Nevada’s illegal sex industry is the nation’s largest and a hub for sex trafficking

There are 19 legal brothels in Nevada, a small part of the state's sex business

The Mustang Ranch brothel in Storey County, Nevada - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

A patchwork of municipalities in seven of Nevada’s 17 counties are the only places in the nation where selling sex for money is legal. Nevada has a total of 19 brothels as of this writing. But the state’s legal brothels are tiny by contrast to a much larger illegal sex industry, by one estimate, the nation’s largest.

Brothels are not legal in Washoe and Clark counties, home to the state’s largest population centers, Reno/Sparks and Las Vegas respectively.

When she was 17, Bekah Charleston ran away from home in Texas. A trafficker sold her into servitude in a Nevada brothel.

Charleston said she was held “in virtual captivity” in a legal Nevada brothel, regularly raped, and forced, through violence and other abuse, to perform sex acts for money. 

“There’s this idea that somehow by legalizing it and kind of quarantining it within these brothels, that it makes it safe and healthy,” Charleston said during a webinar in November 2020 sponsored by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE). “Well, I was actually trafficked through the legal system. My trafficker would use the brothels as a form of punishment. 

“If you weren’t making enough money, if you were getting arrested too often, he would send you to the brothels. Because then he had other pimps watching over you, and he knew that you’d be forced to get off your butt and make money because the brothels aren’t going to let you sit around and say no all the time.”

Angela Delgado-Williams was trafficked from Texas to work for a Las Vegas escort bureau. Delgado-Williams said sex consumers usually don’t know the difference between a legal and illegal business.

“The irony is, there’s so many similarities from the legal prostitution and the illegal pimp-and-ho subculture, or what they’ve normalized in the City of Las Vegas,” Delgado-Williams said during an online webinar in November 2020. “There’s so many similarities to the legal, licensed, owned and operated escort services to the legal brothels. 

“So they’re making loopholes and allowing escort services to pay taxes and get licenses and buy a business license to sell women. And it’s understood, when the women go to get hired into these escort services that they’re going to go to a hotel room and service a sex buyer.”

An interactive map of Nevada’s active brothels:

Legal Brothels

Much of the justification for the legal sex industry in Nevada is that state and local laws protect sex workers. Brothel employees must register with local police and submit to weekly tests for gonorrhea and chlamydia, and once a month for HIV and syphilis. Condoms are mandatory for all sexual contact. Legal sex workers have emergency buttons that summon security if needed. Access to legal brothels is highly restricted. 

Jennifer Barnes is a madam at the Mustang Ranch in Storey County and has worked in Nevada’s legal sex industry for 27 years. Barnes says that because brothels are closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the state is forcing sex workers out of the legal setting and into an unregulated, illegal industry. Few dispute that the illegal sex trade is inherently dangerous.

For Barnes, the closure of legal brothels affords a glimpse of what a brothel ban would look like. She told the stories of women who worked at the Mustang Ranch but left Nevada to work as escorts in other states when the brothel closed due to COVID-19 concerns.

“They make a ton of money. They’re not going to go work at Walmart. Out on a date, she knew something wasn’t right. She was able to call 911,” Barnes said of a former Mustang Ranch worker now in Los Angeles. “But this guy bit her face off. He bit her nose off all the way to the right of her face, bit her cheek on the right side and ripped it all the way to the left. 

“And then in Arizona, I have two other ladies that thought, ‘Oh, we’ll do the buddy system and we’ll be safe.’

“Hell, no. They were raped. They were robbed. They were pistol whipped, tied with the cords. I mean we’re really doing a disservice to our ladies that choose to do this industry legally.”

The Mustang Ranch brothel in Storey County, Nevada – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Barnes is angry that massage parlors and other high-contact businesses like tattoo parlors and hair salons are allowed to operate, and brothels remain closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Barnes said she has never encountered a trafficked person working in the legal setting. She said that every worker must submit to an FBI background check and scoffed at the notion of a trafficked person being hidden in a legal brothel.

“Why don’t they go to the massage parlors where they know women are being trafficked? I mean, that pisses me off,” Barnes said with some exasperation. “It makes me so angry, because the government is fixated on our legal industry, rather than going out and helping the women that are being trafficked, that are being abused, that are working in underground massage parlors.”

What About the Police?

In an effort to stymie the sex trade doing business as massage parlors, on Feb. 26, 2020, the Reno City Council passed an ordinance that changed the business licensing requirements for massage parlors within city limits. 

The terms “massage parlor” and “massage therapist” are not the same. Massage therapists are trained and licensed therapists who provide a service with no sexual component. 

A massage parlor will likely not have a certified massage therapist. They may offer table showers and other potentially sexual services that lead to a “happy-ending” massage.

