The future of some of Nevada’s most well-known brothels is in voters’ hands, according to the Associated Press. A November ballot initiative seeks to shut down the four legal brothels in Lyon County, all of which are owned by Dennis Hof, who is currently running as a Trump-loving Republican candidate for the Nevada Legislature.
Brothels are legalized in several of the state’s rural counties—there are 21 total in operation within Nevada—but the referendum, which is backed by evangelical Christians, only targets Lyon County. Hof, star of the HBO’s reality-TV series Cathouse, which follows the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, argues it’s a politically motivated attack against him and his campaign.
There are signs that the initiative is part of a broader anti-brothel push: Nye County officials plan to introduce the issue for debate in early 2019, and early steps are reportedly being taken toward a bill to ban brothels statewide.
If the latter were to succeed, it would be a global first. As Julie Bindel—a journalist who is outspokenly against the legalization of sex work—reported in a recent piece in The New York Review of Books, “There has never been a reversal of legalized prostitution anywhere in the world, despite campaigns in every country where this applies.”
Supporters of the Lyon County referendum say it’s an attempt to fight sex trafficking—as is often the case with legislation targeting sex work—but sex workers and brothel owners argue that their businesses operate within the law. As Jennifer Barnes, who manages Mustang Ranch, a brothel in neighboring Storey County, recently told the Reno Gazette-Journal, “There’s never been any human trafficking, sex trafficking, none of it. It’s not true. There’s absolutely not organized crime.”
Researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas have studied the working conditions inside the state’s brothels for nearly 20 years and found that brothel workers largely have positive things to say about working conditions. As sociologist Barbara Brents wrote a few years back in an op-ed for the New York Times, “In legal brothels, employees report that they feel safe, are free to come and go, and are bound only by their contract. Of the brothel workers we surveyed, 84 per cent said that their job felt safe.”
That said, Hof—who proudly styles himself after Trump—has been accused by several former employees of sexual assault and, in one case, rape. (Of course, that didn’t stop him from winning the Republican primary.) It’s also the case that sex workers often favor decriminalization, as opposed to legalization, because it lifts criminal penalties without imposing restrictive and burdensome regulations. But, as the Reno Gazette-Journal reports, many brothel workers argue that the wholesale shuttering of these businesses “would mean two things: more money for pimps and less safety for prostitutes.”