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July 19, 2019

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Nevada lawmaker calls for study on working conditions in brothels, more oversight

Pahrump Brothels

Steve Marcus

An exterior view of Sheri’s Ranch legal brothel in Pahrump, Nev. Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

Click to enlarge photo

Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen

Live and let live — and leave it up to the counties. For decades, that has been Nevada’s attitude toward legal prostitution in the 10 rural counties where the practice is permitted.

Nevada law requires routine STD tests for legal prostitutes, mandates condom use for sexual acts in brothels and conducts background checks on all would-be prostitutes. But virtually all other aspects of the industry are regulated by county or city, typically through the local sheriff’s office, creating some discrepancies in regulations and customs across the approximately 20 brothels statewide.

In Elko and Lyon counties, for example, prostitutes must be at least 18 years old, while in most other counties, the minimum age is 21. Some towns and counties also enforce curfews for sex workers or restrictions on their movement, even if these rules aren’t explicitly on the books.

Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen, D-Henderson, wonders how these inconsistent regulations impact working conditions for sex workers, and if they make it more difficult for legal prostitutes to know their rights.

That’s why she is proposing a bill, ACR6, to create a legislative committee to study the working conditions of brothels and determine the extent to which Nevada’s brothels “provide for the health, safety and general welfare of sex workers.”

“I’m looking for the state to have some uniformity and for the women to know what their rights are,” Cohen explained.

The committee would consist of three state senators and three members of the Assembly, who would consult prostitutes, local officials, brothel owners and law enforcement workers in counties that allow prostitution.

In particular, the committee would study the contracts between prostitutes and brothels across the state, the adequacy of existing state oversight of brothels, and whether sex workers should continue to operate as independent contractors, rather than employees. Then, the committee might recommend new legislation to modify aspects of the prostitution industry.

Cohen proposed the legislation after speaking to academics who have studied prostitution in Nevada and discovering that certain legal aspects of the industry aren’t widely understood, she said.

“I thought, ‘If these people who are studying this have gaps in their knowledge, then there’s a problem, and we need to look into this and make sure we know what’s going on,’” Cohen said.

Cohen’s legislation comes at an uncertain time for brothels in Nevada, the only U.S. state where prostitution remains legal in some form. In February, a former sex worker and victim of human trafficking filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that legal brothels facilitate sex trafficking. State Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, has also proposed legislation to ban brothels statewide.

Cohen emphasized that she has no intention of bringing forward legislation to change the legality of prostitution in Nevada.

“I’m not trying to wade into the debate about legalization or not legalization,” she said. “Just as long as we have it, there should be some uniformity and ... the women [should] know their rights.”

Chuck Muth, a spokesperson for the Nevada Brothel Association, said that while he generally supports “limited government,” he isn’t necessarily opposed to Cohen’s proposal.

“There may be some things that should be statewide, and maybe things that are better left at county level, but we’ll have to wait until the study is approved and committee gets into it to find out exactly where folks want to go with this,” Muth said.

Nevada’s system of prostitution, which is less centrally regulated compared with some other places where prostitution is legal, has sometimes resulted in occupational discrimination and stigmatization of sex workers in the small towns in which they work, said Barbara Brents, a sociology professor at UNLV who has studied the state’s prostitution industry.

“The concern is that in these small environments, the businesses with the most power tend to get the rules written in the way that they like,” Brents said. “And I think the workers’ rights have been left out of this a lot.”

One of the most commonly enforced, but possibly illegal, regulations at some brothels are “lockdown policies,” which forbid prostitutes from leaving brothels at certain times of day, or sometimes for weeks at a time. Former sex worker Christina Parreira said that these restrictions, which are enforced by brothel owners, forbid workers from leaving without a chaperone or driver, and that workers must be re-tested for STDs if they do leave.

She recalls that during her time as a sex worker in several legal Nevada brothels, there was sometimes confusion among prostitutes about these policies.

“When I worked in a Nye County brothel I remember workers at another brothel were confused as to why I could leave and they could not,” Parreira wrote in an email. “The brothel had told them that per county law they could not leave during their contract, and a host of other rules.”

Despite these discrepancies in rules and practices, Brents said that most counties have adapted similar provisions when it comes to zoning restrictions on brothels, routine inspections of brothels and other aspects of the industry.

But uniformity, Brents noted, does not necessarily mean better working conditions. Most counties also subject prostitutes and brothel owners to more scrutiny than other business owners, she said, requiring interested brothel owners to submit extremely detailed financial records. This practice, Brents believes, excludes some people from running businesses of their own — including former sex workers themselves.

Sarah Blithe, a communications studies professor at University of Nevada, Reno, said that occupational discrimination and stigmatization of sex workers remain some of the most problematic aspects of Nevada’s industry today. The lockdown policies in particular, she said, should be banned.

Blithe is skeptical, however, about whether increasing state oversight of the brothels would solve these problems. Blithe and Parreira also both noted that research has been done on the conditions of Nevada’s brothels.

“I feel like we were able to get a pretty good look at what was happening when we studied multiple brothels in multiple counties, and interviewed multiple people,” said Blithe, author of “Sex and Stigma: Stories of Everyday Life in Nevada’s Legal Brothels.”

Nonetheless, Cohen said she has heard enough troubling stories about restrictions on sex workers’ movement and rights to warrant an investigation into their working conditions. Even the absence of a state board, department or other regulatory entity for Nevada’s brothels has made it difficult for her to determine what state laws are already on the books.

“You want to be knowledgeable before you bring a bill [to the floor], but there were so many gaps in the knowledge,” Cohen said.

More centralized oversight of the industry and more uniformity across counties and brothels, Cohen believes, could help ensure that working women aren’t subject to illegal or discriminatory rules enforced by county officials, police or brothel owners.

“That’s my bottom line, that uniformity,” Cohen said. “And that doesn’t mean we can’t have flexibility in the different counties, but there doesn’t seem to be a modicum of uniformity.”