CARSON CITY, Nev. >> Brooke Taylor voted for Harry Reid in his battle for re-election to the Senate last fall. But now, she is incensed. Reid recently visited here and took a firm, if unexpected, stand: He called for an end to legal brothels.
For five years Taylor has worked at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the Nevada brothel featured on the HBO show “Cathouse,” a few miles outside Carson City, the state capital. She has fashioned herself as the public face for legal prostitution throughout the state, a role she has embraced in adult magazines, on cable television and even on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Now Reid’s comments are reopening the oldest debate about the oldest profession. And Taylor is rallying her army of fans and clients to fight back.
Prostitution never emerged as an issue during the Reid campaign. But then Reid, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, returned to his home state last week for his address to the Legislature.
“When the nation thinks about Nevada, it should think about the world’s newest ideas and newest careers, not about its oldest profession,” Reid said. “If we want to attract business to Nevada that puts people back to work, the time has come to outlaw prostitution.”
Consumed by the need to close a $1.5 billion budget gap, Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, and the leaders in the Democratic-controlled Legislature issued terse statements suggesting that they would leave the issues of brothels up to local leaders.
But that is hardly stopping the chatter.
It is unclear what motivated Reid at this moment. When a reporter asked him why now, he answered, “If not now, when?”
But some are arguing that now is precisely the time to embrace legal prostitution even more tightly. As the state has faced austere budgets, the brothels have indicated a willingness to pay more taxes, which would produce more revenue and simultaneously give the brothels more legitimacy if the state came to rely on the money.
Some supporters of brothels, like Taylor, say they hope the debate will give them a chance to push to make prostitution legal in large counties in the state, where it is currently banned but widely acknowledged to exist.
“Here we are being safe and professional and earning a living, and he wants us to end it? Absolutely not,” Taylor said in an interview in her bedroom at the Bunny Ranch. “This is what I choose to do, and there is nothing wrong with it.”
Taylor, who does not use her given family name, graduated from college and worked as an administrator in a group home for young people for several years before she became a prostitute. The bedroom where she works is decorated with photos of Marilyn Monroe and framed copies of her posing in Hustler magazine. Taylor declined to discuss her rates, lest she be accused of soliciting across state lines, which would be illegal, but said, “Money is not my worry anymore.”
“We’re entrepreneurs; we’re in a business for ourselves,” she added.
Like many of the state’s two dozen brothels, the Bunny Ranch is tucked behind an industrial park, a few hundred feet off a small highway in northern Nevada. It is hardly the kind of place one stumbles upon. Visitors know to look for electric pink signs or flashing red lights, even if they do not know exactly what to expect once they walk in the door. (Anyone without an appointment is greeted with a line of women in lingerie; customers can choose whom they would like to take to a bedroom, though some choose just to have a drink at the bar.)
George Flint, who has worked as the chief lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Owners Association for 25 years, tends to abide by the consensus that the prostitutes should keep a low profile, “stay low on the brush,” the local saying goes.
But when Flint heard that Reid had condemned the brothels, he encouraged Dennis Hof, the outlandish owner of the Bunny Ranch and other brothels, to take some of his “girls” to the Legislature for the speech. Later, Hof told reporters that “Harry Reid will have to pry the cathouse keys from my cold, dead hands.”
Flint, who is also the proprietor of a wedding chapel in Reno, said politicians here “have always been pretty happy to ignore” the brothels. “Anyone who shows a lot of support for us is going to have some trouble,” he said.
Many of the brothels here have existed for decades. Reid wrote in his autobiography about his mother earning money by doing laundry for some in his hometown, Searchlight.
Officials estimate that roughly 1,000 women legally work as prostitutes in the state, though only about a third of them are working on any given day. The women generally set their own rates and share their pay with the brothel owners. The brothels range from small sets of sparse trailers to elaborate resorts, and owners estimate that they employ an additional 500 people as bartenders, cooks, maids and managers.
Under state law, brothels are illegal in counties with a population above 400,000, which includes Clark County, home to Las Vegas. But in many ways prostitution is most apparent there, where aggressive marketers constantly pass out handbills with nude women advertised as escorts. If prostitution were legal in Las Vegas, Flint said, the county could collect millions of dollars in taxes.
“There’s not a big club on the strip that doesn’t have their own girls,” he added. “When a high roller wants a girl, a girl is supplied to them.”
Mayor Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas, who is known for relishing the “Sin City” image, has said he may support a red-light district for legal prostitution. His wife, who is running to succeed him, said during a debate last week that she was also open to the possibility.
In his speech, Reid spoke of a businessman who said he had shelved the idea of moving to Storey County, just outside Reno, because of the brothels. But that argument carries little sway around here. Pat Whitten, the Storey County manager, said he “never once heard of a business not coming because of the proximity to brothels.”
And the owner of the two in Storey County, Lance Gilman, also happens to be the developer of the largest industrial complexes in the area.
“It’s just absurd to say this is the blight or taint on our state, of all things,” said Gilman, who bought the Mustang Ranch, one of the oldest brothels in the state, in 2003. “A company wants to know about power rates and housing and affordability — prostitution is just not on their radar screen.”
Even state Sen. John Lee, a Democrat from North Las Vegas who is one of the Legislature’s most vocal critics of prostitution, said he was not inclined to introduce a bill banning brothels and that such a bill would have little chance.
Ed Goedhart, a Republican assemblyman from northern Nevada, said brothels speak to the state’s history of “rugged individualism.”
“It shows weren’t not just another cookie-cutter state,” he said. “We relish the fact that whenever anyone else is zigging, we’re zagging. We don’t need to have a bureaucratic version of utopia. The last free place in this country is Nevada. We should celebrate that.”