The “fastest route despite the usual traffic” between heaven and hell on Nevada’s Virginia City Scenic Drive covers just 10 miles.
The time it takes to travel between St. Mary in the Mountains, a beautiful historic Catholic church in Virginia City visited by 50,000 people a year, and the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, which bills itself as Nevada’s “finest” legal brothel along Route 50, is less than 20 minutes.
The descent from virtue to vice could take a lot longer, however, if the “No Little Girl Grows Up Wanting to Be a Prostitute” campaign succeeds in an initiative and referendum drive to ban legal brothels in two Nevada counties.
Citizens are spreading the word and gathering petitions to ban the brothel in Lyons County and Nye County, which account for 40% of the state’s legal brothels.
Prostitution and Nevada have gone together since the silver rush in the 1860s, but in 1971, the state legalized prostitution for counties below 700,000 persons. The arrangement makes the sex trade illegal within Nevada’s major cities, such as Carson City, Reno and Las Vegas. But the state’s 21 legal brothels are just a short drive into the neighboring desert counties.
Jason Guinasso, attorney for the “No Little Girl” campaign and director of the End Trafficking and Prostitution Political Action Committee told the Register that if the campaign succeeds in Lyons and Nye counties, it might produce a “domino effect,” where citizens in neighboring counties also move to ban prostitution.
Guinasso said Lyons County has to generate 3,500 signatures and Nye County has to generate 2,000 signatures by June 15. At the current rate of progress, with six weeks to go, they will make it. “The question is not if, but how many, we go over,” he said.
Once submitted, county officials have a choice to either accept the petition and legislate brothels out of existence, or put the measure on the ballot for voters to decide in November. If officials decide to let the issue go to a referendum, Guinasso said the campaign will begin in earnest in late July.
A Crime, With Victims
Nevada’s “live and let live” ethos toward prostitution is fading with demographic changes brought about by families flocking to a new economy shaped by companies like Apple and Tesla and increased awareness about the nature of prostitution and its relationship to sex trafficking.
The initiative campaign has been making the case to Nevada residents that legal prostitution is not a “victimless crime,” but actually inflicts an enormous toll on women, both inside and outside the sex trade.
Melissa Farley, a researcher, clinical psychologist and executive director of the San Francisco-based Prostitution Research and Education, told the Register that while approximately 10% of prostitution in Nevada is legal, the other 90% — such as takes place in Reno and Las Vegas — is illegal.
But legal prostitution feeds the demand for sex trafficking. Pimps are sending women across state lines to Nevada’s legal brothels. Farley cited the case of one woman whose pimp did not think she made enough money on the street in Chicago — so he sent her to work in a Nevada brothel until she made the cash quota.
A 2013 study of 150 counties in World Development, “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?, found that where prostitution was legal, the market for prostitution expanded, and inflows of human trafficking increased to meet the demand.
The Polaris Project has found reports of sex trafficking increasing every year in Nevada.
Farley said the research shows that normalizing the “sale or rent of human beings for sexual use” has destructive effects on society, negatively affects how men see all women, and escalates rates of sexual violence against women.
Her studies found men who buy sex — compared to those who choose not to buy sex — have less empathy and more hostility toward women, obsess over their masculine self-image and seek to dominate women in their relationships.
This mentality, she added, normalizes rape and other forms of violence against women in boys and men. They think they have license to do whatever they want to a woman they see belonging to them in some way. This shapes their relationships with wives, co-workers and daughters.
Farley pointed out the cities of Reno and Las Vegas have higher rates of rape than Los Angeles or New York, and the state has one of the highest rates of sexual assault.
According to the Violence Policy Center's data from 2015, Nevada also ranked 2nd in the U.S. for rates of women killed by men: 97% of the victims knew their murderer; 55% were wives, common-law wives, ex-wives, or girlfriends.
Farley found men who grow up around Reno, compared to other young men, are significantly more tolerant of men who buy women for sex, more likely to think it impossible to rape a woman in prostitution, and to view it as perfectly acceptable for their sons to use women for sex and their daughters to become prostitutes.
Farley cited Sweden as an example of a county that has found a legal regime that has decreased prostitution, trafficking and violence against women, by criminalizing the buyers and traffickers of sex, not the sellers. But legalization, whether it is the Netherlands or Nevada, has been proven to make prostitution overall more dangerous. In the case of Amsterdam, legal brothels generated a boom in organized crime, which trafficked in women from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe to meet the demand.
Farley also rejected the notion that legal brothels are automatically a safer environment for prostitution than the street. On the street, if a potential “client” is high or drunk — sexual aggression and intoxication go together — she can reject him, run away and possibly find help. But in the brothel, the pimps “control the flow of clients” and will threaten harmful consequences if they feel a woman is not making them enough money. So the brothel, even with panic buttons, can become a trap with a sexually violent man, isolated in the desert from the rest of society.
Father Antone Sommer, pastor of St. Mary in the Mountains, told the Register that legal prostitution in Nevada casts an “overarching pall” over the county and state.
He pointed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching that prostitution is a “social scourge” that “does injury to the dignity of the person who engages in it, reducing the person to an instrument of sexual pleasure” (2355).
The Catechism teaches one who pays for such activity “sins gravely against himself,” particularly one’s baptismal dignity, but also recognizes that those who sell themselves for sex may have reduced moral responsibility in circumstances of “destitution, blackmail or social pressure.”
St. Mary’s is located in Storey County, which has another legal brothel 40 miles north, and citizens are fighting attempts by the brothel owner to loosen regulations to prevent state authorities from conducting surprise inspections for health and safety.
Father Sommer said he communicated information about the efforts in Lyons and Nye counties to the Peace and Justice Committee of the Diocese of Reno to see where the Catholic Church could lend support.
“Just the idea that they’re getting something on the ballot in the other counties is a major deal.”
This story was updated after initial posting.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.