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Lawsuit Aims To Ban Legal Brothels Under A 1910 Law

Michelle Billman

A former sex worker filed a federal lawsuit this week against the state of Nevada, saying that she was trafficked through the state’s legal brothel system. Her pro-bono lawyer, Jason Guinasso, alleges that recruiting workers and clients to go to Nevada brothels is in direct violation with the federal Mann Act, which makes it a felony to transport people over state lines for "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.” 

With us to give more context on the suit is KUNR’s Bree Zender.

How did this lawsuit come about?

Back in November, folks in Lyon County might remember a ballot question weighing whether or not to ban prostitution--Question 1. That question was raised by Reno lawyer Jason Guinasso. Leading up to the election, Guinasso led a political action committee called End Trafficking and Prostitution--known as ETAP--which is still active. That ballot question ultimately failed to pass.

However, Guinasso alleges multiple women who worked in the illegal prostitution industry reached out to him, saying that they had been trafficked from out of state and forced into the legal brothels by outside pimps. The legal brothel gets a portion of the money made at the brothel, and then the outside pimp gets a portion or all of the rest of the money that she would earn. And that’s essentially what Rebekah Charleston, the plaintiff of this lawsuit, says happened to her.

This lawsuit cites that Nevada’s brothels violate the Mann Act. Tell me about the law and how Guinasso says Nevada is violating it.

The Mann Act--also known as the White Slave Traffic Act--became federal law in 1910. Historians say that, at the time, there was this social panic about women being kidnapped and trafficked around the country by immigrants. Critical historians say that the panic itself wasn’t really based on fact, but based on white Americans’ resentment of immigrants.

In fact, in 1913, famed boxer Jack Johnson was the first person to be found guilty of violating the act after he allegedly transported a prostitute from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Many believe that Johnson’s case was racially motivated. [Johnson] was black and the woman, who some say was actually his girlfriend, was white.

But now, the law is mainly used to combat illegal sex trafficking. Guinasso says that Nevada brothels actively recruit sex workers and clients from out of state and out of the country to come to the brothels.

“One of those promotions was one brothel owner was selling the virginity of a woman from Washington here in our state, right?” Guinasso told KUNR. “[The owner was] opening it to bid across the globe with the promise that the highest bidder [could] come to Nevada [to] take this woman’s virginity.”

That’s the key thing for Guinasso: traveling over state lines for sex work. Guinasso told me he wants to use this lawsuit to strike down laws in the state and various counties that make this kind of work legal. 

Now Bree, you've been covering the brothel industry in Nevada for a while for KUNR. [What] Guinasso says...does it ring true?

From my experience reporting on Nevada’s sex industry, it’s fairly common for women to travel from out of state to work in the brothels, whether they were brought by trafficking or of their own free will. Many workers work for weeks or months at a time and then return to where they came from once they’re done making money. In the industry they call it 'touring.'

How have brothels responded to the suit?

Legal brothel operators argue women who work there are safer than those who engage in illegal prostitution on the street. In a statement, the Mustang Ranch said that it may hurt rural counties by removing tax and fee revenues out of their budgets, and the ranch flat out denied that trafficking happens at the brothel.

The Nevada Brothel Association said  in a press release that the suit is an attck on the state.

"At the very least, folks such as [Guinasso] should visit the legal brothels and speak with the adult, consenting women who work there," the statement read. "[G]et their first-person perspective on the work they’ve chosen to do."

So, what happens now?

The defendants, who are the state, Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state legislature, have until late April to respond to the lawsuit. 

Click here for a copy of the lawsuit.

Editor's Note: Since the publication of this story, the Nevada Brothel Association sent out a press release in regards to the lawsuit. We have since updated our web story with their response.

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