Nevada brothels reopen after long hiatus, sex workers look forward to return to work

The front entrance to the Chicken Ranch brothel

Clients will once again be able to solicit the company of legal sex workers at Nevada’s brothels as owners open the doors to their establishments this weekend after being shuttered for more than a year — longer than virtually all other businesses — because of the pandemic.

Nevada legal sex worker Alice Little said she is looking forward to returning to work after Gov. Steve Sisolak passed the responsibility of reopening and COVID-19 mitigation measures to individual counties as of May 1. The state allows prostitution within brothels, which are only legal in certain counties and not in Washoe, Clark or Carson City, among others.

“I'm really excited,” Little said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “It's well overdue. I'm so eager to be back in that space, to be able to see people again. Many sex workers have struggled to support themselves throughout this situation and to be able to get back to the careers that we know and love — it feels really good.” 

Little protested the continued closure of brothels last year as most other businesses reopened by the late summer. She filed a lawsuit against Gov. Steve Sisolak in October, petitioning him to approve brothels reopen or allow sex workers to work from home. A Lyon County judge dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year. 

Now, Little has received both doses of the Moderna vaccine and is going back to work at the Nye County Chicken Ranch, which houses up to 16 sex workers at a time and is about 65 miles west of Las Vegas. She said she expects brothels to succeed in attracting patrons as they reopen. 

“I think that the demand is going to come back even bigger than before,” Little said. “Folks are now recognizing their need for connection with each other, to have that skin to skin contact. I think we're going to see a reprioritization for fun and playfulness. We're going to want to take advantage of everything we missed out on this past year, you know?” 

Chicken Ranch Madam Trudy Kevoian said the brothel’s sex workers have all received COVID-19 vaccines and have more than 60 appointments lined up for the month of May, which she sees as a good indication of success. 

“Thankfully, my ladies are so amazing, they have plenty of appointments,” Kevoian said during an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Kevoian, who has worked at the brothel for nearly four years, said she’s taken advantage of the downtime in the last year to renovate the building and has more recently been taking care of all the logistics necessary to reopen this weekend. While there is a lot of excitement among sex workers, brothel staff and management, she said they plan to keep the festivities to a minimum in order to continue following state guidelines. 

“We're not doing a real big production,” Kevoian said. “Because we are still following social distancing, the little requirements as much as possible in our common area and the restrictions of capacity. I know that Nye County is opening up 100 percent May 1, so all of that goes away, but it doesn't go away with the governor and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).”

The state mask mandate will remain in place beyond May 1, requiring Nevadans to wear coverings when interacting with people outside of their households. 

Kevoian added that the brothel staff will check sex worker and patron temperatures daily and will require masks be work in the public spaces of the building, leaving the choice of whether masks are worn in the private rooms up to the preferences of individual sex workers. Additionally, patrons will fill out a survey with questions regarding how they’re feeling and recent travels. 

“Our first and foremost objective is making sure everybody's comfortable about coming back and they feel safe there,” Kevoian said. 

Court rules against petition to reopen brothels, which have been shut down for nearly 10 months

In a setback for efforts to open the doors to Nevada brothels, a Lyon County judge denied Bunny Ranch sex worker Alice Little’s petition in her lawsuit against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s closure order. 

District Judge Leon Aberasturi of the Third Judicial District Court cited Little’s status as an independent contractor as a reason for the denial of Little’s request for a preliminary injunction, stating that she cannot represent the interests of brothel owners, who would bear responsibility for reopening their establishments amid a pandemic. 

“In summary, the Court heard no testimony from the brothel owners that they have a problem with what the Directives did to their businesses,” concludes the order issued Monday by Aberasturi. “The owners would have the burden to comply with any regulations. The Court will not issue an advisory opinion or entertain generalized grievances.”

Brothels, located across seven counties in the state, have been closed since mid-March per Sisolak’s state orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Nevada sex workers without legal work for nearly 10 months. 

Most other businesses have reopened since then, although with limited occupancy rates, forming the crux of Little’s complaint against Sisolak. She argues that other businesses currently pose the same risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus, such as massage parlors, tattoo shops and hair salons. 

Sisolak has stated that brothels were “not on [his] radar” to reopen in early October, and his office did not respond to a request for comment Friday on whether there are any coming updates to the state order keeping brothels shuttered. 

In her testimony to the court, Little argued that brothels and sex workers could implement additional mitigation strategies to prevent spread of the virus, just as any other business. 

Images from a forum opposing Lyon County Question 1 featuring legal sex worker Alice Little at the Bunny Ranch Restaurant in Mound House, Nev., east of Carson City on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“How do you have a casino open with smoking and drinking and not propagate the virus? How do you have tattoo parlors and piercing shops without propagating the virus?” Little said in an interview with The Nevada Independent on Friday. “It's the same answer — hand sanitizer, temperature checks, COVID questionnaires, all of the same policies and procedures that all of these other locations are using up to and including mask wearing.”

The court stated that it could not conclude that all sex workers would abide by the same practices Little mentioned and pointed out that Lyon County, where the Bunny Ranch is located, had yet to provide specific regulations regarding the screening of clients, limiting the number of clients a sex worker could see or requirements concerning hygiene and mandatory information for contact tracing efforts. 

While massage parlors have a state regulatory body, the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapists, the court said oversight would be difficult for a brothel. 

“It was not clear what regulatory body would be responsible to ensure a brothel's compliance,” the order said. “A regulatory body would not be able to watch any transaction in order to verify compliance. The Court also found the Defendant's argument that contract tracing would be difficult and would require regulations that the brothels keep names and addresses of ‘Guests’ credible.” 

The court also denied other requests in Little’s lawsuit filed in October, including her desire for the governor to issue an order allowing sex workers to work from home or other private locations. 

However, the court acceded that Little could still receive money damages if she prevails at trial. But given that she’s exhausted her savings, Little is ending her fight here. 

“At this point, it's just not feasible. I've already spent $50,000-odd dollars while being unemployed,” she said. 

She said she’s disappointed in the lack of agency afforded to sex workers and the lack of support offered by brothel owners, some of who had offered to sign onto her lawsuit as long as she was the one to “bankroll” it. 

