Nevada brothel industry on shaky ground as possible ban looms in Lyon County
RENO, Nev. — “Honestly, it would pretty much throw a wrench in my entire life,” says Cherry, nearly nude, sitting at a round table inside the dimly lit lineup room at the World Famous Mustang Ranch, 20 miles east of Reno. “I planned everything around this — this is everything.”
It’s a Monday afternoon this summer inside the Mustang Ranch, and Cherry is pondering a scenario in which brothels are no longer legal in Nevada, the only state in the U.S. that has legalized prostitution.
Cherry explains why she cherishes her position as a sex worker at the Mustang Ranch.
“I pay for my mom’s cancer treatment, I paid for my grandmother’s cancer treatment, I pay for my sister to go to a private school, because the area I grew up in is a very bad area with very awful schools,” Cherry said. “So (if brothels were outlawed) I couldn’t do any of that. I’d have to take my mom off chemo, my sister would have to go back to public school, I couldn’t pay my mortgage … I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Pausing, Cherry offers her palms and shrugs: “I, honestly, would probably end up doing this type of work, just in a different way. And it wouldn’t be safe anymore and something would probably happen to me, statistically speaking. It’s just the reality.”
Cherry’s livelihood isn’t on the line quite yet. However, a group that’s trying to stop sex trafficking in Nevada is also pushing to end legal prostitution in the state.
The End Trafficking and Prostitution (ETAP) PAC is currently narrowing its focus on Lyon County, where there is a groundswell of support for outlawing brothels. Lyon has four legal brothels clustered in the rural community of Mound House, tucked between Dayton and Carson City.
“Some citizens in Lyon County said, ‘we want to improve our community,’ so they came together and asked for help … that’s how ETAP began,” Brenda Sandquist, spokesperson for the ETAP campaign, told the NNBV. “We’re concerned for the young women that are working out there. So that’s our biggest concern, that women would be safe.
“And I also believe that, economically, it’s time to change the culture out there. It’s very depressed in and around the brothel area.”
According to a CMA report obtained by the NNBV, homes located within one mile of the Bunny Ranch in Mound House have an average listing price of $183,000 — which is 27 percent lower than the average home sales two to five miles away.
“I think if we could remove them (the brothels), it could allow the opportunity for more vitality in that area, which would help the whole community,” Sandquist said.
LYON COUNTY WAIT
Come November, Lyon County commissioners will put a relatively simple question on the ballot to voters: Do they want to keep the brothels open or shut them down?
Notably, there has never been a reversal of legalized prostitution anywhere in the world, despite ETAP-like campaigns in every country where brothels legally operate.
The Mustang Ranch, the only legal brothel in neighboring Storey County, wouldn’t be threatened if voters in Lyon say they no longer want brothels in their community.
But, the brothel industry across Nevada is paying close attention to Lyon County’s historic ballot question, which anti-brothel backers see as the first domino. In other words, if voters outlaw brothels in Lyon, organizers hope the rest of the state will eventually follow suit.
In fact, the Nevada Legislature in 2019 may address whether to outlaw brothels in all counties. Sen. Joseph Hardy (R-Boulder City) is reportedly submitting a bill draft request to prohibit prostitution statewide.
Sandquist, not mincing words, said the state should take ownership for perpetuating legal prostitution in Nevada and being “OK” with the negative effects that befell women in the industry.
“They have the power to change this as a state,” said Sandquist, noting that she’s helped more than 12 women get out of the brothel industry. “By allowing this, saying this (prostitution) is legal, they’re saying, ‘we’re OK with women getting abused; we’re OK with violence; we’re OK with exploitation; we’re OK with women being trapped’ … they’re saying, ‘we’re OK with that.’”
Melissa Holland, co-founder and director of the nonprofit Awaken Reno, which provides housing and restoration for sex trafficking victims, added that many women in the sex trade, including those in legal brothels, were exploited as children and stayed in sex work due to a lack of options.
“This is a way to continue exploitation from the age of 17, where it’s a crime, to 60 seconds later … it’s legal,” Holland said in a phone interview with the NNBV. “And as a state, because we’ve endorsed this, we’re seeing second- and third-generation girls who are being prostituted and trafficked because their moms and grandmas were also in it. So they just don’t know anything else. These little girls genuinely believe all they’re good for is for their bodies to be used for man’s pleasure. They have no sense of self.”
