It may seem surprising in an era of #MeToo and #Times Up, where a national conversation and reckoning is going on with regard to the exploitation of women, but Barbara Brents is bullish on brothels. “Time’s not up for Nevada brothels,” the UNLV professor and sex-industry researcher says. “If anything, the time is now for Nevada brothels.”
While many advocates are pushing to end legalized prostitution in Nevada — with highly publicized petition drives to ban the practice in Nye and Lyon counties — Brents advocates for decriminalizing sex work, and not just in legal brothels, but via hookups over the internet. She sees this as a way to actually reduce the threat of victimization for women in the industry.
“Only in a legalized system can women who may be exploited or harassed report this,” she says. “In an underground industry, women who are harassed can’t report it to anybody.”
Not surprisingly, there are other researchers who hold an opposite view. One is Melissa Farley, a California academic who runs a nonprofit organization called Prostitution Research & Education. She not only believes time is up for Nevada brothels, she says time was up years ago. Thousands of years ago.
“Prostitution is a primitive form of sexism,” Farley says. “There is so much violence and abuse connected to prostitution that it really can’t be fixed. It’s just gotta be stopped.” She and others want to see Nevada, as a state, outlaw legal prostitution, though right now there’s nothing on the table that would do so statewide.
“I think the MeToo movement has helped fuel that discussion and that reflection,” says Jason Guinasso, a Reno attorney who is providing legal aid and advice for anti-brothel groups in Nye and Lyon counties. “Even if we don’t win, I think we’ve been successful in promoting this broad conversation about how we view women in society. And our position is that women are not commodities to be bought and sold.”
Dennis Hof has much to lose if legal prostitution is banned in Nye and Lyon counties, where he owns six brothels. “This is total political,” he says. A candidate for Assembly District 36, Hof believes Guinasso’s moves in Nye and Lyon are on behalf of Hof’s primary opponent, James Oscarson. “This is a ruse to get me to focus not on my campaign and to focus on my business,” Hof says.
Not true, Guinasso says, though he sees Hof as a “catalyst” for a conversation about brothels because “he’s been so ... narcissistic and bombastic about being a pimp … that it’s put a face on the problem.”
Hof hardly sees Nevada’s brothels as a problem, but he does see them as something of a solution.
“The business is never going away,” he says. “It’s a vice, and there’s a demand for it. The only thing you can do is control who’s in the business; the background checks, the medical checks, fingerprinting — all the things these counties do to make sure there’s no problems.”
As with the heart of MeToo and Times Up, much of the debate over legal brothels seems to come down to consent. Guinasso, citing Farley’s work, says many women working in brothels have been trafficked “or are being pimped from the outside into the brothels. And, so, those concerns led us to want to take these actions and turn the page on an industry that’s done a lot of harm to a lot of people.”
Farley believes, from her research, the majority of women working in Nevada’s brothels have horrific histories of abuse and many, she says, work out of fear — fear they’ll be harmed if they leave and fear they’ll have no other source of income. “It’s not a choice in what you and I consider a choice,” Farley says. “It’s a last-ditch survival maneuver in which a woman exchanges sexual abuse for the necessities of life.”
“Girls will never work in the sex business unless they’re forced?” Hof asks. “Bullshit. Why would a girl be in the sex business? Because she loves sex, because she loves money. She doesn’t want to work a 9-to-5 job and take one week’s vacation when she has no money to go on vacation. That’s why they work for us.”
Recently, several former brothel workers have alleged they suffered unwanted sexual attention from Hof, and another says he repeated raped her in 2011, though at press time no charges have been filed. Hof insists the allegations are politically motivated.
The Nye and Lyon petition drives aren’t the first time the subject of banning brothels has made news. There was a short-lived effort to close down prostitution in Pahrump in 2004, and in 2011, Sen. Harry Reid raised eyebrows in Carson City when, during a speech to the Legislature, he suggested abolishing the legal sex trade. It hurt the state’s reputation in the 21st century, he said. State lawmakers weren’t impressed.
Brents says it’s important to remember that prostitution is a diverse industry, and it makes no sense to give it all the same label. She believes there’s a lot misinformation and inaccuracy about sex work. For example, she says, there’s a common statistic that indicates the average woman involved in prostitution is trafficked at an age of 13-15 years old. Brents says this information may be coming from women who are in the care of social services or the custody of police. “They see the worst cases. I probably see some of the best cases. I see individuals who have college degrees, who have used their work in the sex industry to give themselves a middle-class lifestyle.
“We have a stereotype because we still have problems with the idea that women can really control their own sexuality any way they want to,” Brents says.
Advocates behind the move to ban the brothels in Nye and Lyon counties have until mid-June to collect the required signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. As of press time they had about half the number they need.