Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2019

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Industry braces for fight as legal brothels in Nevada come under scrutiny


Ryan Tarinelli / AP

The Moonlite Bunny Ranch is seen in Lyon County east of Carson City on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. One state Republican lawmaker says he plans to introduce legislation that would ban all legal brothels in the state over concerns for sex workers.

Representatives of Nevada’s legal brothel industry say they’re prepared to fight against two efforts to ban brothels statewide that were announced this week.

State Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said he will file legislation to end the decades-old brothel industry in Nevada, the Associated Press reported. Details of Hardy’s legislation have not been released, but he suggested in an interview with the AP that he wants to ensure that prostitutes, many of whom he said join the industry due to dire economic circumstances, have resources to get out.

“It’s not an easy exit for someone,” Hardy told the AP. “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’s announcement came on the heels of another potential threat to the industry in Nevada’s rural counties. On Monday, former prostitute and human trafficking victim Rebekah Charleston filed a federal lawsuit against Nevada, alleging that the state-sanctioned industry facilitates sex trafficking and violates federal laws.

“Every man who buys sex from a brothel has chosen to contract out the job of violence, intimidation and coercion to a sex trafficker or brothel owner,” Charleston said in a statement. “Every elected official or citizen who supports or who has voted in support of legal prostitution, has chosen to allow the vulnerable, disadvantaged and desperate to become prey of the greedy and powerful.”

Charleston’s lawsuit, which names Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state Legislature as defendants in addition to the state of Nevada, cites the Mann Act, a federal law first passed in 1910 that criminalizes the transportation of individuals for “prostitution, debauchery or for any other immoral purpose” across state and county lines. By allowing prostitution in certain rural counties, Nevada is attracting prostitutes and pimps from out of state, thereby violating the “spirit” of the Mann Act as well as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the suit alleges.

Originally from Texas, Charleston is being represented by Reno lawyer Jason Guinasso, who also backed a failed referendum to ban brothels in Lyon County in the fall of 2018. In addition, the suit has the blessing of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an anti-pornography and anti-sexual abuse nonprofit.

“Not only is prostitution itself exploitative, but it’s also creating a pull to bring in women from across the country to meet the demand,” said Lisa Thompson, vice president of policy and education at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “It’s creating these market forces that precipitate sex trafficking.”

Charleston, who could not be reached for comment, has stated that she was trafficked by two pimps between 1999 and 2009, first in Texas and eventually in Nevada, including in two legal brothels. Her lawsuit ultimately seeks to end legal prostitution in the state and create a $2 million fund to help former prostitutes transition into different fields of work.

Since 1971, prostitution has been legal in licensed brothels in Nevada counties with fewer than 700,000 residents. Today, it is the only state to allow the practice in some form.

In light of the national reckoning with sexual assault that recently took place with the #MeToo movement, Thompson hopes that the public perception on prostitution, which she described as “coerced sex,” is evolving.

“I really wish there was a bigger, robust conversation about why is it that there is a legal system that has been allowed to operate for decades that is serving male sexual entitlement,” Thompson said. “If we wanted proof of male sexual entitlement, if there’s one thing you could look for that would be proof of an institution that serves male power, it’s prostitution.”

Considering Charleston’s lawsuit and Hardy’s bill, representatives from the legal brothel industry say they are prepared to campaign against any statewide ban, as they did leading up to the referendum in Lyon County.

Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch brothel in Storey County, insisted that sex trafficking does not take place in the state’s highly regulated legal industry. Women who work in the state’s brothels must undergo background checks to determine their age, criminal history, immigration status and other details. They also partake in routine medical examinations for STIs and other transmittable diseases.

“The ladies that work in our legal industry choose to come to our places,” Gilman said. “They primarily do it because they’re safe, [and] the customers are safe.”

Criminalizing prostitution statewide, Gilman added, would push many legal prostitutes into illegal sex work, including in Las Vegas, where prostitution is outlawed but remains more common than anywhere else in the state.

Former legal prostitute Christina Parreira described Charleston’s lawsuit as “disappointing,” especially since 80 percent of Lyon County voted to uphold legal prostitution in the referendum months ago.

“I have no doubt that we’re going to win this battle, but honestly, it’s just a bit tiring to have to do it again,” Parreira said.

In addition to having worked in legal brothels in the state, Parreira is finishing up a sociology dissertation at UNLV on the state’s legal prostitution industry. As someone who worked as a prostitute and interviewed dozens of women in the industry for her research, she insisted that human trafficking does not take place in legal brothels.

“It’s a system that could use some reform as any, but overall it has worked remarkably well in terms of keeping women safe and also keeping STIs off the street,” Parreira said.

Nonetheless, an internal audit conducted in 2018 at the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office found that 30 percent of prostitutes granted work cards in 2017 showed possible signs of human trafficking. In addition, a 2018 study conducted by the Jesuit Creighton University and the faith-based, anti-sex trafficking nonprofit Awaken Reno found that Nevada has the highest rate of sex trafficking in the country — by a long shot.

Thompson argues that the presence of legal prostitution attracts more sex trafficking in both the state’s legal and illegal markets.

“You have all this demand and market pressure being created by the legal sex trade and that bleeds out into a larger, illegal trade,” she said.

Chuck Muth, a spokesperson for the Nevada Brothel Association that represents brothels formerly owned by the late brothel-mogul Dennis Hof, described legal and illegal prostitution are “apples and oranges.” He questioned whether Charleston ever worked in the state’s brothels and how she could have passed the background checks.

Yet, Muth deflected blame if she had been trafficked into the legal industry.

“If she doesn’t tell brothels she’s got a pimp, how would we know?” he said.

Gilman similarly suggested that it isn’t the legal brothels’ responsibilities to determine whether a prostitute is being coerced into working.

“The brothels cannot be the clearinghouse. They cannot be the law enforcement group,” he said.

He encouraged anyone seeking to criminalize prostitution statewide to visit legal brothels and meet with those in the industry before passing judgment.

Parreira offered a similar message to lawmakers before they seek to outlaw the practice.

“If they’re so concerned with the women in the brothels, why aren’t they listening to us?” she said. “Every single woman that works there that speaks to media says the same thing: ‘Please don’t take my job. I’m working here consensually.’”