In Beatty, the Angel’s Ladies brothel throws a big barbecue every year for the whole town. Just down the road, in Crystal, the owner of the three houses of prostitution bought the town an ambulance. Across the state in Ely, when a city councilman tried to shut down the only brothel, he was voted out of office.
Although it’s banned in Las Vegas and Reno--and 49 states--prostitution is legal in 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties. A remnant of the old West, it is not only tolerated, but often embraced.
The state Health Division estimates 365,000 sex acts--1,000 a day--are performed in Nevada’s 27 brothels each year.
“I don’t think anybody really gets stirred up about it. That’s just how it is,” sums up Stacy Fisk, a secretary at the Mineral County sheriff’s office.
But supporters of Nevada’s little advertised and very rural prostitution business fear such low-key acceptance could be threatened with the plan envisioned for Pahrump.
Chuck Lee, a retired cop and car dealer from Las Vegas, wants to turn Sheri’s Ranch, the lesser known of two brothels in Pahrump, into a big-time resort.
Already he’s renamed it: The Resort at Sheri’s Ranch.
His plan could forever change the friendly relationship brothels have with their hometowns, and some fear, might even threaten their existence.
“He cannot supermarket the brothel business without it eventually being made illegal in that county,” says George Flint, who, as the lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Assn., is prostitution’s main public advocate.
“The brothels survive by not being too visible. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s going to always be legal.”
Mack Moore, owner of the Angel’s Ladies brothel in a town north of Pahrump, had a similar reaction. “I’m kind of a little scared. The brothels are not supposed to be out in front. They’re supposed to be good for the community, but they’re not just supposed to shove it in everybody’s face.”
Also leery is Nye County Commission Chairman Jeff Taguchi, whose county is home to Beatty and Pahrump and the most brothels of any county.
“It’s a different approach to the oldest profession that may cause some difficulty with the public,” he said. “Pahrump could possibly be known as a brothel mecca as opposed to a family suburb.”
Sixty miles northwest of Las Vegas, down dusty Homestead Road on the edge of Pahrump, Sheri’s Ranch has just one neighbor, its competitor, the Chicken Ranch. Otherwise, it’s surrounded by acres of desert leading to mountains.
Lee, a laid-back man in his 60s who smokes skinny Capri cigarettes, envisions a glitzy resort with an 18-hole golf course, casino and steakhouse. He points to the 310 acres of emptiness and muses about palm trees, horseback-riding, tennis courts and a beauty salon for the prostitutes.
“We’ll probably be the only gentlemen’s club in the state with an 18-hole golf course,” the silver-haired host says.
“It’s going to change the whole face of the business,” says a giddy prostitute named “Destyny,” who has been working in Nevada brothels for 13 years.
Lee and a partner bought Sheri’s Ranch in January and began renovating the sports bar and adding offices. A pool and new wing should be completed by year’s end. Construction on the golf course is scheduled for next year; a casino is in the early stages of planning.
“It’s going to be very nice,” Lee says.
Though the idea of legalized brothels may seem repugnant to outsiders, these age-old businesses have been a part of many rural communities in Nevada for years.
Brothels in Nevada can be traced to the early 1860s, when women made their way to mining camps. In other states, law enforcement shut them down, says Nevada historian Guy Rocha, who works as state archivist. That didn’t happen in Nevada.
In much the same way that Nevada was the first in the nation to legalize gambling, the state was now pioneering something else.
In 1971, Storey County in northern Nevada legalized prostitution at the Mustang Ranch. Other counties followed, but not Las Vegas.
Today, the brothels are generally viewed as good neighbors--members of the Chamber of Commerce and donors to charity. They operate mostly in the shadows of small-town life, often tucked away in trailer houses off highways or on the outskirts of towns.
The clients are mostly truckers, businessmen from conventions in Las Vegas and some local regulars.
Most owners prefer to keep to themselves, quietly paying county licensing fees and making sure the prostitutes are tested each week for sexually transmitted diseases, as required by state health officials.
Rita Germany, secretary of the Beatty Chamber of Commerce who sells maps to all the state’s brothels, notes that Angel’s Ladies has been a longtime chamber member.
“Each year they give the townspeople a big barbecue.”
That easygoing attitude usually means that threats to the lucrative sex industry are not welcome.
Just ask Stuart Tracy, a city councilman who tried in 1999 to shut down the brothel in his town.
Normally, City Council meetings in Ely, an isolated town 245 miles north of Las Vegas, hardly draw a crowd. But the day Tracy tried to close the Stardust Ranch, residents filled the meeting room to save it.
Tracy believed the brothel was immoral and figured everyone else in the town of 5,800 did too.
“There were people who called up and said I had no right to do what I was doing,” he said. “The threats were even in the newspaper telling me to get out of town.”
The City Council voted to close the brothel. But the mayor, who gets campaign contributions from the Stardust, as well as an occasional drink, vetoed the bill.
The brothel stayed, and the town cheered. Tracy lost his bid for reelection in June.
A similar effort took place last year in Pahrump. A group of residents tried their luck at banning prostitution, but couldn’t get enough people to sign a petition.
Proponents argue that brothels bring money to financially distressed communities and offer safe sex to lonely men.
In Nye County, home to Pahrump and Beatty, the seven brothels pay registration and licensing fees that pour about $168,000 into the county’s ambulance and health fund each year.
The counties also receive a small amount of money from the fees the prostitutes are charged for their required weekly tests for sexually transmitted diseases.
Since testing by the state Health Division began in 1986, there has never been an HIV-positive case, says Donald Cowne, a disease control specialist. Last year there was one case of gonorrhea and 13 cases of chlamydia.
“You can’t control sex,” says Moore, the 72-year-old owner of Angel’s Ladies. “If it’s legal, then that is the best way.”