Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourist-dependent Nevada had a notorious attraction: It was the only place in the US where someone could legally pay for sex.
These days, even in the state known for sin, the business is taboo.
Legal brothels have been shuttered for nearly a year, leaving sex workers to offer less-lucrative alternatives like online dates or nonsexual escort services.
Those in the industry say many of the licensed prostitutes, who work as independent contractors, have struggled to qualify for unemployment benefits since closures began in March last year and some have opted to take their work into the shadows, offering sex illegally.
While the business of legal bordellos might seem incompatible with social distancing, sex workers and brothel owners said that is not the case.
Like other close-contact industries, such as massage therapy and dental services, they said brothels should be allowed to reopen with protective measures.
“We could easily do work at arm’s length, just the same as they do within the massage parlors, which are open in the state of Nevada,” sex worker Alice Little said. “You can go to a dentist and have him put his hands in your mouth. You can go to a tattoo parlor and get your face tattooed right now. You can get piercings put in your face. You’re certainly not masked for any of those things.”
So far, Nevada officials have not agreed. A state task force that makes recommendations on coronavirus restrictions has not responded to pleas from brothel owners seeking a way to reopen.
A lawsuit Little filed last year against Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak fizzled.
The Democratic governor has said that brothels, along with other adult entertainment like nightclubs and strip clubs, would stay closed at least through May 1.
Nevada, like many US states, saw a spike of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths around the winter holidays, but since the middle of last month, those numbers have been steadily declining.
Prostitution is only legal in Nevada’s estimated 20 licensed brothels, whose sex workers undergo regular tests for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, and obtain required work cards from local law enforcement after passing an FBI background check.
A throwback to the state’s days as a Wild West mining territory, brothels were illegal, but tolerated in some areas until Nevada legalized them in 1971.
They are only allowed to operate in counties with populations of less than 700,000 people. Brothels and prostitution are illegal in the counties that include Las Vegas and Reno, but some brothels are a half-hour to an hour away. Some offer free limo rides from the casino-heavy cities.
Little, who was working at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel in the state capital, Carson City, said she has lost 95 percent of her income amid the closures.
She said she has been providing virtual dates, Webcam experiences and creating X-rated content through subscriber site OnlyFans, among other ventures.
“At this point, I am able to survive. I am able to pay my bills. I’m able to put food on the table, but I have had to dip into my savings,” Little said.
Other brothel workers who are not comfortable linking their faces to online sex work have had a harder time pivoting to virtual services, she said.
Finding a job outside the stigmatized sex industry also can be tough, Little said, because background checks can reveal the work authorization cards prostitutes must have in brothels.
Allissa Starr, who was working at Sheri’s Ranch brothel in Pahrump, about an hour outside Las Vegas, said some women she worked with are illegally offering sex for money, despite virus concerns.
“They’re just doing what they can,” she said.
Starr, like Little, started offering virtual dates, where she might share a glass of wine, dinner and conversation with clients.
Starr said she eventually got assistance under the federal pandemic unemployment program for gig workers, but it was about 10 percent of what she had been making and is set to run out soon.
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