“Some of the brothel owners have received literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in governmental support through some of their various other businesses,” Little said. “At this point, they need to take care of the industry when they're the ones who profit primarily from it. If they want to get us back to work, get their employees back to work, well, it's time for them to step up and actually do something.” 

In a phone call with The Nevada Independent, Bunny Ranch brothel owner Suzette Cole said she had no intention of joining efforts to reopen brothels. 

“We will open when the governor says we can open,” Cole said, adding she had no further comment on the matter. 

As she waits for brothels to finally reopen to go back to work, Little has financially supported herself through the content subscription service OnlyFans and virtual dates for compensation through Patreon, another subscription platform. She said it’s enough, but she’s barely surviving. 

While she’s eager to return to her job in a brothel, which she said is her passion, Little acknowledges changes need to be made in the industry, which is only legal in Nevada. 

“We can no longer have a system in which owners get to profiteer off the backs and the labor of women, yet have nothing to contribute back to them when things go wrong. That's not good enough,” Little said. “The solution is to revolutionize, update and modernize the system in a way that actually supports and centers the women working.” 

Alice Little vs. Governor Steve Sisolak by Jazmin on Scribd

This story was updated on Jan. 8, 2021 at 4:26 to correct Suzette Cole's statement.

Legal sex worker sues Sisolak, wants state to reopen brothels or allow sex workers to work from home

A licensed sex worker in Nevada is suing Gov. Steve Sisolak over what she calls the “unconstitutional” decision to keep the state’s legal brothels closed even as other businesses resume operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The complaint was filed with the Third Judicial District Court in Lyon County on Friday on behalf of plaintiff Alice Little, a legal sex worker who had been working at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch Brothel, and Jane and John Does 1-100, who represent her clients. The complaint calls Sisolak’s choice not to open brothels “arbitrary” and is seeking either for the court to end the closures or to compel the governor to issue an executive order allowing legal sex work to happen outside of a brothel.

“I am surprised and a little bit upset at the fact that not a word has been said. It’s just as if he’s completely forgotten this entire sub sector of his constituents,” Little said in an interview with The Nevada Independent on Friday. “We are legal Nevada taxpayers. I feel like he has due cause to respond at this point and at least give us some sort of information, and yet we have been completely left in the dark this entire time, and it’s very, very frustrating.”

The state’s legal brothels have been closed since March, despite calls from sex workers and brothel owners to allow them to reopen, and those in the industry say they have been met with silence from state leadership on why they remain closed when close-contact businesses such as massage parlors and tattoo shops have been open since May. 

Sisolak said earlier this month that brothels are “not on his radar” to open, but that if owners can come up with a plan, it will be considered. Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch, submitted a reopening plan to the state in May. The governor’s office declined to comment Friday.

Nevada is the only state in the country that allows legal brothels. Sex work is only legal in 10 counties in the state, and only if it takes place within a legal brothel, which can only be found in seven counties.

If brothels cannot reopen, Little is pushing to change that policy and allow sex workers to work from home or from other safe locations in order to allow workers a way to make an income.

“I see no reason as to why that isn’t a viable solution … You figure, the legality is what gives us safety, not the brothel,” Little said. “And if I wasn’t required to give 50 percent of my income to the brothel, I think that income would actually be far greater than what I would make if the brothels were open.”

Sex workers at Nevada’s brothels are independent contractors, and Little and others in the industry have said it’s been very difficult for any of them to secure unemployment benefits. While Little has been able to make up some lost income through online sex work, she fears that others have had a harder time with the transition.

“It’s incredibly difficult for a sex worker to just jump in to a different industry and enter a new career path given all the stigmas associated with the industry,” she said.

Little said that the decision to file the lawsuit was made because after seven months of a shutdown with no information, she “can’t wait any longer.” In addition to reopening brothels, Little is seeking damages for lost income during the closure. 

“At this point, I just want the right thing to happen,” she said.

This story was updated at 5:40 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 to clarify that the governor's office declined to comment.

As Nevada’s legal brothels remain closed, sex workers think bias is at play

Photo of the interior of the Mustang Ranch

When word got to Alice Little that brothels in Nevada would be closing for 30 days to comply with state orders and slow the spread of COVID-19, she brought the two houseplants in her room at the Bunny Ranch down to the front desk and asked the employee there to look after them while she was gone.

Eight months later, Little hasn’t seen her plants again.

Little is one of hundreds of legal sex workers in the state who lost their major source of income when brothels and other businesses shut down mid-March. While most other industries have been able to resume some level of operations, Gov. Steve Sisolak has indicated that the state’s brothels are “not on his radar” to reopen. 

Services allowing physical contact around the state have been allowed to resume service, with tattoo shops, estheticians, and massage parlors open since May. Women who work in Nevada’s legal sex industry say they feel they’re being ignored not because of the risk their business poses but because of a bias against their industry.

“I think it’s discriminatory of the governor,” said Kiki Lover, a legal sex worker living in Reno. “He’s discriminating against sex workers.”

Prior to the shutdown, Lover was working five days a week at the Sagebrush Ranch in Lyon County. She’s based locally, so when news came on March 19 that the facility would be closing its doors immediately, she was able to pack up her room and head back home.

But for the women living in the brothel full time, things weren’t as simple.

“The first couple of weeks, they let the girls [stay] that were homeless or lived too far away,” she said. “Then everybody has to get out because at the end of the day ... the brothel can’t just keep you there all the time without you working.”

Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel
The Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel in Mound House, east of Carson City on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Legal sex work in Nevada

According to both Little and Lover, it’s common for women from other states to stay at one of Nevada’s brothels for periods of a few weeks or months in order to take advantage of the state’s legal industry before returning back home. Nevada’s legal sex industry is still controversial, often condemned by anti-sex trafficking organizations that say brothels are part of a culture that encourages sexual exploitation, but a lawsuit that sought to ban them was dismissed last year.

Nevada is the only state to allow legal prostitution, but state law requires it to take place in a licensed brothel in a county with a population of less than 700,000.

