Brothel ban question divides residents in Nevada county

  • Lyon County, Nevada, commissioners will put an advisory question on the ballot this fall asking voters whether brothels should be banned.
  • The county is one of the few places in the United States where brothels and sex work are legal.
  • Supporters of a ban say illegal sex trafficking rises in jurisdictions that legalize brothels, but opponents point to a negative effect on the local economy.

Ruby Rae has made a lucrative career out of prostitution in rural Lyon County, Nevada — one of the few places in the country where it is legal.

Ruby, who goes by her stage name, says she earns six figures a year working at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the brothel made world-famous in the HBO show "Cathouse" — enough to put herself through college at the University of Nevada in Reno, where she's now pursuing a Master's degree.

She has a Roth IRA, life insurance and goals to invest in real estate in addition to other perks: "I get to create my own schedule. I get to choose which shift I want to be on. I get as much or as little vacation time as I want," she said.

But Ruby's livelihood is now on the line. Lyon County commissioners will put an advisory question on the ballot this fall asking voters whether brothels should be banned.

Owner Dennis Hof and legal sex workers at the Moonlight BunnyRanch, Carson City, NV.
Harriet Taylor | CNBC
Owner Dennis Hof and legal sex workers at the Moonlight BunnyRanch, Carson City, NV.

"The illegal and legal sex trade are inextricably linked. We know wherever a jurisdiction legalizes prostitution, that the incidents of illegal sex trafficking skyrockets," said Jason Guinasso, an attorney who represents No Little Girl, an activist group that gathered enough signatures for a Lyon County referendum.

No Little Girl activists cite research by Creighton University that shows Nevada's sex trade is larger than any other state's when adjusted for population, and the political fight in Lyon County pits neighbor against neighbor.

At a recent meeting over the issue, parents who vehemently oppose the brothels sat side by side with longtime Nevadans who saw a brothel ban as an infringement on their freedom and a threat to their own prosperity.

Opponents of a ban say it would put a financial strain on local residents and businesses. Dennis Hof, whose brothel is featured in the show "Cathouse," says his businesses in Lyon and Nye Counties make up 40% of the legal commercial sex trade in Nevada. He estimates his four brothels in Lyon County alone have a ten million dollar impact on the local economy and support some 500 sex workers and 135 other employees.

"We have to buy things. We go to grocery stores right down the road… We spend money in the county where we make our money, " said Hof, who is currently campaigning as a Republican for a Nevada State Assembly seat.

Critics point out that Hof has been accused of sexual assault by two former workers. "These are totally false allegations that are politically motivated," he said, noting that he has not been charged.

Brothels don't pay business taxes, but contribute nearly $500,000 in other fees to the county, which goes toward paying for the county fleet of vehicles. With only 52,000 residents, the county would be hard-pressed to make up that revenue if the brothels were banned, says Lyon County Executive Jeffrey Page.

"From a financial perspective, it means it has to come from someplace else," Page said.

Some supporters think the state should tax brothels like any other businesses. Ruby, whose advanced university degree will be in sex work, questions why activists aren't pushing to legalize them more broadly.

Past efforts to ban the brothels have failed. But Ruby eyes the current effort and her future somewhat cautiously. She says she's holding off from investing in real estate until she knows for sure whether she'll have to find a new job.

Dennis Hof, at his Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Carson City, Nev.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Dennis Hof, at his Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Carson City, Nev.