If a girl wants to smoke a little weed and hook up with a tax-paying brothel professional before marrying her lesbian lover, then wake up the next day and change her mind about the marriage, get a divorce, drop a few thousand in a Noah’s Ark slot machine and stay up all night drinking Belvedere flirtinis in front of an aquarium watching a mermaid—shouldn’t she be able to do that in Nevada? Wild West, cutting-edge-of-social-chutzpah Nevada?
Former state archivist Guy Rocha and I are waxing nostalgic about Las Vegas’ original screw-you, libertarian (the small “l” and the big “L”) self.
Actually he’s the authentic waxer, having grown up here, created a career chronicling Nevada’s history, and retired here; I’m faux-waxing as a 12-year transplant.
“We were a state that flaunted social convention,” Rocha says. “It was the smallest state in the union with a frontier attitude ...
“Nevada legalized prize-fighting in 1897. Then gambling ... And we headed into the divorce industry, and our laws made it easy to get married quick. Nevadans then built a service economy on these things,” he says. “They looked at the frontier west and said, ‘Men gamble and drink and whore, and whether we like it or not, they do it.’”
It’s a shade off of “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union ...” but it’s got legs. Long sexy ones. And from that philosophy came not only revenue to gird mining and turn rogue settlements into the 36th state, but also an image that lured millions and became a worldwide brand. It was built on challenging national taste, as Rocha says, by offering the things you couldn’t do legally everywhere else—raucously.
Now that we’re foundering in The Great Recession, groping for pennies and crying about the president’s “insults,” it seems a splendid time to consider whether that brazen attitude is worth snatching back. Rather than having our mob-defending, gin-sponsoring mayor begging for an apology from Pres. Obama for characterizing Vegas visits as a reckless decision—(“When times are tough ... you don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college ...”)—wouldn’t it be more in character for Nevadans to stand by the irreverent character that made the place beloved by not giving a shit what the president preaches?
“In the past when we were in the economic downturn like the 1930s, we took these steps. By making these things legal that were not legal before, we built an economy,” Rocha says. “We were willing to run against the social grain of the nation.”
Now, not so much. While drinking and gambling and quickie marriages are still beacons, they’re not the socially unconventional sirens of sin they once were. Gambling is pervasive, drinking ubiquitous, marriage and divorce ridiculously depreciated. By today’s standards, issues that challenge social convention are not so welcome in Nevada, such as gay marriage or marijuana intake. Or a statewide legalization of prostitution.
“We’ve tried to legalize the recreational use of marijuana twice and failed,” Rocha said. “Prostitution—we could legalize it across the board and tax it. Same-sex marriage. We made it more difficult by putting an amendment in the constitution [against it], rather than legalizing it and using it to stimulate the wedding industry.”
When state Sen. Bob Coffin brought up the possibility of legalizing and taxing prostitution statewide early last year as a revenue generator—with the support of sex workers—the measure was shot down with a majority of scoffs, and explanations like this one in the New York Times: “[Assembly Speaker Barbara] Buckley said she did not support taxing brothels because she believed that to do so the state would have to legalize prostitution in the largest counties, ‘and I just don’t support the idea.’ Asked why she supports prostitution in some areas of the state and not others, Buckley declined to answer except to say that legalization came ‘way before the time I was elected.’”
As in, that is not a progressive answer to revenue issues, it’s an embarrassingly barbaric one.
“There’s few people saying, ‘Not only should we legalize prostitution, but tax it. Because we need the money,’” Rocha says. “Nobody, not the governor and not any candidate for governor is saying it.”
In some cases, the desire to push progressive policies in Nevada perfectly coincides with the old live-and-let-live social philosophy that created the state. For example, gay marriage could be an issue where the same progressives who didn’t support taxing prostitution do support gay marriage, and the libertarians could support it in the historic vein Rocha describes—as a socially unconventional way to earn revenue.
