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Despite Hof's Death, Brothel Ban Question Remains On Ballot

Bree Zender
If Lyon County Commissioners decide to ban prostitution, brothels like the Moonlite Bunny Ranch would be forced to shut down. The Bunny Ranch gained international attention when it was featured on the HBO reality show 'Cathouse.'

Dennis Hof died earlier this week. He owned all of the brothels in Lyon County. Despite his death, a question will remain on the ballot asking Lyon County voters whether or not to ban prostitution. KUNR’s Bree Zender examines both sides of this debate. 

Alice Little is a sex worker at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel just outside the borders of Carson City. Before Little came to the ranch, she was an adult sex educator. Now, she sees her own sex work as a way to better educate the public.

Credit Bree Zender
Alice Little poses in her suite at the Bunny Ranch in Mound House, Nevada. She bought special furniture, like a massage table and a "sex couch" for more creative encounters.

“Pretty much, in schools these days, we learn anatomy, physiology, menstruation, and contraception--that's it,” Little said. “Not once will a sex educator tell a high schooler that sex feels good.”

And she wouldn't do this work, Little said, if it wasn't legal.

But the Bunny Ranch, along with the other legal brothels in Lyon County, may soon be shut down. That's because a group looking to end legal prostitution in Nevada urged county commissioners to place an advisory question on the ballot asking residents whether the practice should be banned. If the ballot measure passes, county commissioners would have the final say on whether or not to outlaw prostitution.

“It’s very akin to what we dealt with in our country when we were dealing with during slavery,” said Jason Guinasso, an attorney practicing in Reno, and the head of the End Trafficking and Prostitution, or ETAP, Political Action Committee.

Credit Julia Ritchey
Jason Guinasso at his Reno law office in 2016.

Guinasso said ETAP, along with several Lyon County residents, pushed for the advisory question on the ballot.

“[During the civil war] the basic question was, ‘Is it okay to buy and sell human beings for labor?’ For those who the answer was yes, they looked for ways to better regulate their self-interest,” Guinasso said. “But what we know from that experience is that it’s never okay to buy or sell human beings for labor, or in this instance, sexual gratification.”

In its campaign materials, ETAP alleges that illegal pimps traffic women in and out of the legal brothels in Nevada. It also alleges that brothels don’t do enough to prevent abuse from clients.

Guinasso said the fact that Nevada has legal brothels leads to a culture of abuse and human trafficking. In fact, on Thursday, the Lyon County Sheriff's Office spoke to the County Board of Commissioners, saying it suspects human trafficking may occur at the brothels, whether staff members know it or not.

The owner of all the brothels in Lyon County, Dennis Hof, died unexpectedly earlier this week in his sleep. In an interview prior to his death, Hof denied that any trafficking or abuse happened under his watch. At the time, Hof said Guinasso's approach has been condescending to sex workers.

“They call him Captain Save A Hooker. 'Don't save me. I've got a support system. I've got the ranch. I've got Dennis. I've got a family. I've got money. Don't try to save me. Worry about yourself,’ " Hof said.

Credit Bree Zender
Dennis Hof died earlier this week in his sleep at the Love Ranch north of Pahrump, Nevada. No foul play is suspected, according to the Nye County Sheriff's Office.

Inside the brothels, we know that there are security teams, surveillance systems, and secret emergency panic buttons in the suites for protection.

Despite that, critics allege that there are serious issues. We spoke to two former legal sex workers associated with ETAP who wish to remain anonymous for their safety. They allege that legal brothels are still a dangerous place.

But sex worker Alice Little said the brothels are safer than the alternative because she is a contractor and she makes the rules.

“You're in charge of the rates. You're in charge of the activities. You determine how much time is spent with the client,” Little said. “Everything is determined by us, the female sex worker. If that's not a female-led, female-powered environment, I don't know what is.”

Credit Bree Zender
If prostitution is banned in Lyon County, Alice Little said she would not pursue the illegal route for sex work. But that's not the case for everyone.

While Little describes a work environment that's protective of women, Guinasso doesn't buy it.

"When we're in a culture that has accepted the buying and selling of women for another person's sexual needs, we become [ignorant] to the fact that [a] basic element of their human dignity and their human rights is being eroded,” Guinasso said.

Active legal sex work is limited to only seven counties in the United States. All of them are in Nevada, and close to quarter of them are in Lyon County, drawing in tourists and clients from around the world. With this ballot measure, Lyon County residents have the power to influence the industry both in their backyard, and for the legal sex industry as a whole.

Bree Zender is a former host and reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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