Reno’s new licensing requirements include a federal background check for massage parlor owners. Around-the-clock operations are prohibited. No tinted exterior windows are allowed, and no ATM machines can be on site.

The cities of Reno and Las Vegas grant licenses to escort and outcall services. Both cities have licensing stipulations that prohibit sexual commerce as part of companionship or massage services. Business owners must pass a background check. 

Right now, companionship customers in Las Vegas or Reno can choose among body types, hair colors, bust sizes, and ethnicity. Many of the images are explicitly sexual in implication. Using sexually suggestive advertising to market escort services is prohibited in Las Vegas.

In a brief email response, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said they are not ignoring the problem and are working to enforce the law and thwart traffickers.

“Prostitution is illegal in Clark County and the LVMPD VICE section investigates all prostitution and pandering related crimes,” wrote an unidentified Metro spokesperson. “These investigations include sex trafficking/ human trafficking. Vice detectives work 7 days a week in both investigative and enforcement capacities. LVMPD Vice operations occur within the tourist corridors and other problem areas throughout the Las Vegas Valley. Vice Detectives conduct various proactive operations to combat prostitution and the crime associated with it.”

The Human Exploitation and Trafficking Team

In January 2020, the Reno Police Chief, Sparks Police Chief and the Washoe County Sheriff formed the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Team. 

Sergeant Scott Smith supervises the team of four detectives, and according to Smith, they take a victim-centered approach. Their top priority is to find victims and, with the assistance of community service providers, help the them get out from under what amounts to modern-day slavery.

“These guys that are trafficking these girls, they’re controlling every aspect of their life,” Smith said by phone. “They’re very manipulative. They’re controlling when they eat, when they sleep. And they have their quotas where they are sending these girls out to do these dates with these Johns. If they don’t provide that quota, then they’re beating them and mistreating them and everything else. And we have to prove that.”

To truly combat the problem, traffickers must not only be arrested but successfully prosecuted. Detectives gather evidence and then work with the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office throughout the prosecution and on into sentencing. 

The unit launched in January 2020. The pandemic slowed early activity, but since fully organizing, the team has arrested 66 individuals for sex trafficking, and with those arrests came over 200 felony charges.

During the same timeframe, the unit provided services for 55 victims. That includes temporary housing, food, clothing, vocational training, and job placement.

At the intersection of US 395 and I 80, Reno is a city on the sex-trafficking circuit of Las Vegas, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, Smith explained. With four detectives in the year-old group, the problem is ongoing. 

“We’re a small unit trying to solve a big problem,” Smith said.

All but unseen to the public, human trafficking is a reality in Nevada. Smith said community education and involvement is essential. 

“We’ve gone out and talked to the principals and vice principals at the high schools. We’re trying to get word out to our educators. We’re teaching our law enforcement agencies. We’re going out to the hospitals and talking with the nurses because they will run across victims themselves coming into the ER,” Smith said.

Recruitment

Sergeant Smith said many trafficked people are runaways, though they come from both stable and unstable families. He emphasized that traffickers are highly manipulative and controlling.

“They’ll give the juvenile that attention that they’re not getting somewhere else. And that’s how they kind of lure them in. ‘I’ll buy you nice things. I’ll take care of you, and then it kind of lures them in.

“And once they have them on the hook, it turns into, ‘Well, if you do this date for me, we just need some money,’ and it keeps kind of spiraling from there.”

Lisa Thompson is director of the Research Institute of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Thompson said that the illegal sex trade focuses on those who are vulnerable — immigrants, people in poverty, young people in the foster care system, and people with disabilities. 

“The people who are operating, maintaining, profiting off the sex industry are all too ready to take advantage of that vulnerability,” she said.

The Foster Care System

Based on interviews with those who have been rescued from sexual slavery by advocates and law enforcement, the foster care system is a major pipeline that supplies vulnerable young people to the sex trade.

“We think it’s incredibly important that we focus efforts on foster care reform,” Thompson said. “That would be a really important change.

“They get exploited in the sex trade. They’re victims. They age out of foster care. And they continue in the sex trade, and then you know, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re just a sex worker.’ That’s the attitude that society has … It’s been a well known pipeline of foster care being a major supplier, a major conduit of those who make up folks in the sex trades.”

Sugar Dating

Seeking Arrangement is a site that entices college-aged women to date for money. Thompson says so-called ”sugar dating” is an ugly symptom of misplaced societal priorities.

“More and more young people are, especially like young women in their early or their late teens, early 20s are getting caught up in the sex trade, particularly through these websites like Seeking Arrangement, which make it seem like this is a great way to make some money and pay for college.

“But to me, this is a real indictment on our country, if we’re telling young girls,  ‘We’re not going to invest in you. We don’t believe in you. The way for you to just get through college is to prostitute yourself.’

