How COVID Has Totally Screwed Things Up for Nevada’s Legal Sex Workers

At the start of 2020, it looked like things were about to change for the better for Nevada’s legal brothels. The industry was riding high following a huge win against a referendum to shutter the establishments in Lyon County, and legal sex workers were anxiously awaiting a review from a legislative interim committee to study the working conditions in brothels.

The brothels were not only in Nevada to stay, but the last remnants of draconian laws and ordinances limiting sex worker freedom could be abolished as a result of the committee addressing antiquated curfews and timeworn contracts, and determining whether or not sex workers should remain classified as independent contractors or be given more benefits by designating the women as brothel employees. For many of Nevada’s sex workers, it appeared as if a new era was about to begin.

Then, in March, COVID-19 hit and everything went to hell for Nevada’s sex workers. 

The committee to review working conditions was seemingly put on indefinite hold and the brothels were forced to temporarily shut down in mid-March. With no reopening date in sight, sex workers pivoted to online sex work, using platforms such as OnlyFans to make ends meet, while a few bawdy houses tried to work around the state’s temporary brothel ban by offering “no-sex” escort services until the governor gives the A-OK to resume full-contact legal prostitution.

But, ultimately, these workarounds don’t appear to be enough to carry the bulk of Nevada’s sex workers through a financially devastating period. To add insult to injury, on December 9, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will give a previously dismissed lawsuit that has the potential to shut down all legal brothels in Nevada a second chance to fulfill its objective at the appellate level.

How COVID Has Totally Screwed Things Up for Nevada’s Legal Sex Workers

Nevada’s brothels are currently in dire straits. But, hopefully, the brothels will be reopened by the governor, a vaccine for the coronavirus will be discovered, and the court will rule in favor of keeping Nevada’s brothels in business. In time, if all goes well, the status quo will be maintained and Nevada’s sex industry will be back to normal.

But, is “normal” an entirely good thing? What about that interim study? With no committee meetings currently scheduled and the brothels being closed for so many months, it could be that the Nevada State Legislature’s brothel study will become a casualty of the coronavirus and never happen. 

A long way

An illustration of Nevada brothels during the pre-legalization era, in “The Godfather Part II”

2021 will mark the 50th anniversary of the legalization of prostitution in Nevada. The industry has come a long way since the days when Joe Conforte, the first brothel baron, managed to bribe county officials into legalizing his Mustang Ranch brothel. In Conforte’s 1970’s, the west was still wild, extortion was a common business practice, and the #MeToo movement was utterly inconceivable. Unfortunately, many of the archaic laws, ordinances, and house rules conceived in the days when the brothel industry was driven by a beloved swindler and ex-con are still on the books. Several of these ancient laws overwhelmingly favor brothel owners while systematically marginalizing sex workers by imposing curfews, charging sex workers exorbitant rule-breaking fees, and classifying sex workers as independent contractors even though the businesses solely rely on sex worker services for business revenue.

In recent years, sex work, while still stigmatized, has become more accepted as a viable profession across the globe and in Nevada. Sex workers, consequently, are more outspoken about their rights. In the past decade, mostly as a result of sex workers speaking out, there is increasing evidence that reform needs to occur in Nevada’s brothel industry.

There have been several lawsuits filed by Nevada sex workers in recent years that indicate a potential issue with workplace conditions in legal brothels. In 2019, for example, a lawsuit was filed by sex workers against Sheri’s Ranch, a brothel in Pahrump, claiming that sex workers should be classified as employees and receive overtime pay, minimum wage, and not be required to share tips with management. According to the lawsuit, Sheri’s Ranch also maintains a “lockdown” policy under which courtesans are required to  remain on the brothel premises for periods ranging from one to three weeks at a time and work daily shifts of either twelve or twenty four hours.

The classification of legal sex workers as employees rather than independent contractors is a long-standing matter of contention with brothel owners. Brothel owners have consistently fought against any indication that sex workers should be classified as employees. Most recently, the Love Ranch brothel in Lyon County is protesting that the state has classified its workers as employees. Love Ranch owners are trying to avoid paying into the state’s unemployment fund, as independent contractors are not eligible for unemployment benefits.

Also in 2019, a complaint was filed by courtesans from the Chicken Ranch brothel in Nye County. Black sex workers at the brothel claim that they have experienced race-based mistreatment by brothel management, allegedly including rampant use of the N-word. 

Several sex workers at brothels in Lyon County also claim to have been mistreated by brothel owners.

Prior to his death in 2018, Moonlite Bunny Ranch owner (and Allan Gelbard client) Dennis Hof was being investigated for sexual assault and has had numerous women speak out against his predatory behavior over the years.  In fact, Hof bragged for decades about sleeping with the women at his brothels.

In 2004, when a legal sex worker claimed that she was assaulted by a popular celebrity, Hof famously took the side of the celebrity and dismissed the sex worker as a liar. Even after the celebrity plead no contest to battery Hof still stood by him, calling the courtesan an opportunist.

Dennis Hof (right) with his best friend, Ron Jeremy. Jeremy is now in jail facing multiple charges of sexual assault.

Nevada sex workers have been expressing their opinions on brothel working conditions and mistreatment more and more on social media platforms, in online forums, and in opinion pieces for local news outlets. Overwhelmingly, sex workers want to make necessary changes to bring the brothel industry into the 21st century so that everyone in the industry is treated fairly and with respect.

Clearly, there are longstanding issues with the management of Nevada brothels that need to be addressed. The most egregious impact of the coronavirus on Nevada sex workers may not be the financial damage caused by months-long brothel closures. The greater catastrophe may be the cultural setback precipitated by the state’s brothel study silently falling by the wayside, as sex workers find themselves in a workplace perpetually stuck in the standards of the 1970’s.

660880cookie-checkHow COVID Has Totally Screwed Things Up for Nevada’s Legal Sex Workers

How COVID Has Totally Screwed Things Up for Nevada’s Legal Sex Workers

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