Under current Nevada law, it is a county option whether or not to allow legal brothels to operate within their jurisdictions. The main restriction is population-based. Counties with 400,000 or more residents are prohibited from having legal prostitution. Both Washoe and Clark Counties exceed this limit while the remainder of Nevada’s 17 counties do not.
Prostitution is legal in Nevada only at licensed and regulated brothels. Registered female brothel prostitutes must be tested weekly for gonorrhea and Chlamydia trachomatis, and monthly for HIV and syphilis. Testing of male prostitutes is also required. Condoms must be used. If a customer becomes infected with HIV after a sex worker tests positive, the brothel owner can be held liable. Street walking and other forms of sex for money are illegal just like everywhere else.
Brothels have legally existed in Nevada since the 1800s. For years, the locations of brothels were basically regulated by using public nuisance laws, enabling local authorities to shut them down when they managed to declare them as such. Both Reno and Las Vegas cleared out their red light districts using this tactic. The infamous Joe Conforte, former owner of the Mustang Ranch brothel in Storey County just east of Reno, convinced county officials to pass an ordinance licensing brothels and prostitutes in 1971, thus removing the threat of being shut down as a public nuisance. Nevada state law has evolved to where it is now a county option whether or not to allow licensed brothels to operate within their jurisdictions. Incorporated cities within counties allowing prostitution may further regulate brothels or ban them if they so choose.
Nevada law states that counties with a population of 400,000 or more may not allow legal prostitution. There are only two that reach this threshold – Washoe (Reno) and Clark (Las Vegas). Other counties have the option of permitting legal brothels or not. Those opting out include Carson City/County, Douglas County, and Lincoln County. Eleven of Nevada’s 12 other counties allow regulated and licensed brothels, though they do not exist in every county in which they are legal. These 11 counties are Churchill, Esmeralda, Pershing, Storey, Lander, Lyon, Humboldt, Elko, White Pine, Mineral, and Nye. Eureka County has no laws either allowing or prohibiting brothels.
While there are plenty of arguments against prostitution on moral grounds and issues about the exploitation of women, legal brothels continue to be tolerated in Nevada. Not everyone is happy about that. At least one group, the Nevada Coalition Against Sex Trafficking, is actively seeking to end legal prostitution. In a recent speech before the Nevada Legislature (February 22, 2011), U.S. Senator Harry Reid said the time has come to end Nevada’s brothel industry, citing the poor image it projects to businesses that might be lured to set up shop in the Silver State. The issue wasn’t on anyone’s radar as far as I know and what got him going isn’t clear. Our other U.S. Senator, John Ensign, said the issue should be left to Nevada’s counties. Other Nevada politicians, including Governor Brian Sandoval, declined to join Reid in condemning Nevada’s legal prostitution. Of course, shutting down the brothels would eliminate a business that already exists.