As of July 2004, prostitution is illegal under state law in Clark County (which contains Las Vegas) and under county or municipal law in Washoe County (which contains Reno), Carson City (an independent city), Douglas County, and Lincoln County. Eureka County neither permits nor prohibits licensed brothels, and has none. The other 11 Nevada counties permit licensed brothels in certain specified areas or cities.
The precise licensing requirements vary by county. License fees for brothels range from an annual $100,000 in Storey County to an annual $200 in Lander County. Licensed prostitutes must be at least 21 years old, except in Storey County and Lyon County (where the minimum age is 18).
Nevada law requires that registered brothel prostitutes be checked weekly for several sexually transmitted diseases, and monthly for HIV; furthermore, condoms are mandatory for all oral sex and sexual intercourse. Brothel owners may be held liable if customers become infected with HIV after a prostitute has tested positive for the virus. Women work a legally mandated minimum of nine days for each work period.
Nevada has laws against engaging in prostitution outside of licensed brothels, against encouraging others to become prostitutes, and against living off the proceeds of a prostitute.
For many years, Nevada brothels were restricted from advertising their services in counties where brothel prostitution is illegal; however, this state law was overturned in 2007.
About 30 legal brothels existed in the state in January 2004, employing about 300 female prostitutes at any given time. All but the smallest ones operate as follows: as the customer is buzzed in and sits down in the parlor, the available women appear in a line-up and introduce themselves. If the customer chooses a woman, the price negotiations take place in the woman's room, which are often overheard by management. The house normally gets half of the negotiated amount. If the customer arrives by cab, the driver will receive some 20% of whatever the customer spends; this is subtracted from the woman's earnings. Typical prices start at US$100 and average about $300 for half an hour of intercourse and oral sex. The prostitutes almost never kiss on the mouth.
Brothels do not have preset prices, the only known exception being Shady Lady brothel on Route 95, approximately 30 miles north of Beatty. Generally, the closer a brothel is to Las Vegas, the higher the prices. Thus Sheri's Ranch and Chicken Ranch, both located in Pahrump, are on the whole more expensive than other brothels. Sheri's Ranch is the larger of the two, and may have upwards of 20 prostitutes on its premises at any given time. It is also the more expensive of the two, and generally the most expensive legal brothel in Nevada.
Brothel prostitutes work as independent contractors and thus do not receive any unemployment, retirement or health benefits. They are responsible for paying Federal income tax and their earnings are reported to the IRS via form 1099-MISC. Nevada does not have a state income tax. The women typically work for a period of several weeks, during which time they live in the brothel and hardly ever leave it. They then take some time off. It has been argued that the tight control that brothels exert over the working conditions precludes the women from legally being classified as independent contractors.
Since 1986, when mandatory testing began, not a single brothel prostitute has ever tested positive for HIV. The mandatory condom law was passed in 1988. A study conducted in 1995 in two brothels found that condom use in the brothels was consistent and sexually transmitted diseases were accordingly absent. The study also found that few of the prostitutes used condoms in their private lives.
Escort services offering sexual services euphemistically as 'entertainment' or 'companionship' are ubiquitous, with about 140 pages of the Las Vegas yellow pages devoted to "entertainers". Similar ads are present in newspaper boxes all along Las Vegas Boulevard. From the Strip to downtown Fremont Street at most bus stops and many street lights, a large collection of free flyers offering escort services with semi-nude pictures are available (see photo above). Moreover, smaller hand sized flyers are dispensed to tourists and others along the Las Vegas Strip, often right in front of the most high end hotels and casinos, by hired workers, many of whom are undocumented workers from Mexico; these flyers also graphically depict female 'personal' entertainers or escort services. Despite the attempt to make Las Vegas more family-friendly, such advertising for these services are protected by the First Amendment and goes on undisturbed by police or hotel security.
In 1970, Joe Conforte, owner of the brothel called Mustang Ranch near Reno, managed to convince county officials to pass an ordinance which would provide for the licensing of brothels and prostitutes, thus avoiding the threat of being closed down as a public nuisance.
Officials in Las Vegas, afraid that Conforte would use the same trick to open a brothel nearby, convinced the legislature in 1971 to pass a law prohibiting the legalization of prostitution in counties with a population above a certain threshold, tailored to apply only to Clark County.