“Is that really the best America can offer its young women is prostitute your way through college? This is the message that’s become so normalized. And I think people would be really staggered if they talk to the young people in their lives who are in college and just ask them, ‘How many friends do you have who are engaging in online prostitution,’ and I think they would be blown away by the answers that they get.”

The Lawsuit

Do Nevada’s legal brothels help create the context for the nation’s largest illegal sex industry? 

Bekah Charleston and Angela Delgado-Williams were plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against the State of Nevada, the Governor, and the Nevada Legislature. The Governor is named in his official capacity only. 

The complaint, filed in March 2019 in the US District Court of Nevada, requested that the state declare the laws that legalize brothels be deemed null and void, along with the county codes that enable legal prostitution in Elko, Lander, Lyon, Mineral, Nye, Storey, and White Pine counties.

The complaint claimed that the plaintiffs were directly impacted and harmed by virtue of the existence of the legal sex industry. Having a legal system creates a context for a much larger and totally unregulated sex industry that is rife with trafficked people.

“Wherever prostitution has been legalized, the illegal prostitution industry has exploded,” said Benjamin Bull, chief legal counsel for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “There are a variety of reasons why, and sociologists can explain why, but in Nevada, for example, prostitution is legal in a few relatively small counties. 

“As a result of that, prostitution is illegal everywhere else, but it’s de facto permitted everywhere. Again, with a wink and a nod, and they basically license escort services. And they require escorts to get some sort of physical examination or health examination once a year. But everybody knows that the crime of prostitution is not enforced. In Las Vegas, I mean, good grief. The motto of the city is ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,’ right?”

The district court dismissed the case. The plaintiffs appealed. On Dec. 10, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Charleston v. Nevada, affirming the district court’s decision. Benjamin Bull said he doesn’t see the ruling as a loss.

“They could have said ‘Dismissed with prejudice. Don’t come back,’” Bull said. “All they did was say, ‘You sued the Legislature and you sued the State, and they have immunity. So you don’t have standing to sue them.’”

Bull said he views the decision as the “beginning of the beginning” and contends that the context for Nevada’s legal brothel system has changed. 

“This is not the ’50s or ’60s or ’70s or ’80s,” Bull said. “This is the era of the #MeToo movement. The era of Jeffrey Epstein. It’s the era of Harvey Weinstein.”

Melissa Holland serves as the founder and director of Awaken, based in Reno. Since 2010, according to Holland, Awaken has helped roughly 600 women get out of sexual slavery. Holland says having a legal sex trade sets a context that creates a massive illegal sex trade.

“You have been born and raised in a state that has legitimized the commodification of, saying these women are allowed to be for sale for the use of sex. We get to look at women as that potential. As a result, our whole state has become a sex-tourism state.”

Jennifer Barnes disagrees and says legal brothels are not responsible for the illegal sex trade in Nevada.

“The legal and illegal industries don’t go hand in hand,” Barnes said. “It’s either you’re going to protect the ladies and the clients that choose to do this industry in a safe, legal, regulated environment or not. And now, the ones that are choosing to do the legal side are being pushed to be on the illegal side [by being closed to prevent the transfer of the coronavirus]. So they’re making our legal ladies criminals.”

A sign on the road to the Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel in Mound House, Nevada – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Nevada lawmakers rejected an effort to ban brothels in the state during the 2019 Legislative Session. Senate Bill 413 died without a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The 2019 Legislature approved a concurrent resolution that directs the Legislative Commission to create an interim committee to study the working conditions at licensed brothels, but no meetings have occurred to date. 

For Sergeant Smith and the detectives in his unit, some have kids the same age as many trafficked juveniles, so his team is motivated. Whether brothels remain legal or not, a big challenge moving forward is to prevent those who have been trafficked from returning.

“Big picture as far as how to deal with the juveniles to get them the better resources, resources they need to get their independence back and kind of get them back on track so they can enjoy their childhood because no child should be—this isn’t how they should remember their childhood years.”

For Benjamin Bull and NCOSE, working to fight trafficking isn’t a moral crusade but a human rights campaign. Another lawsuit challenging Nevada’s system of legal brothels will be filed in 2021. This is “the beginning of the beginning,” said Bull.

“We want to be a spokesman for the victims who don’t have a voice. Those women who run away from a bad foster situation when they are 12 or 13, have nowhere to live. They’re caught up in sex trafficking. They’re controlled. They’re used. They’re commoditized. They have videos made of them that are uploaded to Pornhub that last forever, and they come out of it later. And most of them, frankly, have a very early death and they’re forgotten. Let’s look at that and prevent it from happening.” 


Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media journalist. Support his work.