Wait! What? Legal Prostitution?

The History of Prostitution in Nevada

By Jeff Hartman
Photos by Jeff Hartman

Note: As you might infer from the title, this article contains references to content that may not be suitable for younger readers. Parents, please use discretion!

I had heard about it but couldn’t believe it: legal brothels in Nevada? It sounded like something out of an old spaghetti western.

The more I heard, the more it fascinated me. Perhaps it was the Young Guns movies I watched in high school that conjured up images of lawlessness in the Wild West. Or maybe it was just something that seemed so out of the ordinary from my Midwestern upbringing. Whatever the reason, during my time in Vegas, I asked a lot of questions, did some research and learned a lot about the business.

Here’s what I discovered.

A sign leading to a town with several brothels. It reminds me of the Wild West!

A sign leading to a town with several brothels. It reminds me of the Wild West!

For starters, yes, prostitution is legal, but not in Las Vegas, despite what many people assume.

Nevada’s history is rooted in the “Wild West” (cowboys, train robberies, gold, etc.). The influx of people heading west during the mid-1800’s fed the early brothels and the business was thriving in some areas. Although the Wild West was noted for lawlessness, there were local public nuisance laws in place that governed how brothels operated. Some communities welcomed this type of business and others didn’t.

With my background in healthcare, I was very curious: are brothels regulated? Do the women take precautions? What about HIV/AIDS?

As it turns out, brothels existed unregulated from a health perspective for many years until public health began to take form in the United States. In the early 30’s, venereal disease was being identified as a serious public health risk. In 1937, Nevada responded with laws requiring all prostitutes in the state’s brothels to have weekly health checks to eliminate the spread of potential diseases.

1 I don’t know what I was expecting a brothel to look like, but this probably wasn’t it.

1 I don’t know what I was expecting a brothel to look like, but this probably wasn’t it.

Weekly check-ups continue to this day, and a new law established in 1986 requires the use of condoms during all sexual activity. Brothels are liable for the transmission of HIV to customers if a sex worker tests positive, and according to Nevada State Health Department, no cases of HIV/AIDS have ever been found in a legal brothel.

The Angel Ladies Brothel in Nye County
The Angel Ladies Brothel in Nye County

I had heard about men in the military frequenting these types of establishments but I learned that women during World War II also contributed to this phenomenon. Because of military regulations during World War II, prostitutes enjoyed a fair amount of freedom in the cities. Women known as “victory girls” could be found near military bases willing to engage in sexual activity with military men, oftentimes without charge. They were widely accepted by the community but not the military leaders, and posters campaigning against venereal disease depicted these “girls” as a threat to the military effort. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had similar feelings. In 1942 he signed into law a federal ban on prostitution near naval and military bases.

One of the biggest fallacies that exists today is that prostitution is legal in the big cities of Las Vegas and Reno. I learned that in 1951, Reno and Las Vegas voted to close their red light districts and used the public nuisance laws to do so. Now, as the law states, prostitution is only legal in Nevada counties that have a population less than 400,000. In fact, prostitution is illegal anywhere outside the licensed brothels, including “street walking”. Women and customers can be fined up to $1000 and sentenced to 6 months in jail for a first time offense.

The brothels aren’t exactly subtle here!

The brothels aren’t exactly subtle here!

One of Nevada’s well-known characters responsible for the promotion of prostitution was Sicily-born Joe Conforte. Conforte moved to the United States at the age of 11 and eventually moved to Oakland, CA. There he began driving military men to the Nevada brothels. He moved to Nevada and opened a brothel with his wife in 1967. In 1971 they led the charge to license brothels and prostitutes. They won, resulting in their Mustang Ranch becoming the first licensed brothel in the United States. As of 2013, 19 legal brothels are open for business throughout Nevada, employing approximately 200 women in 8 counties. Licensed prostitutes must be at least 21 years old, except in two counties where the minimum age is 18.

Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.
Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.

Prostitution has always been a hot political topic, with some politicians speaking loudly on the issue and others avoiding it like the plague. In 2003, then Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman proposed the legalization of prostitution in Las Vegas and stated the desire to turn East Fremont Street into “Little Amsterdam”.

Mr. Goodman was not successful, but a 2012 survey demonstrated public support of his stance with 64% of the voters agreeing brothels should be legal. The future of legalized prostitution in the US is unknown, but as of now, Nevada is the only state that allows it.

It’s a controversial topic, but after spending a month in Las Vegas, I feel like I am finally starting to understand this surprising and fascinating phenomenon. With brothels legal so close to the headquarters of Cupcake Girls, it gives a new level of importance to the work they do for the women who work inside.