buying. Should the customer become impatient and demanding, insist on sex or refuse to buy more drinks, the girl will excuse herself and have bouncers forcibly eject the customer from the club. Because of his complicity in attempting to solicit the services of a prostitute, the customer has no legal recourse without incriminating or at least embarrassing himself.


Brothels have been tolerated in Nevada since the middle of the 19th century. One brothel in Elko has been in business since 1902. In 1937, a law was enacted to require weekly health checks of all prostitutes. Reno and Las Vegas had red light districts, when Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the suppression of all prostitution near military bases in 1942. When this order was lifted in 1948, Reno officials tried to shut down a brothel as a public nuisance, and this action was upheld by the Nevada Supreme Court in 1949. In 1951, both Reno and Las Vegas had closed their red light districts as public nuisances, but brothels continued to exist throughout the state.

In 1970, Joe Conforte, owner of the brothel called Mustang Ranch near Reno, managed to convince county officials to pass an ordinance which would provide for the licensing of brothels and prostitutes, thus avoiding the threat of being closed down as a public nuisance.

Officials in Las Vegas, afraid that Conforte would use the same trick to open a brothel nearby, convinced the legislature in 1971 to pass a law prohibiting the legalization of prostitution in counties with a population above a certain threshold, tailored to apply only to Clark County.

In 1977, county officials in Nye County tried to shut down Walter Plankinton's Chicken Ranch as a public nuisance; brothels did not have to be licensed in that county at the time, and several others were operating. Plankinton filed suit, claiming that the 1971 state law had implicitly removed the assumption that brothels are public nuisances per se. The Nevada Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation in 1978 (Nye County v. Plankinton, 94 Nev. 739, 587 P.2d 421 (1978)), and so the Chicken Ranch was allowed to operate. In another case, brothel owners in Lincoln County protested when the county outlawed prostitution in 1978, after having issued licenses for 7 years. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the county had the right to do so.

A state law prohibiting the advertising of brothels in counties which have outlawed prostitution was enacted in 1979. It was promptly challenged on First Amendment grounds and the Nevada Supreme Court declared it to be constitutional. (Princess Sea Industries was Plankinton's company that owned the Chicken Ranch.) In July 2007 the law was overturned by a federal judge as "overly broad" and advertising in Las Vegas started soon after.

Several towns enacted rules prohibiting local brothel prostitutes from frequenting local bars or casinos or associating with local men outside of work. After a lawsuit was filed in 1984, these regulations had to be abandoned, but as a result of collaboration between sheriffs and brothel owners, they remain in effect unofficially. For instance, most brothels do not allow the prostitutes to leave the premises during their work shifts of several days to several weeks.

While brothels and prostitutes are subject to federal income tax and also pay local fees, there is no state income tax in Nevada and brothels are exempt from the state entertainment tax and don't pay any other state taxes. In 2005 brothel owners lobbied to be taxed, in order to increase the legitimacy of the business; the legislature declined.

In November 2005, Heidi Fleiss announced that she had partnered with brothel owner Joe Richards to turn Richards' existing Cherry Patch Ranch brothel in Crystal, Nevada into an establishment that would employ male prostitutes and cater exclusively to female customers, a first in Nevada. While not illegal under Nevada law, it is not clear how a male prostitute would meet the requirement to submit weekly cervical specimens which are examined for sexually transmitted diseases. Other portions of the Nevada and Nye County regulations refer to prostitutes as "her" with apparently no expectation of male prostitutes.


Occasionally, lawmakers attempt to introduce legislation outlawing all prostitution in Nevada. These efforts are typically supported by owners of casinos and other large businesses, claiming that legalized prostitution harms the state's image. The Nevada Brothel Owners' Association, led by George Flint, an Assemblies of God minister from Reno, lobbies against these laws. Rural lawmakers normally oppose these laws as well, despite the fact that legal brothel prostitution does not provide a significant amount of income for counties.

One particularly colorful opponent of legalized prostitution in Nevada was John Reese. Initially arguing on moral and religious grounds, he switched to health hazard tactics, but had to back down in the face of a threatened libel suit. In 1994, he tried to get a license for a gay brothel in a thinly veiled attempt to galvanize opposition against all brothels. Then in 1999 he staged his own kidnapping near the Mustang Ranch. His efforts to collect enough signatures to repeal the prostitution laws have so far failed.

Organizations supporting the rights of prostitutes typically favor deregulation and oppose Nevada-style regulation, mainly because of three reasons:

However, some other organizations support Nevada style regulations because:

A poll conducted in Nevada in 2002 found that 52% of the 600 respondents favored the status quo of legal and regulated brothels, while 31% were against laws that allow prostitution and the remainder were undecided, preferred fewer legal constraints on prostitution, or did not offer an opinion. The trend seems to be that new arrivals to Nevada tend to oppose legal prostitution while long-time Nevadans tend to support the status quo.

Nevada politicians can (and generally do) play both sides of the prostitution dispute by declaring that they are personally opposed to prostitution but feel it should be up to the counties to decide. As almost three-quarters of the population of Nevada lives in a single county (Clark County), county control over local matters is a hot-button issue. Legislators from the northern counties will often reflexively oppose what is seen as "meddling" from the majority in the south, and the legislators from the south have been too divided on the issue to push through a state-wide ban.

Since 2003, Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman has repeatedly stated that he favors legalization of prostitution in the city.

Melissa Farley, a research psychologist and anti-prostitution activist, was asked by the head of the U.S. State Department's anti-trafficking effort to produce a report on prostitution in Nevada. Her report, Prostitution and trafficking in Nevada: making the connections, was published in 2007. It describes human trafficking in Las Vegas, as well as the results of numerous interviews with brothel owners and brothel prostitutes, claiming widespread abuse of brothel prostitutes by owners, customers, and outside pimps. Farley subsequently presented her findings at a panel that also involved ex-prostitutes now opposed to the industry. The new organization "Nevada Coalition Against Sex Trafficking" was introduced at that meeting. Farley's claims and research methodology have been contested by UNLV sex industry researchers Barbara Brents and Kate Hausbeck.


Crystal near Pahrump has a somewhat limited brothel art museum associated with two local brothels.

In popular culture

The 1995 movie Leaving Las Vegas relates a romance between a suicidal alcoholic and a prostitute working the Las Vegas casinos.

The HBO documentaries Cathouse (2002) and Cathouse 2: Back in the Saddle (2003) as well as the HBO series '''' portrait the Moonlite BunnyRanch, a legal brothel near Carson City.

The six part Sundance Channel series Pleasure for Sale (2008) documented life in the Chicken Ranch, providing a less glamorous view.

See also

Further reading

External links

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