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County in Focus: Lyon County, Nevada

This is a special guest post by Melissa Holland, founder of the local non-profit Awaken in Nevada.

This is a critical and historic moment for Nevada, the only state in the USA where prostitution and brothels are still legal.

For 47 years Nevada has allowed legal brothels to exist and it is a matter that is decided at the county level. This is because when Nevada first legalized brothels, they did so in a way where only counties with a certain population would be able to vote to decide if they want brothels in their region. Meaning, the people in these counties can also decide if they no longer want those brothels to remain. Much of the population in these areas have lived their entire lives with legal prostitution.

Currently, there is an unprecedented opportunity to invoke a historic turnaround in counties where brothels are legal. However, a dramatic change such as this will require a great deal of prayer, outreach, and education.

This November the citizens of Lyon County, home to 4 brothels, including the famed Bunny Ranch, will vote on an advisory question to repeal the brothels.

This voting opportunity represents the first time in Nevada history for its citizens to strike down the legal brothel system, which could ignite a state-wide effort towards the same end! If the brothels in Lyon county are repealed this November, the Lyon County Sheriff, who supports the Nordic model, has committed to only focus on arresting sex buyers and pimps!

Repealing the Lyon County ordinance on prostitution is the first step towards a long term statewide abolition effort.

In 2011, I founded a local nonprofit in Nevada called Awaken. We are based in Reno, where we have a drop-in center and offer case management, mentorship, counseling, and an array of groups for women and children exiting and/or still in prostitution/trafficking. This fall we will also open our first long term transitional home!

Over the years we have heard from women exiting Nevada’s legal brothels about just how bad it is. One survivor enslaved in the Nevada brothels for more than ten years said, “It was difficult to leave the premises even to run errands. All of the rooms are wired for sound, to listen to all of the negotiations to ensure that I was not ‘blowing calls’ as they say, or turning down customers’ [demands].”

One survivor shared how afraid to leave she was. “I was berated during ‘tea party’ (weekly meetings with the brothel staff), as the brothel owner/pimp would threaten me with holding my work card to keep me from being employed elsewhere. If I didn’t make enough I would be assaulted. For some there is no escape.”

“If I didn’t make enough I would be assaulted. For some there is no escape.”

Another woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, described the racism and exploitation she experienced as a woman of color inside the brothels.

She recounted a humiliating time when a staff member at the brothel “told me to go to my room when certain racist men would enter the brothel so they wouldn’t have to see me. I can’t count the number of times I was called a big nigger. One client told me I was an old black horse that needed to be put down. Once a brothel staff member told me he wanted me to dress up like a slave and do a photo shoot with a man dressed in KKK attire standing above me. I faced racism like this on a regular basis during my 10 years on and off in the brothels.”

In addition to these testimonies, we have heard of countless cases of sexual assault, rape, and even suicide happening in the brothels.

Renowned researcher, Melissa Farley, spent a couple of years interviewing and surveying the women in Nevada’s legal brothels. She has studied more women in Nevada’s legal brothels than any other researcher. Her findings showed that 57% of the women in Nevada legal brothels gave all or part of their income to their pimp or trafficker—someone in addition to the brothel owner. Her research also revealed:

• 81% of the women in the Nevada legal brothels reported they wanted to escape prostitution regardless of its legal status. They said it is all (legal/illegal) emotionally the same
• 23% Self reported they were prostituted as a child
• 50% have prostituted illegally
• 47% Had pornography made of her in prostitution
• 47% Had been homeless
• 44% Were verbally abused in prostitution
• 27% Were coerced or pressured into acts of prostitution
• 24% Were physically assaulted in prostitution

The sale of sex is clearly part of systemic abuse and oppression, NOT employment. No company or place of employment has data anywhere close to the Nevada legal brothels.

The sale of sex is clearly part of systemic abuse and oppression, NOT employment. No company or place of employment has data anywhere close to the Nevada legal brothels.

Meanwhile, local brothel owners are becoming more and more bold in their efforts to legitimize themselves. One legal pimp and owner of 7 brothels has recently won the primary to be a Nevada State Legislature. In another county, just 15 minutes from where I live, another legal pimp is a County Commissioner. This County Commissioner/pimp is selling women in prostitution as prey in a game he calls Hunt a Ho. Sex buyers pay to “hunt” women in the deserts with paintball guns. Upon catching the women, the johns then perform whatever sex acts they desire upon them. The pimp even tried to make a reality tv show out of this.

Nevada’s legal prostitution has rolled out the red carpet to sex buyers and pimps, thereby increasing demand and paving the way for traffickers. We all know the evidence shows that sex trafficking is most prevalent wherever prostitution is legalized.1 Nevada is not an exception. Adjusted for population, Nevada’s commercial sex market is by far the largest of any state, 63% higher than the next highest state. At least 5,016 individuals are sold for sex in an average month in Nevada.

Legalized prostitution has done nothing to stem the tide victimization in the sex industry.

Legal prostitution also has effects on the community members. University of Nevada-Reno is geographically closer to a legal brothel than any other college or university in the US. The legal sexualized objectification of women in brothels is likely to have an impact on the community, especially on men’s relationships with and attitudes toward women. The objectification of women and of sex itself is integral to many men’s definitions of masculinity. Nonetheless, these beliefs impair men’s ability to relate to women as equals, and interfere with their ability to form and maintain intimate relationships with women.

The Reno students significantly more often endorsed beliefs that prostitution is a normal activity that should be mainstreamed, such as “There is nothing wrong with having sex for money,” or “It’s OK for a man to go to a call girl if his wife doesn’t find out.” The young men from Reno significantly more often than the other college students subscribed to the unproven and mistaken ‘catharsis’ theory of prostitution: they assumed that the very existence of prostitution served as a crude pressure release which somehow decreased the likelihood that other (non-prostituted) women would be raped.

In spite of these extensive rationalizations for the existence and normalization of prostitution, the young men from Reno also significantly more often than the non-Reno college students believed that prostitution lowers the moral standards of a community.

There is still hope on the horizon!

Please join us in praying for Nevada. Pray for the system of legalized prostitution to be repealed and replaced with the Nordic Model in Lyon County and beyond.

2 Chron. 7.14 states “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

We ask God to release a spirit of humility and repentance to be released over Nevada! That we would turn from the exploitation and degradation of women and children. That we would no longer promote the selling of a woman’s body to be used for sex and in turn tell our daughters that this is a viable job opportunity. God open our eyes to people the way you see them. As we humble ourselves in repentance, we declare that you will come and heal our land!

Melissa Holland serves as the Founder and Director of Awaken, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase awareness and education surrounding the issue of commercial sexual exploitation, and to provide housing and restoration for its victims. Melissa believes strongly in seeking justice for the oppressed, and is passionate about uniting the community in the fight to end the sexual exploitation of women and children.

Photo Credit
J. Stephen Conn


  • 1. Cho, Seo- Young, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer. “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” World Development 41.1 (2013): 67-82. Social Science Research Network. Web. 12 July 2013. .