On Nov. 17, 1972, the Nov. 23 edition of Rolling Stone hit the newsstands with a cover story on Nevada brothel owner Joe Conforte (who cooperated with the story but did not like the result and sued the magazine). The article was naturally widely read hereabouts, but one feature of the article did not attract particular attention.
As a sidebar, the magazine had run the “rules of the house” that had been seen posted at the brothel during the reporting of the story. One of the rules said that tips had to be turned in at the end of a shift. This conflicted with a Nevada statute that forbade employers confiscating tips.
No Nevada official or politicians jumped to protect the women from this rule, nor—except for Sagebrush at the University of Nevada, Reno—did any journalism entity even report on the conflict between the law and the rule.
It was not surprising. These were, after all, “only” prostitutes. Who, particularly in public life, wanted to be identified as assisting them?
UNR scholars Barbara G. Brents and Sarah J. Blithe recently wrote, “Selling sex can be safe, healthy and profitable if individuals have protection from the law and the ability to redress abuses. … For years, we have been presenting research at national and international conferences, and Nevada is held up as a positive model for regulating prostitution. It is seen by scholars from around the globe as a far better alternative than criminalizing prostitution for the health, safety and rights of the individuals in it, though it certainly can be improved.”
The best way to ruin that reputation is to allow women in the brothels to be mistreated. A current article in the New Yorker with details of alleged rapes by the late brothel owner Dennis Hof can give Nevadans a sense of the kind of publicity we mean. State policies in this field should no longer be left to those who think prostitutes cannot be raped.
If anything, the fact that these are prostitutes increases our obligation to make certain they have safe workplaces and are treated fairly and paid reasonably. Other than health inspections, the Nevada Legislature has traditionally left the brothels to their own devices and the women to the mercy of owners. The 2019 legislature should end this laissez faire policy and start scrutinizing the brothels rigorously, and our new legislature with so many more women seems designed to take on the task.
• On a related topic, when petitions were being circulated to place the legality of brothel prostitution on the ballots of Nye and Lyon counties, the Lyon County Commission stepped in and placed the matter on the ballot free, without petitions. It was, in effect, an in-kind contribution to advocates of the petition. Nye County stayed out of the politics of the issue, and that petition failed to qualify for that county’s ballot.
Fortunately, the Lyon County vote upheld brothel prostitution, but the foolishness of the county commission remains. Since Lyon County gave free ballot position to one group, it now owes the same to any group. No one should have to circulate petitions in Lyon County to gain ballot placement, and if the county denies other groups, it better have a good reason for its favoritism.