UNLV academics look into Nevada’s brothel industry

Let’s Talk about sex: Barbara Brents and UNLV colleagues wrote a book about Nevada’s brothel industry.
Photo: Tiffany Brown

For all the commotion around legal prostitution in Nevada, the world of brothels is a pretty small place: At most, it's about 500 people working at 25 or 30 brothels, some of which are just double-wide trailers dressed up for guests.

Nonetheless, legal prostitution has shaped Nevada as a state, and Nevada, in turn, has attempted to shape its legal prostitution, limiting the brothel industry to towns of 400,000 or less — far from the Strip, but close to Vegas' identity.

In their new book, The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex, and Sin in the New American Heartland, UNLV academics Barbara Brents, Crystal Jackson and Kathryn Hausbeck examine Nevada's brothel industry through the lens of history, economy and sociology, drawing their conclusions from a decade of research. It's a high-toned academic discussion of legal prostitution — a book about sex that doesn't use the subject to sell itself. Brents, a UNLV sociology professor, sat down with the Weekly to talk about the state of sex:

You write, "the obvious irony of commercial sexual enterprises today is that their growth and success risks killing the thrill of indulging in the taboo" — isn't discussing the brothel industry in pragmatic and academic terms, as your book does, bad for business?

Probably. Sometimes I say I'm shedding light into a dark closet, a place nobody really knows what goes on inside. And then, when you shed the light, you find out that it's not at all what you thought it was — it's neither dangerous nor awful, nor is it as titillating.

You've actually spent the night in a brothel — what was it like?

It was a very small brothel in a very rural part of the state. The building had been a brothel for 50 years. It was like being in a small-town bar; there were tables with people drinking, everybody knew each other. Most people were there for drinks. The place closed at 3 in the morning, and everybody went home. The beds were wooden platforms with mattresses — you don't want springs making all that noise.

You write that our leisure economy has blurred the line between public and private, and that people purchase intimacies every day, from "the pampering of a spa package" to child care and cooking — won't most people have a hard time seeing prostitution in that context, as just one more salable service in a consumption culture?

Yes, initially, before you start thinking about it. We wanted to challenge the idea that there's a hard and fast line between public and private, because if you turn around and look, we're blurring that line all the time, on all sorts of things. We know that waiter doesn't really care about us, but we're willing to suspend that knowledge for an enjoyable time. We know adventure-tour guides are selling us the idea we're adventurers. There are more opportunities for people to buy experiences, and we've come to accept some measure of inauthenticity. People who purchase sex think of it the same way — customers will tell you, 'I know she's not marrying me, but she really likes me for the time I'm willing to pay.'

Brothel prostitutes are paid contractors — they give a high percentage of their earnings back to management, and usually pay for room and board as well. What did you learn about brothel incomes — is it hard to make a good living as a legal prostitute in Nevada?

It's not an easy job. It's probably harder than most people think. To be successful, you have to have a thick skin, you have to know how to market yourself, you have to have certain skills, you have to pay your medical expenses, in some places, you have to buy your condoms. You're making all sorts of money in cash, and you have to be disciplined to put that money away and save it.

It's easy to conclude from State of Sex that you support the legalization of prostitution. You write, "prohibiting the sale of sex seems to be fighting against the momentum of our culture." Do you think prostitution will ever be legal in America?

I think the cultural trend is towards the commodification of almost everything, so I think we are moving that way. I also think people are looking for any way possible to increase tax revenue, and there is a lot of money in the underground economy. My fear is that large economic interests will push through legalization, and that we'll see big corporate mega-brothels where the women have no power. I think allowing independent sex workers is going to be the best solution


Abigail Goldman

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