In a dim parlor furnished with red velvet couches and a stripper pole, Brooke Taylor is having a sale on herself.
“I offer a lot more specials and discounts and incentives for people to come in to see me,” said Taylor, 32, a brunette prostitute in a short, green dress at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch outside Carson City, Nevada. “People are looking for deals.”
Nevada’s legal brothels, which took root in the mid-1800s silver-mining boom, are dwindling, down to about 19 from roughly 36 in 1985, according to George Flint, an industry lobbyist. Many have been the highest-profile businesses in their sparsely populated regions, and their decline hurts already-stretched county budgets and marks the end to local institutions — though not the universally beloved sort.
The state’s flagging economy, decreased patronage by truckers squeezed by fuel costs and growing use of the Internet to arrange liaisons are to blame, managers say.
“A lot of our clients don’t have the discretionary income they had six years ago, five years ago,” said Susan Austin, 63, the madam of the Mustang Ranch in Sparks, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Reno. “The ones that can come in, they aren’t spending quite what they were spending before.”
Recent years have not been kind to Nevada. The 18-month recession that began in December 2007 still holds a grip on the state. It had America’s highest unemployment rate in July, 9.5 percent, compared with 7.4 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the last quarter of 2007, the state’s economic health has declined 46 percent, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States. That’s second-worst in the nation behind New Mexico.
Most brothels are in rural areas with few people and employers. If Manhattan had the density of Lyon County, home to the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the population would be 594.
The brothels pay little to the state, sending most of their fees and tax payments to the counties that oversee them.
Every dollar helps. In Lyon County, where the largest private employers are an Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) distribution center and a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) outlet, total revenue fell from $33 million in fiscal 2009 to $29 million in 2012, according to Josh Foli, its comptroller. In the past five years, the county’s staff has been cut about 25 percent, Foli said.
In the fiscal year ended June 30, Lyon’s four brothels paid it $369,600 in business-licensing fees and $17,800 from work permits for the prostitutes, Foli said. The brothels also pay room and property taxes to the county, along with sales tax to the state on merchandise, including t-shirts.
Then there’s the main transaction: Visitors select from a lineup of women, negotiate a price and pay a cashier in advance. The women, independent contractors, say they typically give half to the house. Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, said his customers spend $200 to $600 on average.
Austin, who said she became a prostitute at 49 before becoming a madam, said the Mustang Ranch is seeing fewer clients than five years ago, though she wouldn’t provide figures.
“They’re getting less services because they’re paying less, but they’re still seeing their favorite ladies,” Austin said in the brothel’s Italian suite, which features a four-poster bed, tiger-print carpet and hot tub. “It’s like anything: When the economy takes a dive, you just live with less frills.”
Some say the downturn is overdue.
“Legal prostitution creates a cultural acceptance,” said Melissa Farley, executive director of Prostitution Research & Education, a San Francisco-based group that fights the sex trade. “The evidence tells us prostitution is profoundly harmful.”
The decline of the bordellos threatens an emblematic industry in a state that, since gangster Bugsy Siegel envisioned Las Vegas’s casinos in the 1940s, has cultivated a global reputation as a sinner’s paradise of gambling and louche delights.
The houses were woven into the fabric of the American West in the days of the pioneers, said Barb Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While some states banned them, Nevada left the question to local governments in counties with fewer than 700,000 residents. Ten of the state’s 17 counties allow them.
“They don’t bother anybody,” Brents said. “Brothels operate on an idea that men are a certain way and women are a certain way and there’s a need for these services.”
In the Mustang Ranch’s Wild Horse Saloon, scantily clad women put that idea into action, approaching men on barstools and at tables. A woman leads a customer through a locked door. A 41-year-old redhead who calls herself Phoenixxx twirls on a pole atop the bar in a tight striped dress, then moves to a corner where she repeats the moves, this time in the nude. Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” booms from the stereo.
The spectacle masks the fall of the fleshpot. Prostitution is shifting online, said Scott Peppet, who teaches law at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and writes about technology and markets.
“A brothel is an intermediary,” Peppet said. “It’s pulling together women so it’s easy for buyers to find them.” That role is now being filled by the Internet, he said.
Craigslist, the free online classified-advertising site, eliminated its adult-services section in 2010 in response to pressure from state attorneys general. Many ads shifted to closely held Backpage.com.
In Las Vegas, the state’s largest city and one where prostitution is outlawed, women offer themselves online as “escorts.” Backpage.com carried more than 500 advertisements for Las Vegas on Aug. 25 alone. The come-ons ranged from “Teach Me… Spank Me… Pull My Hair!!!!” to “Fun, freaky, flirty, fulfill, favored, fetish friendly.”
In 2012, the city’s “vice enforcement/arrests” rose 67 percent to 8,908 from the year before, according to a 2012 annual police department report.
Jose Hernandez, a police spokesman, said prostitution “is a concern of ours.” He said a lieutenant for the vice division was too busy for an interview.
Some women see freelance escorting as dangerous work. In December 2010, the bodies of four prostitutes who had advertised online were found near a New York beach.
Some Nevada brothels have guards and panic buttons in the rooms. Workers must be examined by a doctor weekly.
“There’s a huge benefit for us working girls to work in this environment as opposed to escorting,” said Taylor, the Bunny Ranch prostitute. “We’re tested here. It’s safe.”
Taylor, who has appeared on the cover of Hustler magazine, began at the Bunny Ranch on New Year’s Eve 2005 and learned she could earn in an hour what she made in two weeks as a case manager for adults with developmental disabilities.
Hof, 66, her boss, said the good times will return. The recession allowed him to buy five struggling brothels, bringing his holdings to seven.
“With the economy coming back, I think it’s going to do real well,” said Hof. “I’m buying up everything.”
Flint, 79, the lobbyist, said he began representing the industry in 1985 and now has about 10 clients, including the Bunny Ranch. Flint said rural brothels that depend on truck drivers have been among the hardest hit.
“A lot of these long-haul truckers have to buy their own fuel,” he said. “They could afford diesel when it was $2.49 a gallon, but now when it’s up over $5, particularly in rural Nevada, they don’t have any leftover income.”
Flint has hedged his bet on fornication: He also owns Chapel of the Bells, a Reno wedding service, where his office is decorated with portraits of Napoleon.
One of the state’s smallest brothels is in Winnemucca, straddling Interstate 80, where a billboard bears the silhouette of a woman in a cowboy hat with the invitation: “Wild West Saloon. Girls, Girls, Girls! Truckers Welcome. Get Off Now.”
Owner Mike Yeager, 65, said he’s escaped the recession thanks to a steady clientele of truckers, hunters and gold miners. There’s a $100 minimum and timers count down patrons’ sessions. Sitting at the bar, he predicted a stable future.
“There’s always money in this business,” said Yeager. “Put a couple of girls in here and you’re always going to make money.”