Nevada has long had the dubious distinction of being the only state with legalized prostitution. It started in the 19th century and continues in the 21st, though there are fewer than two dozen brothels and many people see them as a relic of the Old West.
Despite somewhat of a crackdown this year by the Elko City Council, it appears they will remain a fact of life here long into the future.
The state’s metropolitan areas banned them decades ago because they were considered a nuisance. Legal prostitution was targeted this year in a ballot initiative in Lyon County, based in part on a similar reason – lowered property values along the strip of highway between Dayton and Carson City.
But, even though Lyon County is made up of half men and half women voters, the ballot question failed by more than a 3-to-1 margin.
Another quirk from this year’s election was when Nevada’s most prominent brothel owner won a seat on the Legislature by a 2-1 margin, even though he died weeks before the vote.
The Elko City Council took the unusual step of suspending a brothel license this year over drugs. The action had little impact, however, as the business hung a sign on its door telling potential customers that its girls could be found across the street, at another brothel operated by the same owners.
Now the council is planning to alter the city ordinance, decreasing the number of brothel licenses from five to four. Again, there will be no real impact from their action. Elko has only had four brothels for the past 20 years, so eliminating the fifth license will not reduce their number.
There simply doesn’t appear to be any appetite to ban rural Nevada’s bordellos.
The tide could turn in the next legislative session, but it’s doubtful. Republican Sen. Joe Hardy of Boulder City is introducing a bill to ban prostitution statewide.
Harry Reid made a plea to do the same thing when he spoke before the Legislature eight years ago, while serving as the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate. But instead of applause, Reid’s proposal was met with silence in the Assembly chambers, according to an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“Lawmakers from both major parties shied away from his suggestion that they could improve Nevada’s beleaguered economy by driving brothels out of the state and inviting other businesses in,” the newspaper reported.
At the time, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval said the brothel industry is “not something I would support,” but he thought any decisions about keeping prostitution legal should remain at the local level. The same laissez-faire attitude applies to the marijuana industry, as local governments in Nevada are allowed to ban pot shops or license them for profit.
Many of Nevada’s 21 brothels are located on the outskirts of rural communities, while Elko’s are right in the middle of town – just a block away from popular restaurants and a short walk from two casinos.
Yet, when the issue of blight in downtown Elko came up there was no mention of driving the brothels out of town. As tacky as these businesses seem to the average visitor, they are largely tolerated or ignored by most local residents.
Comments our newspaper received regarding Lyon County’s proposal were written by women who favored keeping prostitution legal. Nevada’s approach is “seen by scholars from around the globe as a far better alternative than criminalizing prostitution for the health, safety and rights of the individuals in it,” wrote professors Barbara Brents and Sarah Blithe.
Madams from the Mustang Ranch wrote that they “staunchly stand for the rights of women and to protect those that are oppressed by the dangerous lifestyles of illegal prostitution, escort services, massage parlors and more.”
As long as legalized prostitution is seen as the lesser of two evils, rural Nevada’s brothels will remain in business and our city leaders will go back to dealing with more pressing issues.