This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of those odd laws that makes Nevada all the more interesting. It made prostitution illegal … or legal.
Nevada has long been known for having legal prostitution. But many outside the state think it’s legal everywhere. It’s not. But in 1971, the legislature moved to clarify the issue.
Historically, the state legislature left it up to counties and cities to decide what to do about prostitution. The legislature did a little regulating: no brothels near schools or churches, and requiring prostitutes to be tested.
But the general rule had been that brothels could operate in certain areas. Most towns had a red-light district. In Reno, for example, it was in an area called The Stockade, on the east side, near the Truckee. In Las Vegas, it was Block 16, downtown, First Street between Stewart and Ogden. When Las Vegas shut down that area, many of the brothels moved to a spot on Boulder Highway near Desert Inn, four miles from Main and Fremont, so it was called Formyle.
A turning point came in the 1940s. When Clark County commissioners moved against Block 16, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld their right to do it, although Block 16 was in the City of Las Vegas. In Reno, Mae Cunningham opened a brothel outside the usual area. The county shut her down, so she sued. She figured that if prostitution was okay in one part of town, it should be okay in another. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled against her. The key was what’s called public nuisance law: government officials can abate a nuisance if it is not authorized by statute and is, and we quote, “injurious to health, or indecent and offensive to the senses.” That ruling came in 1949, the same year the state legislature voted to make prostitution legal. Governor Vail Pittman vetoed the bill, saying it would subject Nevada to “sensational and sordid publicity.”
So, prostitution went on. In 1954, there was a big raid at Roxie’s, at Formyle in southern Nevada. It ended up getting national attention when it was written up in the book The Green Felt Jungle. But that didn’t really change anything. What caused the change was Joe Conforte. In 1971, he got Storey County to license his brothel. That made the Mustang Ranch the first official, legal brothel in modern Nevada.
That worried southern Nevadans. They feared Conforte would try something similar in Clark County. So Las Vegans pushed the legislature—including a young assemblyman who’s now reading this—to impose limits. We did. Under a law passed in 1971, brothels couldn’t operate in counties with a population of more than 200,000. Back then, that meant Clark County. Now the law says 700,000—again, Clark County. Ten counties allow legal prostitution now, but not the two largest counties. So if anyone asks you if prostitution is legal in Nevada, you can give them some history. If anyone asks you if that means there’s no prostitution where it’s illegal … we hope you enjoyed this edition of Nevada Yesterdays.