TELLING THEIR SIDE
At the Mustang Ranch, those who spoke with the NNBV tell a different story. Legalized prostitution, they said, empowers the women who work at the brothels.
“If you really think about the big picture, these ladies are business owners,” said Jennifer Barnes, a Mustang Ranch madam. “They pay taxes, they have a product they’re selling, they have a storefront, they’re independent contractors. They really have an opportunity of a lifetime to become something.”
Donny Gilman, son of Mustang Ranch owner Lance Gilman and brothel supervisor, said the Mustang Ranch’s top three independent contractors this past year pocketed more than $150,000 after taxes.
Added Barnes: “All the ladies, they get paid twice a week, so it’s not some cash here, some cash there. It is strictly by the books.”
What’s more, Barnes and her colleagues said working in legal brothels is not only safer than the alternative, but the business is part of the rural communities’ backbone, providing jobs and tax revenue.
“I think a lot of people don’t do their homework to see what these brothels do for the outlying communities,” Donny Gilman said.
According to the Mustang Ranch, the brothel provides full- and part-time jobs for more than 160 people on a $5.7 million annual payroll, with the sex workers — which they call “courtesans” — making over $4.3 million.
In addition, they said the Mustang Ranch puts around $150,000 back into the community in an effort to help feed Storey County children and residents at local senior centers.
Gilman said that the Mustang Ranch pays $500,000 a year in taxes and fees to Storey County, adding: “if you based it off of per square foot, we’re the highest taxed (in the state).”
SEX TRAFFICKING DISPUTE
While anti-brothel organizers argue that legal prostitution increases human trafficking, those in the brothel industry argue that a ban on brothels would only lead to higher amounts of human trafficking and far less safety.
“If they banned brothels, where are the ladies going to go?” Barnes asked. “They’re going to go downtown, they’re going to be with a predator pimp, they’re going to be fed drugs, their money’s going to be taken from them, they’re going to be raped.
“If the brothels were closed, we’d be doing a disservice to the society.”
Awaken Reno’s Holland, however, challenged that narrative. She said arguing that brothels decrease sex trafficking is “like saying fast food decreases obesity,” adding: “putting something up into a shop only increases the demand for that.”
Holland pointed to an analysis done by Creighton University that showed Nevada’s illegal sex market has more than 19,000 women and children being sold for sex annually. According to the analysis, Nevada’s number of prostituted persons per capita is 63 percent higher than the next largest state, New York, and more than twice as many as California.
“It (Nevada) has become a state with the reputation of ‘we will protect men who want to buy sex and we will protect traffickers; in fact, we’ll legalize you, we’ll legalize our pimps,’” Holland said. “And it’s, unfortunately, increasing rates of violence against women in our state, and increasing rates of child trafficking in our state. And it’s just damaging us in our communities.”
A GROWING SPOTLIGHT
The spotlight on Nevada’s brothel debate has gotten brighter in recent months. In June, Dennis Hof, owner of seven brothels in Lyon and Nye counties, and star of the HBO adult reality TV series “Cathouse,” won a Republican primary ahead of November’s election for the Nevada state Assembly.
Hof — who has been accused of sexual assault by former brothel workers on at least four occasions since 2005, including an allegation made in early September — is arguably the favorite to win the GOP-leaning District 36.
One could argue that Hof’s run for the Nevada Legislature has put a target on the brothel industry, especially when considering the anti-brothel campaign is targeted on a county where Hof owns brothels.
“We’re just an easy target because we have a storefront, we pay taxes, we have employees,” Gilman said.
Gilman emphasized the Mustang Ranch’s high operating standards. He said there has never been a case of sexual assault or drug use — “I don’t even allow marijuana in the house” — in their brothel, which uses a drug dog and has 24-hour security staff.
“I can’t say what happens at other brothels,” Gilman said. “We don’t know what happens behind their doors. All I can tell you is if the state wants to change something, then let’s blueprint this (Mustang Ranch) business and make everybody run it like a real business.
“We don’t want ladies to be sex-trafficked or kids or anybody,” he continued. “That’s the reason we have this business, to give ladies that want to work legally, a safe place, a safe environment, to do that. It’s very important to us.”
“The thing that I like most about entrepreneurship is I can work toward something that I’m passionate about and be at the forefront of the change that I want to see happen,” said Priyanka Senthil, a senior at Davidson Academy in Reno and co-founder of startup company AUesome.