Image: 'Salt Wells' brothel in Fallon, Nevada
Jim Lo Scalzo  /  EPA
The lonely location of the 'Salt Wells' brothel in Fallon, Nevada, shown in Nov. 2006. Nevada is the last place in the U.S. that prostitutes can openly say they offer sex for a living.
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updated 3/1/2011 1:06:53 PM ET 2011-03-01T18:06:53

Some wobbled in six-inch, platform stilettos. Others padded around in glittery, gold ballerina flats. Whatever they were wearing, the prostitutes walking the hallways of the Nevada State Legislature were stepping out in defiance.

Their state — sagebrushed, windswept, battle-born Nevada — is the last place in the U.S. that prostitutes can openly say they offer sex for a living — and they turned out confident that they'll preserve their enterprise.

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"As long as people are having sex, I'll have a job," said Brooke Taylor, a prostitute at Moonlite Bunny Ranch outside Carson City.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid called out the oldest profession in a speech to state legislators, telling them the state with the nation's highest unemployment rate was shooting itself in the economic foot by permitting legal prostitution. In three short paragraphs, Reid reignited debate over an industry that has mostly been quietly tolerated since the Civil War. Reid, a practicing Mormon whose mother took in laundry from the brothels around the mining settlement of Searchlight, Nev., where he grew up, framed Nevada as a moral backwater for practicing prostitution.

Image: Prostitutes line up for a customer at 'Sheri's Ranch'
Jim Lo Scalzo  /  EPA
Prostitutes line up for a customer at 'Sheri's Ranch', a legal brothel in Pahrump, Nev., on Nov. 16, 2006. Sen. Harry Reid  unexpectedly called for an end to legal brothels in his home state, sparking a new debate about one the world's oldest professions.

Others say Nevada's regulation and health restrictions on the trade offer a model for the future.

"In many ways, the way we treat sexuality is the trend," said Barbara Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who has written a book and journal articles on Nevada's bordellos and prostitution regulation.

"Other countries are rethinking things because the only people being hurt by the laws are the women trying to do the work," she said, citing a Canadian judge's recent decision to strike down that country's anti-prostitution laws.

Reid's remarks, believed to be his first foray on the subject, may have met approving applause in other states. But they fell flat among an audience of Nevada Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals.

Ed Goedhart, a church-going Republican widely considered the most conservative in the state Assembly, blasted Reid's stance as an attack on freedom and an attempt to "legislate morality."

"This is a transaction that's conducted on the acceptance of both individuals, and I don't believe that we should go there," Goedhart said. "Nevada is still one of the last, best free places. We should be embrace that heritage of freedom and libertarianism and that's going to bring people out here."

Nevada's brothels — born in the mid-1800s during the state's mining booms — outlived the conservative Progressive era of the 1920s. That was an era in which activists were trying to "save" men from alcohol and women from prostitution.

"What has happened is the western U.S. has resisted the eastern U.S. imposing its morality," Brents said.

A federal brothel ban was set during World War II, intended to keep young men at Nevada's military bases out of trouble, according to Nevada historian Guy Rocha. A few local jurisdictions — including Las Vegas and Reno — rooted out their red light districts by the 1950s, declaring them public nuisances that detracted from an even more lucrative gambling industry.

But today, bans are patchy — brothels are legal in 10 counties, illegal in five and neither allowed nor disallowed in two.

Legislators often offer the "let locals decide" line.

"They say, 'If that's what they want in rural Nevada, that's their choice. Let's not be heavy-handed," Rocha said.

Nevada has a tradition of seizing economic opportunities in industries other states legislate away. As gambling built up, tourism grew, leading the state to groom its quickie marriage and quickie divorce industries. Legalized brothels remain a fit for a state driven by adult businesses.

But how much of a stigma is legalized prostitution now for a depressed Nevada economy, especially when it is confined to brothels in rural counties?

Economic development advisers told legislators earlier in the session that a major "cloud on the horizon" is the scathing media attention Nevada has received — not for its loose morals, but poor education. Nevada ranks lowest in the nation for graduation rate and second-lowest for per-pupil education spending, but highest in the nation for unemployment and foreclosures.

"That's a very real stigma — it's measurable. You're looking for a work force, and it's poorly educated, it's got the lowest number with degrees," Rocha said. But with morality issues, "there might be some interest, but it's not paramount; it's a passing concern. The paramount concern is educational infrastructure."

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Lance Gilman owns one of Nevada's longest-operating brothels and has developed some of northern Nevada's largest business parks, the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, where he also built the Wild Horse Adult Resort & Spa east of Reno. In 2003, he purchased the buildings of the Mustang Ranch, perhaps Nevada's most recognized cat house made infamous by brothel boss Joe Conforte, now a fugitive in Brazil.

When he talks about his brothel, which employs 150 women, he focuses on the restaurants, the professional horticulturist that has thousands of rare trees on the property, the fine art.

Far from the dark, clapboard whorehouses of the old West, some of Nevada's newer brothels model themselves after resorts. They're catering to the tourist market, Brents said; customers are paying for emotion, not just a particular sex act.

"People want to buy experiences," Brents said. "Las Vegas is ... based on the idea of purchasing fantasy."

Gilman said outlawing the legal brothels would fuel the underground prostitution rings, where sex workers face infection and are at the mercy of pimps. Women who leave illegal prostitution to work in brothels "have a much better quality of life."

Brothel workers, who pay taxes to counties and are required to have weekly medical exams to test for sexually transmitted diseases, said they were offended that Reid called for the end of their livelihood.

"He should be proud that we're the first ones doing it right," Taylor said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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