Nevada county takes aim at legal prostitution: Should brothels stay or go?

(Chris Carlson | The Associated Press) In this Oct. 14, 2015, file photo, a sign advertises the Love Ranch brothel in Crystal, Nev., where former NBA basketball player Lamar Odom was found unconscious the day before, after four days at the brothel. Dennis Hof, owner of the Love Ranch, is challenging incumbent James Oscarson for a seat in the Nevada State Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.

Lyon County, Nev. • Alice Lyttle says she is the most-requested “working lady” at the Moonlite BunnyRanch, one of four brothels in this rural county on the outskirts of Carson City. The petite brunette with glasses brags that she’s “actually the number-one sex worker in the nation in terms of gross earnings,” part of a small cadre of women who legally sell sex as part of a dwindling-but-active Nevada industry.

Although brothels have been a part of this community’s fabric for decades — licensed and legal and legitimate since 1971 — Lyttle found herself standing outside the county’s municipal offices in Yerington on Thursday morning, lobbying against an effort to put her out of business.

Pushed in part by activists who want to end sex trafficking and prostitution, residents that have long looked the other way are now petitioning to change course. Some argue that it’s a moral imperative to stop the exploitation of women, while some say that prostitution is hurting the county’s image. Others counter that legalized prostitution is safer than the alternative and that the business is part of the county’s lifeblood, delivering jobs and tax revenue.

On Thursday, the county’s board of commissioners unanimously decided to put a relatively simple question to voters, one that will appear on ballots in November if it meets final approval in June: Do they want to close the brothels or keep them open?

“This is one of the issues, like taxes, where we need to go to the people,” said Commissioner Ken Gray.

Lyon County Manager Jeff Page said he didn’t want to discuss the morality or the pros and cons of the brothels. He just wants voters to decide: “Do you want to close the brothels, yes or no?”

Sex work has been accepted in Nevada since the middle of the 19th century. The state legalized it in the 1970s with a rule that all counties with fewer than 700,000 residents could opt to license brothels — prostitution is illegal in Reno and Las Vegas. There are seven counties with legal brothels in the state and fewer than two dozen legal brothels in all.

Previous efforts to curb prostitution in Nevada have failed, including a proposed referendum in Churchill County that sought to put a similar question to voters in 2004. Because of that ballot initiative, the federal government worked to prevent U.S. military members stationed there from visiting the county’s brothel, and it went out of business in 2005.

The new campaign in Lyon County has been led by the End Trafficking and Prostitution PAC, which also is pushing for a similar measure in nearby Nye County. If successful, the group plans to move to other Nevada counties and is considering a campaign to make a statewide change to the law.

The PAC and its supporters have chosen a moral argument, rejecting the idea that any woman would choose to do sex work for a living. They say the county effectively codifies exploitation — and tells everyone living there that it’s OK.

Melissa Holland, who runs the nonprofit Awaken, which works to end sex trafficking, said many of the women involved in the sex trade — including those in legal brothels — were exploited as children and continued into sex work.

“They turn 18, and they’ve grown up in a state that says, ‘Hey, this is a viable option for you, so let’s legally continue the exploitation,’ ” Holland said. “That’s not choice. These women were not raised to actually look at themselves and choose this. They have been told this is what you’re good for, and Nevada has said let’s make that a viable option.”

The ballot measures are the latest in a string of battles over how to regulate sex trafficking without harming sex workers. The U.S. House and Senate passed bills this year targeting the online advertising of sex work, which anti-sex-work advocates say conflate sex work and sex trafficking.

Some residents of Lyon County worry that the brothels are a stain on the community’s reputation and don’t fit with its direction. The population here has seen a relative boom, doubling to more than 50,000 residents since 1995, in large part because of a recent influx of massive technology company campuses belonging to Tesla, Switch, Zulily and Jet.

Denise Berumen, one of the original five petitioners calling for a referendum, said at a recent news conference that members of the community worry about being able to attract new, wealthy residents if the brothels are still within their midst.

“It’s about caring about what’s going on in our community and just making the community attractive to the people moving in,” Berumen said. “It’s hard to make more industry come and more people want to live in our area. You want to make it a positive environment.”

Dennis Hof — who owns brothels in Lyon County, including the Moonlite BunnyRanch, and starred in the HBO series “Cathouse” — said the state’s schools are probably a bigger deterrent than its brothels. He notes that between fees, taxes and the tourism they generate, the Lyon brothels contribute $10 million to the local economy. Hof, whose autobiography is titled “The Art of the Pimp,” is running for a state assembly seat out of Nye County, and he views the efforts to curb legal sex work as an assault on Nevadan rights.

“This is a direct attack on the freedoms enjoyed by many who reside in and visit the state of Nevada, which happens to be the only state with legal brothels,” Hof said.

The BunnyRanch’s Lyttle takes issue with the word “prostitution” in the language currently being proposed for the Lyon County referendum, arguing that it is a “very loaded word” that could tip the scales against her industry.

“It is very stigmatized, and people have opinions and beliefs surrounding that word that conflate with sex trafficking and sexual coercion,” she said, “which isn’t an accurate representation of the Nevada brothels.”

Jason Guinasso, a lawyer representing the End Trafficking and Prostitution PAC, said most women who are involved in Nevada’s sex industry are being exploited.

“Women are there either because of financial duress or a drug addiction, or some pimp is pushing them in there,” Guinasso said. “You might have a few like the . . . Alice Lyttles who really have chosen this for whatever reason, but they are in the minority.”

Westervelt is a freelance reporter based in Truckee, California.