(Ray Hagar | Nevada Newsmakers) – A proposal to ban legal brothels in rural Nevada by a state senator from Clark County was met with opposition on Nevada Newsmakers last week by two legal sex workers from Lyon County.
“All of us who worked at the ranches are doing it by choice and it is what we want to do doing,” said Ruby Rae, a courtesan from the Bunny Ranch brothel. “We should be able to make that choice by ourselves.”
Yet Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, sponsor of the proposal to ban brothels, said Nevada should offer women better choices of employment than prostitution. He said the pleasant picture painted by brothel supporters omits the harsher reality of Nevada’s legal prostitution.
“So the exploitation that happens with prostitution, it is not just a rosy thing,” Hardy said. “There are things happening to women that should not be happening to women. So even though the (legal) prostitution is going on, that woman is many times raped. And we think that it is OK.”
Chuck Muth, president of Citizen Outreach and former campaign manger for deceased brothel kingpin Dennis Hof, said the proposal is another example of urban politicians dictating laws for rural Nevada.
“As we saw with the gun background initiative,16 out of 17 counties voted it down,” Muth said. “But Clark County had enough votes to overrule the rest of the state. So that’s why I think there is a danger here — that the Legislature is so overwhelmingly represented by Washoe County and Clark County — that they could force their will on the rural counties, even if the rural Nevada community doesn’t want it.”
Voters of Lyon County apparently like their brothels. Last November, they overwhelmingly voted down a ballot advisory question that could have ended the county’s brothel ordinances.
“In our county, Lyon County, 80 percent of them (voters) wanted to keep us around,” Rae said. “So I think he (Sen. Hardy) should take note from what the people want and what we women want, too.”
Hardy’s proposal is not the only piece of brothel legislation that could be considered this legislative session. Assemblywoman Leslie Cohen, D-Henderson, has submitted a bill-draft request that would change state laws governing brothels.
In 2011, then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged state lawmakers to ban brothels in a speech before joint houses of the Legislature. The proposal went nowhere. State lawmakers feared a ban would end a lucrative tax source for the counties that allowed brothels.
Hardy’s proposal to ban Nevada’s brothels, although not yet a written bill, would include help or training to transition into other jobs by Nevada’s Department of Economic Training and Rehabilitation. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas.
“One of the things we want to do is allow DETR, the Department of Economic Training and Rehabilitation, to have a role in allowing people to come out of that vocation,” Hardy said.
When asked about women who choose to work in a legal brothel, Hardy said:
“So it is the choice for the women to make a lot of money,” he said. “But in order to do that, they have to, for (lack of) another word, prostitute themselves. And therefore, what is it that I can do personally that I can say, ‘There is hope and you don’t have to do that. You can be free.’
“But that vocation (prostitution), there are a lot of things that go on in that vocation that even the woman who is comfortable in making her choice, is uncomfortable with some things that are happening to her.”
Alice Little, also a Bunny Ranch courtesan, said Hardy’s brothel ban is misdirected.
“I am really shocked and surprised,” Little said. “It is a misdirection of energy and effort. They are trying to say they are here to save and protect us from the brothel industry. But we are not asking for such. You cannot be an advocate for someone without their consent.
“We certainly have not asked them to come forward and take our jobs away from us. Instead, their energy and effort would be much more worthwhile if it was invested in the illegal services and sexual exploitation that is very real and does happen in Vegas.”
There’s no comparison between the legal brothels and the sex trafficking and illegal prostitution found in Las Vegas, Little said. Nevada’s rural sex workers undergo weekly medical testing, FBI background checks and registration with county law enforcement.
“The conflation between sex work — which is a consensual industry — and sex trafficking — in which somebody is forced and coerced to work — are simply two different things and we cannot cross-compare the two,” Little said. “When you talk about the situation happening in Vegas, women walking the streets, I agree wholeheartedly that that is absolutely problematic and something that needs to be addressed.
“In my opinion, the legal brothels prevent trafficking and illegal prostitution from entering Lyon County,” Little added. “We don’t have people walking the streets of Lyon County. There’s no one going up and down Highway 50 trying to offer illegal services. That is not something we experience here in Lyon County and that is because of the brothels.”
Yet Hardy said legal and illegal prostitution overlap each other.
“I think it is a pretty blurred line between legal and illegal (prostitution), quite frankly,” Hardy said. “I still think it takes advantage of women. It puts them in a difficult position.”
Hardy mentioned the long-standing brothel practice of “out dates,” where a customer can take a sex worker out of the brothel for a night on the town, sex included.
“So when you have a place that’s legal, the legal spills over into the illegal,” he said. “I firmly believe that the countenance we give for the legality for the bordello increases the amount of illegal prostitution that happens in the state of Nevada.
“I think Nevada deserves more,” Hardy said. “I think women in Nevada deserve more and that is why I am doing what I am doing.”
Mr. Hagar’s column was originally published in the Reno Gazette-Journal on March 13, 2019