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Prostitution in Nevada

Nevada is unique among the U.S. states in that it allows some legal prostitution: in most of its counties, brothels are legalized and heavily regulated.

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Legal situation

Under Nevada law, any county with a population of less than 400,000 is allowed to license brothels if it so chooses (NRS 244.345). As of January 2005, Clark County (which contains Las Vegas) is the only county in Nevada with a population of over 400,000, but Washoe County will soon reach that point as well [1]. Incorporated towns and cities in counties that allow prostitution may regulate the trade further or prohibit it altogether.

As of July 2004, brothels are illegal in Carson City, Douglas County, Lincoln County, and Washoe County. Eureka County neither permits nor prohibits brothels and does not have any. The other 11 counties permit licensed brothels in certain specified areas or cities.

The precise licensing requirements vary from county to county. License fees for brothels range from an annual $100,000 in Storey County to an annual $200 in Lander County. Licensed prostitutes must be at least 21 years old, except in Storey County and Lyon County, where the legal age is 18.

State law requires that registered brothel prostitutes be checked weekly for several sexually transmitted diseases and monthly for HIV; furthermore, condoms are mandatory for all oral sex and sexual intercourse. Brothel owners may be held liable if customers become infected with HIV after a prostitute has tested positive for the virus (NRS 041.1397).

Nevada has laws against engaging in prostitution outside of licensed brothels, against encouraging others to become prostitutes, and against living off the proceeds of a prostitute. All of these behaviors are quite common, however. Brothels are also not allowed to advertise their services in counties where brothel prostitution is illegal.

The legal brothels

About 30 legal brothels existed in the state in January 2004, employing about 300 prostitutes at any given time. All but the smallest ones operate as follows: as the customer is buzzed in and sits down in the parlor, the available women appear in a line-up and introduce themselves. If the customer chooses a woman, the price negotiations take place in the women's room, which are often overheard by management. The house normally gets half of the negotiated amount. If the customer arrives by cab, the driver will receive some 20% of whatever the customer spends; this is subtracted from the woman's earnings. Typical prices start at $100 and average about $200 for half an hour of intercourse and oral sex. The prostitutes almost never kiss on the mouth.

Brothel prostitutes work as independent contractors and thus do not receive any unemployment, retirement or health benefits. They are responsible for paying their own taxes, which many neglect, since it is mainly a cash business. The women typically work for a period of several weeks, during which time they live in the brothel and hardly ever leave it. They then take some time off. It has been argued that the tight control that brothels exert over the working conditions precludes the women from legally being classified as independent contractors.

Since 1986, when mandatory testing began, not a single brothel prostitute has ever tested positive for HIV. The mandatory condom law was passed in 1988.

A study conducted 1995 in two brothels found that condom use in the brothels is consistent and sexually transmitted diseases are accordingly absent. The study also found that few of the prostitutes use condoms in their private lives.

Illegal prostitution

Prostitution outside licensed brothels is a misdemeanor in Nevada.

The big casino towns Reno and Las Vegas have tried to attain a family-friendly image by cracking down on the once-rampant street prostitution. Prostitutes continue to work in casinos, where they wait in bars and attempt to make contact with single males. Escort services offering sexual services are ubiquitous, apparently, with about 140 pages of the Las Vegas yellow pages devoted to "entertainers".


Brothels had been tolerated in Nevada since the middle of the 19th century. One brothel in Elko has been in business since 1902. In 1937, a law was enacted to require weekly health checks of all prostitutes. Reno and Las Vegas had red light districts, when Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the suppression of all prostitution near military bases in 1942. When this order was lifted in 1948, Reno officials tried to shut down a brothel as a public nuisance, and this action was upheld by the Nevada Supreme Court in 1949. In 1951, both Reno and Las Vegas had closed their red light districts as public nuisances, but brothels continued to exist throughout the state.

In 1970, Joe Conforte, owner of the brothel called Mustang Ranch near Reno, managed to convince county officials to pass an ordinance which would provide for the licensing of brothels and prostitutes, thus avoiding the threat of being closed down as a public nuisance.

Officials in Las Vegas, afraid that Conforte would use the same trick to open a brothel nearby, convinced the legislature in 1971 to pass a law prohibiting the legalization of prostitution in counties with a population above a certain threshold, tailored to apply only to Clark County (NRS 244.345).