Clark County is the only Nevada county to exceed that population count, but six other counties — Carson City, Douglas, Eureka, Lincoln, Pershing, and Washoe — have expressly outlawed prostitution. Among the 10 counties where brothels can legally operate, none are operating in Churchill, Esmeralda or Humboldt. 

The Mustang Ranch Brothel, officially sanctioned by Storey County in 1971, was the state’s first legal brothel. Joe Conforte, the ranch’s original owner, was forced to forfeit the property to the federal government in 1999, but owner Lance Gilman bought back the buildings and reopened the brothel in 2005.

“We employ 49 people,” Gilman said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Because we’re 24 hours a day, seven days a week — we’ve never closed except for COVID — we have to run a pretty good-sized staff in house.”

Those full-time employees include security, kitchen staff and chefs, bartenders, housekeeping staff, cashiers and “parlor hostesses” who manage in-house operations. In addition to the 49 staff members, there are several hundred sex workers who work at the brothel on a rotating basis. 

“We have ladies that work there from all walks of life,” Gilman said. “We have teachers there, we have attorneys there, and we have bookkeepers there. A lot of the ladies in the workforce are without a husband but with children, so they find that working in our industry legally is safe for them.”

Sisolak said during an interview this month at The Nevada Independent’s IndyFest conference that brothels are not his focus when other sectors are still trying to navigate reopening.

“Certainly we’re going to have to look at getting kids back into schools before we look at getting folks back into brothels,” he said. “We’ll be addressing it sometime, certainly, but it’s not in the immediate future.”

Gilman counters that his employees and contractors deserve the chance to resume work just like workers in other industries.

“We’ve been held closed longer than any other business in the state, and still are, and it’s unreasonable,” said Gilman. “We need help.”

Surviving in the interim

Legal sex workers in Nevada’s brothels are independent contractors and not employees, and this status has made it more difficult for those workers to receive supplemental benefits while out of work. Unemployment benefits were not immediately available to independent contractors during the first months lockdown, and although the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) was eventually extended to workers with this classification in May, Lover, Little, and Gilman all said they don’t know any women in the industry who have actually received the benefits they applied for.

“Many sex workers found it difficult to apply for those or are still pending and waiting to get those funds,” Little said. “As we know, here in Nevada it took many months after the shutdown for the CARES Act to actually kick into gear, and sex workers are really left with zero options.”

Brothels were not eligible for the Small Business Administration loans that many businesses took advantage of earlier this year, but Gilman did manage to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for the restaurant attached to Mustang Ranch, the Wild Horse Saloon. 

Additionally, Gilman’s business was eligible for federal small business grants distributed by Storey County. Storey County is the only county that participated in the grant program, funded through federal coronavirus relief funding, in which legal brothels operate, and the decision is up to each county to determine what businesses are eligible. Gilman is a county commissioner in Storey.

Even after receiving between $150,000 and $350,000 in PPP loans, Gilman says he still eventually had to furlough his employees, and the contractors at Mustang Ranch who are not bona fide employees were not able to receive any supplemental income through these loans.

Without unemployment benefits, many women in the industry have tried turning to creative options to make up for lost income, including phone sex lines and cam work. Both Lover and Little have been utilizing the online platform Onlyfans, a content-sharing platform that allows users to charge for access to videos, photos, and direct messaging.

“It’s all online, and that has been keeping me afloat, but it’s nowhere near what I’d make at the brothel of course,” said Lover. “But, it’s been paying the bills.”

Images from a forum opposing Lyon County Question 1 featuring legal sex worker Alice Little at the Bunny Ranch Restaurant in Mound House, east of Carson City on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

According to Little, however, online options are only viable for women who have already built a client base willing to pay for access to their content. Little bills herself as Nevada’s highest-paid legal sex worker and had standing appointments with clients that had to be cancelled because of the shutdown, but most women in the brothels make money from walk-in clients.

“I’m successful at a level that most ladies aren't, and even then I had to take a look at things and figure out, ‘Oh, I need to scale back,’” Little said. “My real concern is for the ladies who just recently got started in this industry. What are they supposed to do?”

Little said she knows some women who have had to start working independently without the protection of a legal system.

“They bought into the legal system, paid their taxes … only to be shut down and be worse off than they would have been working at any other job,” Little said. “The fault doesn’t lie with the women for making the choices that they’re making at this point. It, if anything, weighs on the sheer economics of our country and the lack of protections available to sex workers.”

Multiple counties are allowing brothels to provide non-sexual escort services, but escorts are not allowed to utilize brothel facilities. Little told the Reno-Gazette Journal that her clients are unwilling to travel for these services and are instead waiting for brothels to reopen. Escort services also pose the same difficulties for women who are just starting out and don’t have an established client base who will seek them out for these services.

To those who think sex workers should find new jobs, Little says the stigma of their current job is a major barrier.

“What do we expect sex workers to do, put down on their resume, ‘Was a sex worker at the Bunny Ranch for five years,’ and then go work as a cashier?” Little said. “I’m not sure what a reasonable expectation is here just given the sheer amount of stigma that comes with being associated with the industry.”

Losing their safety net

Beyond the difficulty in leaving, many women also have no desire to leave the industry as long as they can continue to work safely.

Although contractors working in brothels still had to pay for their own medical services, brothels did provide access to weekly testing, and being a legal sex worker provides a degree of protection for women because they can report incidents of violence or harassment without fear of charges for illegal prostitution. Women who have lost that option and are now transitioning to independent or survival sex work also lose those protections.

Service providers are seeing first hand how difficult it is for women in the industry, especially during the pandemic. The Cupcake Girls, a nonprofit organization based out of Las Vegas and Portland that offers support to women currently or previously involved with the sex industry, has seen a massive increase in demand for its services throughout the past several months.

“We saw [a] 150 percent increase in support requests,” said Jenny Fay, the organization’s executive director for Nevada. “Communications with clients … the number of emails, phone calls, meetings, year over year in those months it went up 600 percent.”

The Cupcake Girls does outreach at strip clubs and legal brothels, refers clients to partner organizations and offers intensive case management. Fay noted that, through its counseling services, the organization saw a 300 percent increase in reports of domestic violence.

