By Ryan Tarinelli
CARSON CITY — Nevada’s legal brothels are holdovers from the state’s Wild West past that draw customers and the curious to the rural areas where they are scattered.
Though long tolerated in a live-and-let-live state, one lawmaker is preparing to revive an old fight to end the legal brothel industry.
Republican state Sen. Joe Hardy says brothels have no place in the state and attract women with few economic options who get stuck in an abusive industry.
“It’s not an easy exit for someone,” he said. “So I’d like to give them hope, that not only can they get out, but they can get an opportunity to get retrained.”
Hardy plans legislation that would ban brothels in the only state where they are legal — though even he acknowledges the bill might lack support among colleagues who see the brothels as an economic boon for rural counties.
Sex workers and other backers of the brothels say they’re ready to fight the measure. They argue a ban would hurt struggling rural economies and drive women working in the world’s oldest profession out of a regulated environment that requires regular STD tests and into dangerous street prostitution.
“It’s either going to happen in the streets and in Vegas and in the hotels, or it’s going to happen in a safe, legal atmosphere where women such as myself can feel safe and protected,” said Christina Parreira, a sex worker who formerly worked in multiple brothels.
Parreira, a doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who also conducted academic research at the brothels, says legal brothel work empowers women to leave pimps and abusive relationships and support their families.
Hardy’s crusade comes after similar bans have failed.
Last year efforts to outlaw prostitution in two counties where Nevada’s flamboyant pimp, Dennis Hof, operated bordellos failed. While Hof died in October, he was posthumously elected to the state Legislature in November and his political allies formed the Nevada Brothel Association to fight a statewide ban.
Chuck Muth with the brothel association noted that residents in Lyon County overwhelmingly rejected a ban on brothels. A similar ban failed to make it to the ballot in Nye County.
Former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, one of the Nevada’s most powerful politicians, faced similar pushback in 2011 when he called for an end to the industry that he said hurt the state’s economy. His speech to state lawmakers was met with silence.
Democrats who control the governor’s mansion and statehouse won’t comment on whether they will back Hardy’s effort.
Helen Kalla, a spokesperson for Gov. Steve Sisolak, said the governor looks forward to reviewing the legislation, as is the case with all other bills.
Cheryl Bruce, a spokeswoman for Democrats who control the Senate, declined to say whether they’d back Hardy’s measure, as did House Democratic spokesman Eli Magana.
Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen has submitted bill draft request that would revise state laws governing legal brothels. Magana declined to comment on Cohen’s effort.
Brothel supporters worry lawmakers from the state’s two population centers — Clark and Washoe counties, where brothels are outlawed — could impose their will on residents in rural counties. State law leaves to rural counties whether to allow brothels and prohibits them in the counties that include Las Vegas and Reno.
The brothel industry also faces a legal challenge from a woman who says she was forced into prostitution at a legal brothel. The lawsuit, citing federal law, looks to ban all 21 brothels in the state.
Lance Gilman, a real estate developer and owner of the Mustang Ranch brothel, has criticized the lawsuit as a “political stunt” and promised to oppose Hardy’s legislation.
He said regulations on the industry, such as background checks for sex workers, prevent trafficking in the brothels. Meanwhile, tax dollars from the bordellos help shore up county government budgets in rural counties, he said.
Alice Little, who works at a brothel in Lyon County, says she appreciates Hardy’s concern, but argued the legislation would only harm sex workers like herself.
“At the end of the day, it’s our jobs, our bodies, our consent that should matter,” she said. “I don’t need somebody who has never even met me to be passing judgment about whether my job should or should not be allowed.”