“YOU’RE the master of your own destiny in this job, much like any small business owner.” So says Alice Little, who claims to be America’s top-earning legal prostitute, on track to book $1.2m this year. Next to an undulating sex sofa in an otherwise homely suite at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, she lists the perks of her trade. They include flexible hours and prices that she alone sets. “I am my own boss. Everything I do is my choice,” she adds, in the evangelising tone of an entrepreneur.
Ms Little may soon find herself jobless. Residents of Lyon County—one of seven in Nevada that has legal brothels—will vote on an advisory measure to ban them on November 6th. The county’s four bordellos may shutter, leaving several hundred registered sex workers, bartenders and maintenance staff without work.
Nevada’s sex trade is the only legal one in America and is as old as the state itself. Miners arrived in the mid-19th century, soon followed by gambling and prostitution. The vices stayed: attempts to ban the brothels in the post-war years faltered. State law forbids prostitution in the more densely populated counties: it is illegal in Las Vegas and Reno, though that is where most sex-workers covertly ply their trade. Nevada currently has 21 legal brothels. They sit off dusty, rural highways.
The anti-brothel crowd is a mix: some church folk, who see the issue in moral terms; some campaigners against sexual exploitation; and some business types, who fear it will deter investment in a nearby industrial zone. Brenda Sandquist, who runs a charity called Xquisite that counsels sex-workers, says they are treated like “meat.” She thinks they face abuse and that legalising prostitution brings an uptick in sex-trafficking.
Ms Little finds the idea that she is being exploited laughable. Prostitutes in Nevada are classified as independent contractors; most live elsewhere and arrive at the brothels for short stints, free to leave as they wish. They can turn down requests by clients, insists Dennis Hof, owner of Lyon County’s four bordellos. He aims to cultivate “a willing buyer, a willing seller, and a repeat customer.”
Prostitutes must pass a background check: felonies are disqualifying. They submit to weekly STD testing, and condoms are required. Rooms come equipped with panic buttons to guard against abusive johns, though Ms Little says she has used hers twice: once at the sight of a tarantula and once by accident. Freedom to work without fear of arrest is another relief. While stripping in Las Vegas, Tiara Tae, now a sex-worker at the Bunny Ranch, saw countless streetwalkers get “ho charges”—a “little bit of jail time and a huge-ass fine.” The illegal scene there was “shady” and required too much hustle to evade penalty.
Legalised prostitution seems safer. A study from Rhode Island, which in effect decriminalised indoor prostitution between 2003 and 2009, found that reported rape offences decreased by 30% and gonorrhoea cases by over 40%. No study has yet shown a causal link between legalised prostitution and people trafficking.
Mr Hof, a publicity-courting showman, suspects an ulterior motive behind the proposed ban. He is running for a state-assembly seat in November and thinks the ballot initiative was cooked up by his opponent in the Republican primary, a three-term incumbent, whom he trounced in June. That the two counties to contemplate a ban this year happen to be those where he owns brothels is no coincidence, he speculates. (In Nye County, anti-brothel campaigners failed to win enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot.)
He seems a shoo-in for his Trumpian district, even as police investigate allegations of sexual assault against him. (“Totally absurd,” he says when asked if they are true.) Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, and Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to the president, came to this arid corner of Nevada to campaign on his behalf.
In all likelihood the proposed ban will go nowhere. Just 29% of Nevadans said they would ban prostitution in a recent poll. That share drops among rural residents. Mr Hof sees this as a matter of personal liberty for both the women and their clients—like owning guns, gambling, and smoking weed. That argument deserves some scrutiny. Ms Tae went broke three times before becoming a sex-worker. Aspen North, also of the Bunny Ranch, says family debt led her to the profession. Their choice of sex work does not make them victims of trafficking, but it suggests a lack of options owing to poverty. They can make ends meet safely now and would be hurt most by a ban. Moralisers, says the Republican candidate, “need to wake up.”