Domestic violence rates have been increasing across the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and, in Nevada, service providers have been working to address that need and find ways to help those who may be stuck at home with an abuser and unable to find assistance. 

The most dramatic increase noted by the organization, however, was a 1,100 percent increase in the number of individuals reaching out for financial support such as grants for rental assistance and utility payments compared with the same period in 2019. While the organization does not have statistics on how many of the individuals reaching out were previously working in legal brothels, Fay observed that the increases in need have been “across the board.”

“Whether it was somebody working in the legal brothels, or somebody working in a strip club, or somebody doing street based sex work, it seems from what we’re seeing, there is a need, especially, for financial support,” she said. “There’s just less money being made in any way right now in our city especially.”

What does social distancing look like in a brothel?

When asked during an IndyFest panel about brothels reopening, Sisolak said he doesn’t know how people would social distance in brothel, and that it’s up to brothel owners “coming up with a plan.” But those in the industry say they have submitted plans to the state only to be met with silence.

Gilman first submitted reopening plans in May to the COVID-19 Task Force and the health department as well as to the Local Empowerment Advisory Panel which helped develop reopening guidelines for Nevada businesses. He also submitted a letter with the plan attached to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

A representative said that Michael Brown, the office's executive director, received the letter and responded to Gilman, saying the reopening request, "could be considered at a future phase in the State's re-opening plan."

Gilman says he is uncertain where in the process the request is being rejected and is looking for clarity from the state. 

“Where we’re being held is an unknown right now,” he said. “We’ve had no feedback of any kind that anyone rejects them … So why we’re not open is an absolute unknown puzzle, and we need to be told.”

The reopening plan includes procedures for screening employees, customers and contractors, limiting the number of customers and contractors in the building, sanitizing procedures and mask use requirements, and procedures for containment in the case of a positive test or failed screening.

Gilman’s proposal would allow the brothel to operate without physical contact, essentially allowing the non-sexual escort services currently allowed by the county to take place within the brothel facility. 

“In this industry, much, if not the majority, of the courtesan-customer interaction does not involve physical contact even during normal business operations,” Gilman wrote in the plan.

The bar would also remain closed to customers under Gilman’s plan, but the kitchen would be able to operate to prepare food for guests, which would then be packaged and delivered to rented rooms.

The letter sent on behalf of the ranch to Brown also indicated that the brothel had been implementing safety protocols prior to its official shutdown.

“We took temperatures at the door with trained personnel, we took temperatures of every employee and every working lady prior to starting their workday every day,” Gilman said in the letter. “We use gloves, alcohol wipes and all forms of sanitary protocols. These are everyday standard procedures.” 

The front entrance to the Chicken Ranch brothel
The Chicken Ranch brothel in Pahrump as seen on Thursday, April 19, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Gilman is not the only brothel operator who’s taken steps to assure the state of the industry’s safety standards. At an Oct. 8 COVID task force meeting, Trudy Kevoian, the general manager of the Chicken Ranch in Pahrump, attested to the sanitation of her business.

“When it comes to safety and sanitation,” she said, “I would say our front bars inside of the brothels far exceeds those of Walmart or any of the bars that are currently open and have been given the opportunity to bring their people back to work and let them provide for their family.”

Lover agreed that transitioning the already clean environment of the brothels into a COVID-compliant workplace would be simple, but she believes that physical contact can still be part of the job, using the same mask rules and appointment-only system that massage parlors in the state have been utilizing.

“The brothels are one of the cleanest places you could actually be or go,” she said. “So just let us reopen, we can just put on a mask! We can definitely do our jobs with a mask on. It’s not that hard.”

Little also emphasized that she believes reopening can be done safely. Without effective guidelines that ensure safety for women in the industry, including access to COVID testing, Little said she may not return.

“I would probably leave the industry,” Little said. “We need to have less ladies working. We, ideally, need to have people not coming in and out of the ranch hanging around the bar and drinking … I feel it’s very, very doable, but you can’t do it without some reasonable change.”

This story was updated Oct. 26 at 12:00 p.m. to include information provided by the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

Reno City Council targets illegal prostitution with new city ordinance on massage businesses

The Reno City Council unanimously approved implementing stronger regulations for massage establishments in an attempt to target and remove businesses serving as fronts for illegal activities such as prostitution or human trafficking.

The council members voted on the ordinance in a meeting on Wednesday. They had directed city staff to start developing an ordinance in August following calls from police and other groups for stronger laws addressing illegal prostitution disguised as massage businesses last year. 

Under the new regulations, operators of massage establishments in the city will be required to obtain an FBI background check and have a manager present during operating hours. Businesses are also no longer allowed to have an on-site ATM, tinted exterior windows, or recording devices in treatment rooms. 

The ordinance also bans 24-hour operations because standard massage establishments usually do business during the day, and illicit activities are more likely to occur at night. 

Currently, licensed therapists undergo an initial background investigation as part of a state licensing process, and some therapists complete a background check to receive national certification, but Reno does not require massage establishment owners to be licensed therapists at either the state or federal level.

In a phone interview with The Nevada Independent, Sandy Anderson, director of the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapy, estimated that out of 280 licensed massage establishments in the Truckee Meadows area, 26, or roughly 9 percent, were home to illicit activities. Anderson said the board identifies illegal massage parlors by looking at whether businesses advertise sex on the internet and with data from the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization committed to combating and preventing human trafficking.

Although the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapy might know what businesses are conducting illicit activities, Anderson said it is difficult to prove an organization is breaking the law. She said the new city ordinance adds a level of oversight that will make it harder for organizations to put up a front.

“[Reno’s] ordinances now are very similar to the City of Henderson. The City of Henderson has seen a major decline in the number of illicit establishments in the city,” Anderson said. “And that’s what we’re hoping for Reno as well because we’ll have a better ability to address the illegal activity that’s occurring in these locations.”

Anderson also said that individuals with national certifications would not be significantly affected by the new ordinance, which is designed to address the businesses that are not following regulations and are “open 24 hours and have limos showing up at four o’clock in the morning.”

