VEGAS MYTHS BUSTED: Prostitution is Legal in Las Vegas
Yes, that billboard truck pulling up alongside your car on the Las Vegas Strip reads “Girls Straight to Your Room.” And yes, those dudes on the corner are handing out cards featuring photos of scantily clad women and a phone number to call.
And no, prostitution isn’t legal in Las Vegas.
Prostitution has been unofficially illegal in Las Vegas since its red-light districts were shut down in the ’40s and ’50s. Officially, prostitution in Clark County (Vegas, basically) was outlawed by the Nevada legislature in 1971. Non-brothel prostitution, such as streetwalking and the outcall services implied by the billboard trucks, has been against the law everywhere in the state since 1987.
A number of people believe Las Vegas allows prostitution because it seems to be happening openly,” said Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s also something that people tend to think would be logical in Las Vegas. Anything goes here. So why not prostitution?”
A national headline last week illustrates pop culture’s role in perpetuating this myth. “Vegas Sex Worker Offering VIP Deal to Raiders,” claimed TMZ. However, the sex worker who made the offer, Arial Ganja, works at the Chicken Ranch in Nye County, which is an hour’s drive west of the Strip. (This explains why she threw in a free limo ride as part of her deal.)
What About the Billboard Trucks and Hooker Cards?
It’s perfectly legal for an escort to accept money to come to a stranger’s hotel room for a reason that’s unspecified. It’s also legal to advertise this service. In fact, it used to take up more than 100 pages of the telephone directory.
“What a paid escort chooses to do once they get to your room may be legal or illegal. But it’s nothing the police can do anything about if no one calls them,” Green said.
If you happen across an actual brothel in Las Vegas, be assured that it is illegal and not a place you want to find yourself. In August 2022, two people were arrested and charged with running just such a brothel near the Las Vegas Strip. Close to 200 men had been observed by police entering their house in a residential neighborhood and exiting after less than an hour.
Brothels like this one — which advertised its services on Craigslist — are more likely to be associated with sex trafficking, kidnapping, drug dealing, and other unsafe crimes simply because the operation is, by definition, a criminal one.
Nevada’s Complicated Relationship with Hookers
In the 19th century, Nevada’s main draw wasn’t gambling or Cirque du Soleil, but gold and silver mines. The influx of diggers hoping to strike it rich resulted in three men for each woman. Brothels offered the illusion of evening up that number. Early in the 20th century, every other state in the union passed laws prohibiting businesses that force women and girls into prostitution.
But Nevada, where brothels were more culturally entrenched, instead did something unusual. It left the matter up to its counties and cities to decide.
“This reflects Nevada’s sometimes misbegotten libertarianism — live and let live,” Green said. “Its leaders decided to allow what other states would not. For example, in 1897, only Nevada would allow prizefighting, and both gambling and prostitution went merrily on.”
In the jurisdictions choosing to allow it, brothel prostitution became highly regulated. In 1937, Nevada’s State Board of Health began requiring brothel prostitutes to submit to weekly gonorrhea and monthly syphilis check-ups.
Finally, in the 1970s, some Nevada counties with long-regulated prostitution began officially legalizing brothels. Storey County was the first, sanctioning Joe Conforte’s Mustang Ranch in 1971.
Currently, 20 legal brothels operate in the 10 Nevada counties that allow them, according to the Nevada Brothel List site. That’s down from a peak of 35 brothels in the early ‘80s.
In addition to the Chicken Ranch, Sheri’s Ranch is also located an hour’s drive from the Strip in Nye County. Nye’s only other currently operating legal brothel, the Alien Cathouse, is 90 minutes northwest in Amargosa Valley.
For a while, Nye’s best-known brothel was Dennis Hof’s Love Ranch in Crystal, Nev. Basketball and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” star Lamar Odom created international awareness for it in 2015 when he almost died of a drug overdose while staying there. Not long after brothel impresario Hof actually died there in 2018 at age 72. The brothel was listed for sale at $1.2M.
The sex workers at Nevada’s legal brothels operate like independent contractors renting out space at hair salons or day spas. They pay licensing fees to the state and their own taxes on their income. Sex workers also pay for their own weekly STD tests and sex worker registration cards, which vary in price by county. They get to negotiate their own prices with clients (usually somewhere between $100-$1,000 per “menu” item). And they are expected to kick half back to the brothel to cover rent, food, utilities, and other operating costs.
Why is Prostitution Illegal in Las Vegas?
That’s a funny question to ask, isn’t it? No one ever asks why brothels are illegal in Detroit or Wichita.
Fresh from his victory in Storey County, Joe Conforte ran smack into a wall he didn’t expect to hit when he tried securing a license to open a brothel in Clark County in 1971. Instead of getting a license, Conforte got prostitution outlawed. His request triggered county officials to convince state legislators to remove the choice of legal brothels from any county with more than 200K residents. (Back then, this meant Clark County.) Now, the law specifies 700K. (Again, Clark County, but now also Washoe County, where Reno is located.)
At the time of the 1971 prostitution law, the state had just instituted the Corporate Gaming Act to try to attract publicly traded companies and rid itself of organized crime,” Green said. “And, as the famous Las Vegan Andre Agassi once said, image is everything. But I think, on social issues, Las Vegas has become less libertarian with population growth.”
“We are much more conservative than most people realize.”
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