Nevada's licensed brothels, many of which have struggled financially since the recession, face a more uncertain future after former NBA and reality TV star Lamar Odom was found unconscious in one on Tuesday.
Nevada is the only state in the U.S. that has legalized prostitution, but it's only allowed in licensed brothels in 10 of Nevada's 17 counties, says Barbara Brents, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas sociology professor. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, there are 18 brothels throughout the state, down from roughly 36 just a couple decades ago. Only counties with fewer than 700,000 residents are permitted to open businesses based on prostitution, which prohibits brothels from operating in Las Vegas, the state's largest city.
That means brothels are “relegated to what we call the cow counties,” Nevada State Sen. Richard Segerblom told the Los Angeles Times. Many brothels are in the state’s remotest backwaters, and most cities don’t want anything to do with them. Segerblom called them “a relic of the past,” according to the Times. Odom was discovered unresponsive Tuesday at the Love Ranch, a suburban brothel that Brents describes as maintaining a steady business under new ownership over the last few years.
Brents says that the number of brothels has always fluctuated, but many struggled during the recession. Since then, rural brothels have had a much harder time bouncing back than those closer to cities, where there are often more tourists and growing male populations. “The ones in the middle of nowhere tend to be smaller with just a handful of women, and those are the ones that have had the most trouble,” Brents says.
Organized prostitution in Nevada got its start when prospectors and miners moved to the state in the mid- to late-19th century after gold and silver were discovered there. The practice was finally legalized in 1971, but the industry has struggled to compete with unlicensed prostitution found on Las Vegas's Strip or advertised online. A federal appeals court decision also prevents brothels from advertising in counties that don't allow them.
The HBO reality TV show Cathouse, which documented the lives of prostitutes working for Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof, brought increased attention to the state's sex industry in the 2000s. But Hof's establishments are now under a different type of scrutiny; he owns the Love Ranch where Odom was found.
“There’s just nothing that’s really working for this unique little industry," George Flint, who was the most prominent lobbyist for the industry but recently retired, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year. "I hesitate to say this, but I think legal, regulated sex for sale is on its way out.”
Correction: The original version of this story mischaracterized the Love Ranch and its location. It is a suburban brothel near Carson City, Nev.