The proposal originally gave licensed massage establishments 18 months to comply with the ordinance once it goes into effect, but the City Council decided to shorten the compliance period to six months. City staff explained that they could require and enact the ordinance as soon as the council approves the latest change in the enactment timeline. 

If a massage establishment fails to comply with the ordinance change or fails a background check after the law is enacted, it risks losing its business license. 

Vegas' Trac-B harm reduction center aims to make sex work safer

Christina Parreira at Trac B office

Christina Parreira opens her monthly safety meetings by checking in with each sex worker who attends, asking whether anyone has had any bad experiences or has been in any dangerous situations since last visiting the office.

These closed meetings, hosted by the Las Vegas-based harm reduction agency Trac-B Exchange in its downtown office, are generally attended by four or five people, most of whom are involved in high-risk street-based sex work and are looking for ways to make what they do safer. The center provides them with safety tips and kits containing free contraceptive devices.

“I have one on harm reduction for if you are working on the streets,” said Parreira, who is a sex worker herself and leads the meetings. “So tips like not wearing a long necklace because a client could choke you with it. Putting your hair up, because he could pull your hair. Walking around the car and making sure that nobody else is in it. Things that unfortunately these women go through.”

The meetings are a part of Trac-B’s attempt to expand their outreach in the sex industry and make conditions safer for those involved. These efforts also include counseling and free STD testing.

Trac-B was started in November 2016 by Rick Reich, who had recently retired from the Southern Nevada Health District.

“We opened officially as a syringe exchange in February of 2017. And then we rolled out our syringe vending machine program in April of 2017, and we've just been expanding ever since,” said Chelsi Cheatom, the organization’s program director. 

Harm reduction is a movement in social work that accepts that behavior such as drug use is a fact of life and aims to reduce the negative effects associated with that rather than ignoring or condemning them. Trac-B employs harm reduction strategies in dealing with sex workers as well as drug users.

Items that may be provided to sex workers in need are displayed on a table inside Trac-B Exchange, a harm reduction center in Las Vegas, on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Trac-B Exchange’s office may be small, but its impact is big. About 70 people come through per day seeking services the center provides. 

On a normal day, the warmly lit office is bustling with activity as staff rush to assist every client who comes through the door. Even as she moves out of the main office to begin her interview, Cheatom is answering questions from volunteers, making change for customers and taking phone calls. 

“We provide [anti-overdose drug] Naloxone; we do transitioning people into drug treatment through Trac-B; we do HIV and hepatitis C testing,” listed Cheatom, “And then we recently started working with people in the sex industry to reduce their risk of STDs, HIV, but also to reduce their risk of arrest and violence.”

The work Trac-B does with the sex industry has been ongoing but expanded with the help of Parreira, who coordinates sex work harm reduction services in addition to serving as the public relations and media specialist. 

Parreira has worked in the sex industry for 11 years. She began webcamming — a legal form of sex work where models perform live in online chat rooms — to pay for her masters degree in clinical psychology. Since then, she has expanded her work in the industry and has experience stripping, working in phone sex and as a dominatrix. 

Parreira is working towards her Ph.D. in sociology at UNLV and spent time working in a legal brothel as ethnographic research for her dissertation. Parreira’s personal experience in the sex industry has made her aware of legal options in the industry.

She also says her experience makes sex workers more willing to approach her for counseling and other services. She compared it to peer recovery programs that involve former addicts — “peers” — helping those struggling with substance abuse.

“Generally sex workers won't really trust somebody running a program if they've never done it. So they have wanted to get somebody working in the industry,” Parreira said, “They didn't have any sex workers working here, which is a little problematic.”

While Trac-B is not the only resource center with programs aimed at sex workers, these programs are less commonly available than other types of harm reduction services such as those geared toward drug use.

“I've met people [in] harm reduction that don't even agree with it because they think it's all sex trafficking,” said Parreira. 

For Cheatom and Parreira, sex worker-targeted services are important because the majority of their sex worker clientele are involved in high-risk street work and may be unable to seek out other resources for fear of being arrested. Prostitution is illegal in Nevada if it takes place outside of a legal brothel, which are only allowed in counties with a population lower than 700,000. It is entirely illegal in multiple counties, including Clark and Washoe as well as in Carson City. 

“We wanted people to have the opportunity to talk about violent situations, and anything bad that may have happened to them, so we could give them tips and pointers on how to prevent those things from happening again,” Cheatom said.

Safety Services

Parreira provides one-on-one counseling services in the office day to day and even makes house calls in addition to the monthly meetings.

“I wouldn't really call it a support group,” said Parreira. “It's not counseling, either. Just a group, like a peer support group, I guess. And it's only open to sex workers, so that it's face to face.”

Trac-B also provides free kits that contain condoms, lube and pregnancy tests. Clients can also get Plan B, an emergency over-the-counter contraceptive pill that was given to Trac-B through a grant from the Sex Workers Outreach Project. 

Safe sex kits prepared for distribution for clients as seen in a bin inside Trac-B Exchange, a harm reduction center in Las Vegas, on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Workers are also given updated copies of Trac-B’s “Bad Date List.” Sex workers who have experienced dangerous situations such as robbery or assault can submit confidential reports with whatever information they have about the incident such as location, the name of whoever was involved and a description of the event.

Reports can be submitted online or in person at the office. In addition to handing them out at meetings, Trac-B distributes the list to all sex workers who come into the office and through a text and email list.

Trac-B works with law enforcement and The Cupcake Girls, an organization that provides support and resources to sex workers, to provide exit services for those involved in the sex industry who want to get out. Trac-B can provide counseling and safe housing, but often they refer clients to The Cupcake Girls, who Parreira says have more funding for exit services.

However, Parreira emphasized that they do not encourage workers to leave the industry unless they are asking for that assistance.

“It's harm reduction. It's client-centered. So, it's what they need and what they want,” she said.

Legal Sex Work Workshops

This month, Trac-B hosted its first workshop for sex workers specifically focused on legal sex work options in the industry.

“One of the things that we realized when we were doing the advisory board meetings is that people don't necessarily always want to get out of sex work,” said Cheatom. “But they also don't want to put themselves at risk.”