In 1977, county officials in Nye County tried to shut down Walter Plankinton's Chicken Ranch as a public nuisance; brothels did not have to be licensed in that county at the time, and several others were operating. Plankinton filed suit, claiming that the 1971 state law had implicitly removed the assumption that brothels are public nuisances per se. The Nevada Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation in 1978 (Nye County v. Plankinton, 94 Nev. 739, 587 P.2d 421 (1978)), and so the Chicken Ranch was allowed to operate. In another case, brothel owners in Lincoln County protested when the county outlawed prostitution in 1978, after having issued licenses for 7 years. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the county had the right to do so.
A state law prohibiting the advertising of brothels in counties which have outlawed prostitution was enacted in 1979. It was promptly challenged on First Amendment grounds and the Nevada Supreme Court declared it to be constitutional. (Princess Sea Industries, one of the parties involved in the case was Plankinton's company that owned the Chicken Ranch.) In July 2007 the law was overturned by a federal judge as "overly broad" and advertising in Las Vegas started soon after.
Several towns enacted rules prohibiting local brothel prostitutes from frequenting local bars or casinos or associating with local men outside of work. After a lawsuit was filed in 1984, these regulations had to be abandoned, but as a result of collaboration between sheriffs and brothel owners, they remain in effect unofficially. For instance, most brothels do not allow the prostitutes to leave the premises during their work shifts of several days to several weeks.
While brothels and prostitutes are subject to federal income tax and also pay local fees, there is no state income tax in Nevada and brothels are exempt from the state entertainment tax and don't pay any other state taxes. In 2005 brothel owners lobbied to be taxed, in order to increase the legitimacy of the business; the legislature declined.
In November 2005, Heidi Fleiss announced that she had partnered with brothel owner Joe Richards to turn Richards' existing Cherry Patch Ranch brothel in Crystal, Nevada into an establishment that would employ male prostitutes and cater exclusively to female customers, a first in Nevada. While not illegal under Nevada law, it is not clear how a male prostitute would meet the requirement to submit weekly cervical specimens which are examined for sexually transmitted diseases. Other portions of the Nevada and Nye County regulations refer to prostitutes as "her" with apparently no expectation of male prostitutes.
One particularly colorful opponent of legalized prostitution in Nevada was John Reese. His efforts to collect enough signatures to repeal the prostitution laws have so far failed.
Organizations supporting the rights of prostitutes typically favor deregulation and oppose Nevada-style regulation, mainly because of three reasons:
However, some other organizations support Nevada style regulations because:
A poll conducted in Nevada in 2002 found that 52% of the 600 respondents favored the status quo of legal and regulated brothels, while 31% were against laws that allow prostitution and the remainder were undecided, preferred fewer legal constraints on prostitution, or did not offer an opinion. The trend seems to be that new arrivals to Nevada tend to oppose legal prostitution while long-time Nevadans tend to support it.
Nevada politicians can (and generally do) play both sides of the prostitution dispute by declaring that they are personally opposed to prostitution but feel it should be up to the counties to decide. As almost three-quarters of the population of Nevada lives in a single county (Clark County), county control over local matters is a hot-button issue. Legislators from the northern counties will often reflexively oppose what is seen as "meddling" from the majority in the south, and the legislators from the south have been too divided on the issue to push through a state-wide ban.
Since 2003, Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman has repeatedly stated that he favors legalization of prostitution in the city.
Melissa Farley, a research psychologist and anti-prostitution activist, was asked by the head of the U.S. State Department’s anti-trafficking effort to produce a report on prostitution in Nevada. Her report, Prostitution and trafficking in Nevada: making the connections, was published in 2007. It describes human trafficking in Las Vegas, as well as the results of numerous interviews with brothel owners and brothel prostitutes, claiming widespread abuse of brothel prostitutes by owners, customers, and outside pimps. Farley subsequently presented her findings at a panel that also involved ex-prostitutes now opposed to the industry. The new organization "Nevada Coalition Against Sex Trafficking" was introduced at that meeting. Farley's claims and research methodology have been contested by UNLV sex industry researchers Barbara Brents and Kate Hausbeck.