In 1977, county officials in Nye County tried to shut down Walter Plankinton's Chicken Ranch as a public nuisance; brothels did not have to be licensed in that county at the time, and several others were operating. Plankinton filed suit, claiming that the 1971 state law had implicitly removed the assumption that brothels are public nuisances per se. The Nevada Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation in 1978 (Nye County v. Plankinton, 94 Nev. 739, 587 P.2d 421 (1978)), and so the Chicken Ranch was allowed to operate. In another case, brothel owners in Lincoln County protested when the county outlawed prostitution in 1978, after having issued licenses for 7 years. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the county had the right to do so (Kuban v. McGimsey 96 Nev. 105, 110 (1980)).

The state law prohibiting the advertising of brothels in counties which have outlawed prostitution was enacted in 1979; it was promptly challenged on First Amendment grounds. The Nevada Supreme Court declared it to be constitutional (Princess Sea Industries, Inc., v. State, 97 Nev. 534; 635 P.2d 281 (1981)). (Princess Sea Industries was Plankinton's company that owned the Chicken Ranch.)

Several towns enacted rules prohibiting local brothel prostitutes from frequenting local bars or casinos or associating with local men outside of work. After the filing of a lawsuit in 1984, these regulations had to be abandoned, but as a result of collaboration between sheriffs and brothel owners, they remain in effect unofficially. For instance, most brothels do not allow the prostitutes to leave the premises during their work shifts of several days to several weeks.


Occasionally, conservative Republican lawmakers attempt to introduce legislation outlawing all prostitution in Nevada. These efforts are typically supported by owners of casinos and other large businesses, claiming that legalized prostitution harms the state's image. The Nevada Brothel Owners' Association, led by George Flint, a minister from Reno, lobbies against these laws. Their typical arguments are "this should best be left to local government" and "it is safer regulated than unregulated". Rural lawmakers normally oppose these laws as well, since legal brothel prostitution provides a significant amount of income for some poor counties.

One particularly colorful opponent of legalized prostitution in Nevada is John Reese. Initially arguing on moral and religious grounds, he switched to health hazard tactics, but had to back down in the face of a threatened libel suit. In 1994, he tried to get a license for a gay brothel in a thinly veiled attempt to galvanize opposition against all brothels. Then in 1999 he staged his own kidnapping near the Mustang Ranch. His efforts to collect signatures in order to repeal the prostitution laws have failed.

Organizations supporting the rights of prostitutes typically favor deregulation and oppose Nevada-style regulation, mainly because of three reasons:

  • the licensing requirements create a permanent record which can lead to discrimination later on;
  • the large power difference between brothel owner and prostitute gives prostitutes virtually no influence on their working conditions;
  • while prostitutes undergo legal and health background checks, their customers do not; the regulations are thus designed to protect customers, not prostitutes.

However, some other organizations support Nevada style regulations because:

  • the regulations may help prevent pimping which they see as a worse exploitation than that from a brothel owner
  • under de-regulation, brothels would most likely exist anyway; but these unregulated brothels would be without oversight and the restrictions placed on Nevada brothels.

A poll conducted in Nevada in 2002 found that 52% of the 600 respondents favored the status quo of legal and regulated brothels, while 31% were against laws that allow prostitution and the remainder were undecided or did not offer an opinion. The trend seems to be that new arrivals to Nevada tend to oppose legal prostitution while long-time Nevadans tend to support the status quo.

Nevada politicians can (and generally do) play both sides of the prostitution dispute by declaring that they are personally opposed to prostitution but feel it should be up to the counties to decide. As almost three-quarters of the population of Nevada lives in a single county (Clark County), county control over local matters is a hot-button issue. Legislators from the northern counties will often reflexively oppose what is seen as "meddling" from the majority in the south, and the legislators from the south have been too divided on the issue to push through a state-wide ban.


Crystal near Pahrump has a somewhat limited brothel art museum associated with some local brothels.


  • Albert, Alexa, "Brothel. Mustang Ranch and its Women". Random House 2001. ISBN 0375503315
  • Alexa E. Albert, David Lee Warner, and Robert A. Hatcher: "Facilitating Condom Use with Clients during Commercial Sex in Nevada's Legal Brothels", American Journal of Public Health, 88(4), 1998, pages 643–646, online abstract
  • Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale and Jacqueline Lewis, "Escort Services In A Border Town", Literature and Policy Summary Windsor: University of Windsor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, 1999. Study containing a section on prostitution in Nevada.
  • The Louvre of Libido, Las Vegas Review Journal, June 20, 1999. Report about a visit to the brothel museum in Crystal.

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