For these workers, Parreira has developed a workshop that informs them about work in legal brothels, cam work and even text-based sex work. 

“That's really what they're dying to know about, because they know that I do it,” she said.

As of May 2018, there were 20 legal brothels operating in Nevada. Working in the legal brothel setting not only eliminates the risk of arrest but also makes it easier for workers to report incidents of harassment or assault. Street-based sex workers are often unwilling to report these incidents to law enforcement because of a fear of arrest on prostitution charges.

Legal brothels in Nevada are still a point of controversy, condemned by anti-sex trafficking organizations who say they are part of a system that encourages sexual exploitation. However, a federal court recently overturned a lawsuit that sought to end the legal sex industry in Nevada.

In addition to brothels, Parreira sees opportunity for legal sex workers in Las Vegas’s growing porn industry. Trac-B is even hoping to have a booth in coming years at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, the nation’s largest trade show for the porn industry, which is held in Las Vegas.

Expanding Outreach

According to Cheatom, a lot of the sex workers who the center reaches come in looking for other resources.

“Sometimes for us, it's a lot of crossover. So people that work in sex work and people that might be using illicit substances may cross over,” she said.

Signage as seen inside Trac-B Exchange, a harm reduction center in Las Vegas, on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Parreira herself will approach people in office or during syringe-related outreach events to provide them with information if she suspects they may be involved in the industry.

“When I meet women that are in the industry, or I even sort of suspect, we have flyers for the program on the counter and I'll say, ‘Hi everyone, I don't know if this applies to you or anybody you know, but if it does, here you go.’ And I'll even say, ‘I'm the coordinator and I am a sex worker,’ and then their defenses come down and they're able to talk,” she said.

Trac-B is hoping to expand outreach that would allow them to get information to sex workers who may not require their other services. 

“We do outreach but it's not as robust as we'd like it to be. We'd love to be able to expand our outreach and reach more people. So we started partnering with other organizations like the Cupcake Girls. We post information about our training classes and also a bad date list at other community resource centers,” said Cheatom, “We're trying to get the word out there.”

Parreira has also sought to expand the center’s social media presence. When she took over as the PR and media specialist, the organization only had a Facebook page. She has since started a Twitter account, an Instagram account, and even a YouTube channel and says a lot of workers have found information about Trac-B through Reddit.

“It's just a way to get the word out there,” said Parreira, “These days you need social media, no matter what company you are.”

A Safe Space

Parreira herself has received services from The Cupcake Girls and from harm reduction centers in the past. She and Cheatom had previously met when Cheatom was working with the Southern Nevada Health District in charge of HIV/STD testing for the brothel where Parreira was working. Parreira contacted Cheatom when she heard about Trac-B to find a way to get involved. 

Parreira said it is important for her to be open about her experience as a sex worker as a way to de-stigmatize the industry.

“I'm a Ph.D. student, I'm out as a sex worker, everybody knows my real name,” she said. 

She said she hopes, going forward, to be able to provide support for all sex workers, working legally or not, dealing with any level of sexual grievance. 

“It can be hard to be in the industry,” said Parreira, “Even if you are making a lot of money and doing well.”

Brothel fights for records after state classifies sex workers as employees, not independent contractors

Bunnies at play sign

A brothel protesting that the state has classified sex workers as its employees rather than as independent contractors — a change that could mean the brothel owes a large sum to the state’s unemployment insurance fund — is now arguing over public records before the Nevada Supreme Court.

The matter comes after a lower court ruled the Love Ranch brothel in Lyon County should have access to the Nevada Department of Employment’s Employee Security Division (ESD) 2017 audit of the brothel, which documents the state’s determination that sex workers there should be classified as employees. The brothel had also sought other brothels’ audits as a public records request. The state has appealed the decision, and the high court held a hearing on the matter last week.

“If the District Court’s order is permitted to stand, it will open the floodgates to new administrative litigation and overload the dockets of the Nevada’s District Courts and Appellate Courts by parties using the [Nevada Public Records Act] request to interrupt, disrupt, and delay the NRS 612 administrative process,” the state said in its opening brief. 

The “NRS 612 administrative process” references the Nevada law for unemployment compensation, including circumstances — such as a criminal investigation — under which the state would disclose its information.

The Love Ranch brothel is located about seven miles east of Carson City, Nevada. It was owned by the late Dennis Hof and is located near three other brothels and a strip club in an area known as “Madam Suzette and Dennis Hof’s Red Light District.” The brothel’s website features 38 women. 

The brothel sought the audit documents by writ of mandamus, a legal order for a governmental official to properly fulfill his or her official and legal duties. In this case, the Love Ranch argued that it was its legal right to obtain the audit documents in order to support the appeal, making it the court’s legal responsibility to allow it access to the documents. 

Another argument the brothel made was that the state’s bias led to the arbitrary change in course in calling their sex workers employees instead of independent contractors, a classification that had been widely used before.

The issues in the case before the Nevada Supreme Court include whether: 

  1. The information requested is exempt from disclosure by writ of mandamus under Nevada’s Public Records Act and 2013 law, NRS 612.
  2. It’s appropriate that the brothel resolves this issue through court, rather than administrative proceedings. 
  3. The public records request was vague and overly broad, also making the writ inappropriate. 
  4. The District Court lacked jurisdiction to grant the writ petition and release confidential information.

In its brief, the Love Ranch complained that the ESD’s Board of Review had themselves classified the Ranch’s sex workers as independent contractors, not employees, in 2016, and that the public records request fully complied with appropriate legal procedure. 

Federal court dismisses lawsuit seeking to end brothel industry

The front entrance to the Chicken Ranch brothel

A lawsuit that aimed to eliminate Nevada’s legal brothels has been dismissed by a federal court judge who rejected the notion that it conflicts with federal laws.

“While the Court empathizes with Plaintiffs for their lived experiences, the Court cannot adjudicate Plaintiffs’ claims because Plaintiffs fail to establish standing to confer jurisdiction upon this Court,” Chief U.S. District Judge Miranda Du wrote in an order filed Tuesday.