“And look at the five states that have legalized gay marriage: Iowa and four New England states. That should’ve been Nevada,” Rocha said. “Marijuana—in the old Nevada, they would’ve considered it.”
A 2012 ballot initiative effort to legalize medicinal marijuana in Nevada, pushed by the Marijuana Policy Project of Nevada, is regarded as unlikely to gain enough support to pass—not so much because of a progressive opposition, but a conservative one: the same growing group of conservatives who opposed gay marriage.
“Arguably these things [marijuana, gay marriage, a refined escort service] are a part of the new frontier west. Nevada looks askance now at the new frontier. It’s gotten conservative socially. They are not interested in pioneering anymore,” Rocha says.
UNLV historian and western-growth specialist David Wrobel agrees with Rocha about the diminishing social edginess of Nevada, noting the rapid demographic shift that’s happened in the last decade that’s brought a somewhat wealthier and more conservative swath of Orange-County Californians and retirees. But he doesn’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily.
“Any state’s character is going to change dramatically with such rapid growth. Clark County’s demographic growth is astounding and matched only by LA in the early 20th century and Chicago in the late 19th century,” Wrobel said. “What happens is when a state’s demographics change so rapidly, the older part is resentful of the pace of change. The response is to say that we’re no longer authentic ... The strength of the nostalgia is affected by the pace at which it changes.
“But the loss of libertarian character—[that character] is just not a sentiment that’s shared anymore,” says Wrobel, who’s been at UNLV since 2000.
“When the population grows to over a million, now you’ve reached a threshold where you have professionals who emphasize the importance of things like K-12 schooling,” Wrobel says.
“The impulse to legalize prostitution comes across as potentially harmful to their family, their children’s upbringing. We’ve had more backlash against racy billboards now [than in decades past]. And with the ‘What happens here, stays here’ slogan—they’re happy for it to advertise [the Strip] but not happy for that slogan to characterize their lives.”
And so here we are, in our poverty-stricken adolescence, being pushed and pulled by a variety of influences at a time when identity may be key to our economic survival. Will Nevada recall its brief flirtation with a family-friendly image, or dig deeper to its social edge, or come up with a mature compromise that makes the outlaw state blend in with the other 49 in some economically survivable way?
“Will we ever be a pioneer/pariah again? No. I don’t think we’ll take the lead,” Rocha says.
“If other states do it [with policies like making recreational marijuana use or statewide prostitution legal], we might follow. But we’re not going to be the state that sticks out its neck anymore.
“It’s amazing to see that Nevada has in some ways had this inferiority complex, this feeling of being picked on. But in the past we’d look at the other states and say, Hey, you’ve got all these things hidden in your city—gambling, prostitution—we just made it legal. We’re just open about it. We did it out of economic need. It wasn’t progressive, it was libertarian. And you would think economic exigency would cause it to be the case now. But I don’t think so.”
For Wrobel, Nevada’s days of radically flaunting social convention are over, too.
“I think the reason [those looser social standards] aren’t going to play well today is that for all the gaming economy, tourists visit more and more because they like the place, the shows, the shopping the restaurants. ... It could work in a less-populated county, maybe up north. But I don’t think it could ever be recaptured in Las Vegas,” Wrobel says.
“The free-spirited Western haven from conventional authority doesn’t stand up anymore. It’s something else now. People are used to seeing resorts [all over the world], but Vegas’ resorts are better. What out-of-state cultural critics love to hate is the tremendous emphasis on spectacle, but that may well be Nevada’s salvation: spectacle.”
To that end, perhaps if a girl wants to smoke a little weed and hook up with a tax-paying brothel professional before marrying her lesbian lover, then wake up the next day and change her mind about the marriage, get a divorce, drop a few thousand in a Noah’s Ark slot machine and stay up all night drinking Belvedere flirtinis in front of an aquarium watching a mermaid, that’s something that should be done in Nevada.
With no apologies.