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October 21, 2021

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Proposed Nye County brothel policy sparks backlash from sex workers, advocates

Pahrump Brothels

Steve Marcus

A view of Sheri’s Ranch brothel in Pahrump, Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

A proposed amendment to a Nye County ordinance that would restrict the hours when legal prostitutes are permitted to leave licensed brothels has renewed a debate about the rights and working conditions of sex workers in Nevada.

The ordinance would forbid Nye County legal prostitutes from leaving brothels for more than six hours within a 10-day period. Additionally, prostitutes would only be allowed to leave the premises of a brothel between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. If they failed to follow these rules, they would need re-test for venereal diseases and HIV, which they are already required to do weekly under Nevada law.

The Nye County Commission has not yet set a date for a public hearing on the bill, said county spokesperson Arnold Knightly. A working draft of the proposal was crafted over the last two years and completed last month, said Nye County Commission Chairman John Koenig. It is expected to be introduced at the Oct. 15 commission meeting.

Licensed brothels are permitted in a handful of rural Nevada counties across the state, including in Nye County, about 65 miles from Las Vegas.

The proposed changes were decided by a group of local stakeholders, including brothel owners, “madams” of the brothels, the district attorney’s office, lawyers and other county officials, Koenig said. Previously, Nye County law stated that prostitutes were permitted to leave brothels for no more than 24 hours at a time without retesting.

“(The changes) were proposed mainly by the owners and the people who run the brothels. That’s how they wanted it written, so that’s what we did,” Koenig said.

Brothel officials are concerned that legal prostitutes — or courtesans, as they will now be referred to under Nye’s county code — could have unprotected sex when they are off the premises for long periods of time, Koenig said.

“Any possibility when they’re outside that brothel to have sex with someone else is a possibility to bring something back to that brothel,” he said.

But some current and former Nevada sex workers say that the ordinance infringes on the rights of legal prostitutes and treats them differently from other workers by subjecting them to restrictions on their movement. Alice Little, a legal sex worker at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Lyon County, said the amendments imply that the women who work in brothels cannot be trusted.

“It was just absolutely appalling and disturbing to see that type of language being put forward in 2019 that is so obviously sexist and discriminatory against brothel workers,” Little said.

Christina Parreira, a former sex worker who previously worked in brothels in Lyon and Nye County, described rules like this one — sometimes referred to as lockdown policies — as “punitive” and “unnecessary.” In particular, she criticized the proposed limitations to the hours of the day when prostitutes would be permitted to leave Nye County brothels.

“I think it reinforces this thought that sex workers are these dirty, disgusting women that have to be kept from the public and be locked up,” said Parreira, who also studied legal brothels across the state for her doctoral dissertation at UNLV.

Koenig declined to comment when asked about whether the amended ordinance discriminates against or violates the rights of prostitutes.

“I get it, that it seems like we’re locking them up. I guess that’s what they call it,” he said. “But I don’t know how you protect (people) without doing something.”

Barbara Brents, a UNLV sociology professor who has studied the state’s prostitution industry, said that codifying restrictions on prostitutes’ movements into county law would be unprecedented in Nevada. Although some of the roughly 20 brothels in Nevada have lockdown policies defining when prostitutes can leave the premises, the rules are usually written and enforced by brothel owners, not the county.

“(Lockdown policies) were, to my knowledge from all the years I’ve been looking at ordinances, not part of the ordinances, but more of a managerial rule, or sort of a gentleman’s agreement between the sheriff’s office and managers,” Brents said.

She questioned whether Nye’s proposed amendment is legal.

“I can’t imagine any other group of workers who would be limited on when they could leave the workplace by the county. So, this seems on the face of it to be ... a step backwards,” she said.

The proposed changes come just before the start of a planned study by state lawmakers on the working conditions of Nevada brothels. One issue that prompted the study, proposed by Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen and approved by the Nevada Legislature this year, was the occurrence of lockdown policies in some brothels.

Nevada law requires weekly STD tests for legal prostitutes (paid for by the sex workers themselves), mandates condom use for all sexual acts in brothels and obliges officials to conduct background checks on would-be prostitutes. Virtually all other aspects of the industry are regulated by the county or city in which brothels are permitted.

Some communities have passed laws stipulating when prostitutes must be retested after leaving the brothels, but none are as stringent as the one proposed in Nye County, said Jeremy Lemur, a public relations representative for sex workers.

For example, Churchill County and Wells — one of the incorporated communities in Elko County that permits brothels — require that brothel owners notify the sheriff’s office when a prostitute leaves for more than 48 hours and that prostitutes be retested upon returning. By contrast, Mineral and Lyon Counties have no rules on the books regarding when legal prostitutes can leave brothels, according to county codes.

Given that no licensed brothel in Nevada has had significant issues with STDs, Lemur argued that lockdown policies do not make them safer or more sanitary. Rather, they only make it harder for legal sex workers to balance other aspects of their lives, such as school or family.

“There is no problem that these proposed lockdown laws need to solve,” Lemur wrote in an email.

From Little’s perspective, the proposed policy would only benefit brothel owners by ensuring that sex workers, who are independent contractors under Nevada law, are on duty for longer periods of time. She implored county commissioners to consider the impact of the proposed amendment on sex workers.

“We can’t allow the government to essentially back these rich brothel owners sitting in their mansions in Las Vegas while these women are out there in Nye County doing the hard work,” Little said.

No sex workers were included in conversations about the proposed changes, Koenig said. But any are welcome to reach out to him and discuss it.

“I get along with them,” Koenig said. “And if they’re afraid the brothels will find out, I’ll never tell the brothels.”