Three women who say they were sex trafficked through Nevada filed the lawsuit earlier this year. The lawsuit — which named the state, the Legislature and Gov. Steve Sisolak as defendants — argued that legalized prostitution in rural counties contradicts two federal laws that criminalize human trafficking across state lines for the purposes of commercial sex acts.

Reno-based attorney Jason Guinasso, who’s representing the plaintiffs, released a statement saying they “strongly disagree” with the ruling and are considering other legal options, including an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

“If Nevada did not permit legal prostitution, they  would not have been trafficked to Nevada,” Guinasso wrote. “Nevada’s actions and inactions unavoidably conflict with the federal law and policy established to prevent the exact harms that Plaintiffs assert.”

Developer Lance Gilman, who owns the Mustang Ranch brothel in Sparks, praised the judge’s decision but offered a blistering attack on Guinasso.

“We are extremely pleased that the United States District Court deemed this lawsuit baseless and without merit and, as such, dismissed it,” Gilman said in a statement. “However, we are equally frustrated at the persistent and reckless attempts by Mr. Guinasso to ban Nevada’s historic brothel industry through incendiary allegations that are steeped in moral judgement rather than facts and education. This was a complete waste and misuse of taxpayer dollars and, from the very get go, appears to have been done for political gain rather than the establishment of sound policy."

Gilman concluded his statement by extending an invitation to Guinasso to work with the brothel industry and find solutions that “get women off the streets and out of the hands of predators.”

At Mustang Ranch open house, Gilman says he wants ‘better respect’ for brothel industry

Photo of the interior of the Mustang Ranch

Dennis Hof was found dead at one of his seven brothels almost a year ago. But the death of one of its most outspoken figureheads hasn’t kept the brothel industry out of the headlines — it faced a legislative push to put an end to the industry and a proposal to explore brothel working conditions through a formal study. 

Recent media coverage and controversy prompted Mustang Ranch owner and land developer Lance Gilman — who has kept a lower profile than the reality TV star Hof — to “throw the doors open” to his Storey County brothel last week. Gilman said he invited the media to create a sense of transparency into his business and legal prostitution overall.

“I believe in it, and I'm so proud of it, and I'm so aware of the benefits that it brings to the community and especially ladies and customers,” he said. “My legacy is I want to take that next level. I want to see more understanding of the folks that are out there, a better respect for it as an industry. If I can leave it at a better place than I found it, then I will have achieved my vision.”

Lance Gilman speaking at a media event at the World Famous Mustang Ranch outside Reno, Nevada on Aug. 22, 2019. Photo by Andrea Laue.

Gilman bought the brothel buildings in 2003 on Ebay from the Bureau of Land Management. Hof had bid on the same property, but his bid had been rejected by the BLM. By 2005, Gilman had relocated and renovated the property. 

The Mustang Ranch property, which is about 20 minutes outside of Reno, consists of three red houses. The house where the press was invited featured a bar, stage and lounge, and was decorated with Greek-style nude female statues.

A red neon sign above the bar read “Mustang Ranch.” The two madams, or managers of the house, offered tours of the house’s six themed suites for guests.

Gilman and madam Tara Adkins both said they support ACR 6, a planned study into working conditions within the brothels. The measure was sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen.

“Love it,” Adkins said. “I love the Lesley bill. We fought for it. We're 100 percent for it. Being an ex-lady, I think it's very important to come in and look at these ladies and their well being. And I think the rest of the houses need to be under that same umbrella.” 

Madame Tara at the World Famous Mustang Ranch outside Reno, Nevada on Aug. 22, 2019. Photo by Andrea Laue.

Gilman says the brothels throughout Nevada run their operations independently and with little oversight and hopes the bill will create a more cohesive and streamlined way of operating. 

One of the concerns raised for the women, who are hired as independent contractors, is that they may not have the freedom to come and go as they please from the brothels they work in.

“I know one thing that was brought up was that people keep saying that we're locked down house and that's not true,” Adkins said. 

Some brothels in Nevada require the working women to stay on the premises of the house until a contracted end date. The duration of a lockdown “shift” may be anywhere from 10 days to three weeks. 

Adkins assures that women at the Ranch are free to come and go as they please. However, they are required to see a doctor for health tests every seven days, she said, which they must go to with a hired driver as to not compromise any tests or take any unnecessary risks.

Leaving the premises without a hired driver means the woman has to have a test done upon her arrival back at the house before taking any clients, in order to ensure the customers’ health and safety. 

The women pay for their health tests out of pocket as the services are not covered by the house. 

This way, says Adkins, the brothel can ensure their customers that the women are medically cleared and their health is not at risk. 

The bed in the Princess Room at the World Famous Mustang Ranch outside Reno, Nevada on Aug. 22, 2019. Photo by Andrea Laue.

Nevada is the lone state in the country to have a legalized operating system of sex work, although prostitution outside of a licensed brothel itself is illegal, and the state’s two largest counties prohibit brothels.

Some sex workers and human rights organizations support decriminalizing prostitution in general, even outside the legal brothel system. Supporters say decriminalization could help protect sex workers and set legal boundaries and oversight. 

Adkins says this would be a mistake. 

“I think if you decriminalize it, you're going to put all these ladies in the hands of the predators,” she said. 

Adkins argues that brothels, such as Mustang Ranch, are much safer places for women to find work rather than in private hotel rooms and on the street corners because of the controlled environment with regulations and oversight that a licensed house can provide. 

Gilman says his brothel can serve as a model for other brothels to follow, potentially forming a more standardized operation statewide. Both Adkins and Gilman say they are confident the proposed study looking into the business will find the brothel’s working conditions as safe and exemplary. 

Clothing optional hottub at the World Famous Mustang Ranch outside Reno, Nevada on Aug. 22, 2019. Photo by Andrea Laue.

Recent efforts to ban prostitution altogether have been unsuccessful. A bill to ban prostitution in Nevada was introduced in March and had failed by April, while plans to ban brothels in Nye and Lyon counties in 2018 failed to gather sufficient support. 

Gilman says anti-brothel legal efforts date back to when he initially bought the brothel’s property. 

