This is the last in our series of columns on the history of prostitution in Nye County.
Although the series has covered the major threads of the topic, it has not been an exhaustive history, due to both space limitations and availability of information. Like most topics in life, the facts of brothel history go mostly unrecorded, residing largely in the memories of the participants.
When the participants are gone, the history is lost.
Additionally, operators of the Chicken Ranch and Sheri’s Ranch in Pahrump declined to be interviewed, as did Dennis Hof, who purchased his properties in Amargosa Valley from Joe Richards.
Laraine Russo Harper’s account of her six years as madam in a Pahrump brothel in her 2009 book “Legal Tender” is a good read, although it is lacking in the names, dates, and other details historians seek.
Prostitution in History
The practice of prostitution extends deep into antiquity, going as far back, as one classic analysis puts it, “to the earliest history of the human race.”
Throughout its history, prostitution has taken many forms, including temple prostitution in the service of various gods, a man hiring out his wife or children, military camp-followers, freelancing in various forms, including streetwalking and, today, use of the Internet and, of course, brothel prostitution.
In all instances, the morality of these customs is highly relative and dependent on each society’s values. What is considered proper in one historical period or society might be considered completely improper in another. And values change over time; what is okay today might not be okay later.
Modern nations differ in their approaches to prostitution. The purchase of sex is legal in Germany and the Netherlands. In Sweden, on the other hand, the purchase of sex is criminalized.
The buyers—not the women—are punished and assistance is given to women who want to escape the selling of sex. Supposedly, as a result of this law, trade in sex in Sweden is down, with most prostitutes there now hailing from poorer nations; formerly, the majority were from Sweden.
Prostitution in Nevada
Over the last 150 years, Nevada has evolved its own special approach to the selling of sex. In Nevada, prostitution is a county matter, with a focus on legal brothels. By state law, brothels are not allowed in counties with a population greater than 400,000.
However, this has not stopped the selling of sex in Las Vegas. The trade, though illegal, thrives there today.
In rural Nevada, including Nye County, it is up to the individual county as to whether or not to allow brothels. A generation ago, a significant number of legal brothels operated in Nevada’s rural counties; today there are one-half as many as there were 20 years ago, and the six largest operations are said to control 90 percent of the legal trade.
The small operations are fading.
Who can say where the system of legal brothels in Nevada’s rural counties is headed?
But I would say the system of regulated prostitution in rural Nevada has been a good one, and has served the women who worked there and their clients well.
A few years ago, I conducted a lengthy series of interviews with a charismatic and highly intelligent woman who worked as a prostitute in both Las Vegas, where it was illegal, and Nye County, where it was legal. Desiree was a savvy businesswoman who recognized the income potential in prostitution.
Desiree described in detail the benefits and dangers of working in Las Vegas as a freelance prostitute, including the anxiety and fear a woman can experience in a big-city milieu, and the social skills needed to deal with situations that can easily become difficult.
She described how she was once entrapped by the police and severely beaten. She told of affairs she had had with police officers there. She also described the good money that could be made and how the big hotels made sex available to their guests.
Further, she spoke at length about what it was like to work in a legal brothel in Nye County.
In the brothel, she didn’t have to worry about police entrapment or getting beat up by either a client or the police; she felt protected and never experienced the anxiety that seemed to always hover when plying her trade in Las Vegas.
At one point, after an extended period of employment in a Nye County brothel, she took some time off to tend to personal matters. Returning to the brothel after several weeks, she found herself in a positive mood as she drove down the highway.
She crossed the line from Clark County into Nye County.
When she saw the Nye County sign alongside the highway, a strong feeling of warmth came over her. She was quickly enveloped in a wonderful sense of peace and security. She got tingles up and down her spine and had an overpowering sense of home, and the feeling of safety that home can bring. The bad things of the world could not get her here. That peak emotion lasted for a few minutes, but a positive aura remained for hours.
I believe that Desiree’s epiphany and her powerful sense of safety and security were in large measure attributable to the protection Nye County and rural Nevada’s system of legal brothels can provide women as well as their clients.
Bob McCracken has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and is the author of numerous books in the Nye County Town History Project, including a history of Pahrump.