Dennis Hof’s political campaign and death brought the brothel industry into the national spotlight last year and prompted state leaders to question the operations within the houses. Accusations of sexual misconduct against Hof by several women were still being investigated at the time of his death. 

But despite the public scrutiny of the industry in the past year, Gilman said the industry has wide support from the people of the state, which is why it has been able to survive anti-brothel efforts. 

“So will there always be something? Yes,” Gilman said. “After 20 years, am I worried? No.”

Licensing board director says prostitution at massage parlors is pervasive but hard to prevent

Massage establishments operating as a front for prostitution have garnered more headlines in recent months, especially after New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged earlier this year with solicitation in Florida at a day spa.

Sandy Anderson, director of the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapy, on Aug. 8, 2019. Photo by Joey Lovato.

But it’s a problem that’s been on Sandy Anderson’s radar for years. Anderson is executive director of the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapy; she has been a massage therapist herself for 25 years, long taught the trade at Truckee Meadows Community College and has led the board for more than three years. 

Anderson believes that among the nearly 1,000 licensed establishments in the state, about 25 in the Reno area and 150-200 in the Las Vegas area may be fostering illegal prostitution or sex trafficking activity. (While prostitution is legal in Nevada, it is not allowed in massage establishments and is only permitted in licensed brothels, which are not allowed at all in Clark, Washoe and some other counties.)

In spite of those high numbers of suspicious businesses, she points to just two that have been shut down. 

“The success rate is very low and that's a problem, but it's getting better,” she said. “There's a lot of work being done in the city of Reno to address this issue … and we've been invited to the table to work with that team. So that part is really good.”

The problem can be difficult to tackle. Proprietors are sophisticated and hide illicit activity between visits from inspectors; Anderson declined to disclose how frequently establishments are inspected to avoid tipping off bad operators. 

And the massage practitioners illegally offering sex acts may have varying degrees of choice in the matter, ranging from willful participation in prostitution to being victims of human trafficking.

Massage parlor signage as seen in Las Vegas on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

What can the massage board do?

Illegal prostitution can happen in both licensed and unlicensed establishments, and with licensed or unlicensed practitioners. The board does not have the latitude to reject people who are otherwise meeting the requirements, which include 550 hours of supervised practice.

“If a person presents to us, they've completed adequate education, they have a clear background check with no prior arrests … those individuals get a license,” Anderson said. “We can't say we're not going to give you a license — if you meet the criteria, we have to give you a license.”

The board itself has a limited role. It licenses therapists and establishments, then inspects them to make sure they meet health and hygiene guidelines. But if there are telltale signs of prostitution, such as beds, suitcases and lots of food in the back of the business that indicates people are living there, inspectors can bring in city code enforcement officers or law enforcement to follow up.

“When we go in to do that compliance inspection and we're making sure that they're meeting health and hygiene standards, we may find women living on site. When we find that, then we report that to local law enforcement or we call Code Enforcement and say, you know, code enforcement, look, we have a shower and a bathroom that was never plumbed for a shower,” she said. “And then if we have a practitioner who is performing a sex act, then we cite that practitioner and proceed with the attorney general's office with a hearing.”

There have been efforts to expand the ability to shut down shady massage parlors. A bill during the legislative session, AB166, gave law enforcement more authority to shut down the parlors by creating the crime of “advancing prostitution.” 

Anderson said at a workshop later this week, regulations are up for discussion that could give the board more tools to address the issue.

Massage parlor signage as seen in Las Vegas on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Avoiding questionable establishments

Customers hoping to avoid massage establishments where prostitution happens can ask to see documentation that a therapist is licensed by the state board.

“That doesn't ensure that they won't be a trafficked individual because there are people who have licenses that are trafficked, but the state board has a license for massage therapy, reflexology and structural integration,” Anderson said. “Anyone with that license has a paper license as well as a card and they can use that as an identifier that this person is probably a legitimate massage therapist.”

The board also has a directory of licensed personnel on its website. When a customer books an appointment and receives the name of their massage therapist, they can check it against the state database to ensure the practitioner is qualified.

Other signs that an establishment truly exists for a therapeutic purpose and not for prostitution might be pictures of trigger points or muscle charts on the wall. Practitioners should be asking about a client’s health, what may be hurting, and whether he or she has any contra-indications that could be exacerbated by a massage.

A professional will give the client privacy when undressing and dressing. They will also provide an appropriate covering or “drape” that allows the body to be covered during the massage except for the part that is being massaged.

A massage that seems particularly cheap, or an establishment advertised with flashing lights and open throughout the night, is a red flag. Anderson said a professional massage should cost between $50 and $120 an hour depending on the practitioner’s skill level.

Overly cheap massages could mean the person is not making any money off of it and hoping to get the money back through a large tip, or is not certified and could be putting the client at risk of injury.

Anderson said members of the public can help alert authorities if they believe something at a massage establishment is not right.

“If the public goes in and they see a location that they think might be illicit, let the board know,” she said. “We have a website, they can shoot us an email, we'll take that email and maybe we'll go out and do another inspection, check it out, see what we think.”

Massage parlor signage as seen in Las Vegas on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Prostitution vs. trafficking

It’s much easier to prove there is prostitution in a massage establishment than it is to prove the practitioner was trafficked, Anderson said. Prostitution can be established when an undercover officer goes to a business and is offered sex; for a trafficking charge, there must be proof that the person was coerced into offering sex.

But even if someone is not being trafficked, other pressures may be keeping them at work in an illicit massage parlor.

“I think we have a lot of indentured servants in our industry. These are women that wanted to leave the country of origin, came here, someone paid for them to come into the United States, someone paid for them to go to school, someone paid for their license, someone gives them housing,” she said. “There may not be that coercion or that force necessarily happening. There may be. But for sure there's a debt that they are trying to repay.”

Anderson said a silver lining in the Kraft case has been that it has raised awareness about the issues within her industry.

“The real thing that has happened with the Kraft case is that the work that we were doing before to address human trafficking in our industry, we now have more partners wanting to help us,” she said. “We're seeing more people come out of the woodwork and say, yeah, what you've been talking about, it really does exist. It's really going on, let's address it.”