Sex under scrutiny: Brothel advocates, opponents turn eyes to 2019 Legislature
Assemblies of God licensed minister Brenda Sandquist had hoped for a different outcome from Lyon County’s vote last fall, which failed to rescind its brothel ordinance.
But Sandquist says she and her colleagues “are not discouraged” after residents rejected the measure.
“We’re going to continue moving forward and we’re going to be a part of the Legislature … and continue to watch,” she said.
Sandquist is a spokeswoman for the End Trafficking and Prostitution Political Action Committee. She helps to run a faith-based nonprofit ministry in Carson City for women called Xquisite and hopes to reach the licensed sex workers in Nevada’s brothels and expose them to other career choices.
“This is a worldwide issue, and I know there’s a lot of legal brothels … but it allows for human trafficking and it’s kind of under the radar … and it does affect us,” Sandquist told the Appeal recently.
The Nevada Legislature will take center stage in February, and state representatives will have opportunities to hear from the state’s anti-prostitution groups, brothel owners and licensed sex workers about the future of the sensual services industry.
In Northern Nevada, Madame Bella Cummins will be watching on behalf of her newly created Onesta Foundation and her own Hacienda Ranch in Wells. Cummins is an experienced entrepreneur from the Midwest who opened her first business in Carson City and purchased the Hacienda Ranch. She’s hopeful the Legislature this year finds better methods of regulating the brothels.
“In my opinion, it’s looking in front of the legislation, looking at the rules … and it’s not just more government, but we just need a clearer understanding of this patchwork of rules and regulation that could be more clearly defined,” Cummins said. “This is the blueprint that will allow it to be in Wells or in Elko or in Lyon County.”
Madame Suzette Cole, legal heir to former owner Dennis Hof’s properties, has been tending to matters since November and hasn’t yet provided a public statement about her plans since assuming ownership.
Coming in this year’s session, Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Clark County) is drafting a bill that would prohibit prostitution in the state.
Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) recently confirmed she’s conducting her own research and working on language for a bill draft request regarding the brothels. Cohen, previously a family law attorney and now representing District 29, which covers part of Clark County and Henderson, said she was still determining her specific request in mid-December. She said she was concerned about how women workers were being treated financially in the brothels and was exploring the issue with legal assistants.
“The big one I’m hearing about is women are on two-week contracts … and most people wouldn’t be there if they could afford to buy out their contracts,” she said. “They pay for their own blood tests. I’m also concerned that they’re not allowed to leave the facility for the two weeks they’re there. … I don’t know if this is happening at the brothels.
“I’m going at this with the understanding that they’re safe and this isn’t about trafficking. It’s not about trying to make brothels illegal. It’s not a moral judgment.”
Other developments related to the brothels have risen in the past month. On Dec. 21, a new political action committee, the Nevada Brothel Association, was formed by Cole who took over Hof’s business operations of Lyon County’s brothels — including the Bunny Ranch, Kit Kat Ranch, Love Ranch and Sagebrush Ranch — after Hof’s death on Oct. 16 and other associates, including Hof’s former election campaign manager Chuck Muth and licensed sex worker Alice Little of the Bunny Ranch. The NBA originally was born in 1985 as a means of fighting legislative efforts to quash Nevada’s legal brothels. The group then hired George Flint in 1986 as its lobbyist, and he retired in 2015, when the association disbanded. It now represents 21 legal brothels across seven counties.
Now, the NBA, according to its website, http://www.nevadabrothelassociation.com, intends to seek out owners to join in its effort before the Legislature begins Feb. 4.
“The Nevada brothels have this incredibly rich history and we benefit our local communities so tremendously,” Little said. “The association plans to continue to educate the local communities as to what the brothels are, what they do and what the benefits are to the local communities.”
NBA spokesman Chuck Muth of Las Vegas said the PAC will be helpful in contacting industry members as a whole.
“We haven’t spoken with the other brothel operations yet, and we haven’t spoken in depth with Suzette (Cole), but we’re all in favor of controlling the licensing and taxing it,” Muth said. “I personally have a big problem, as the First Amendment guy, with the fact that marijuana’s legal and you have big billboards promoting gentleman’s clubs and strip clubs and yet there’s a ban on advertising the legal brothels.”
Cummins said providing a proper process for legal sex work ultimately would benefit the state, the workers and the public as a whole but acknowledged the long road ahead in the 2019 session.
Little said she personally was encouraged by the Lyon vote and the responses she’s received from the public about the brothels, including the questions she and her colleagues had at the town halls about her profession as a whole about the fingerprints and background checks the workers are required to submit to per county code. She said the goal was to help fight off negative perceptions and help the public understand the reality of the industry in Lyon County and in Nevada.
“I view it as a tremendous positive moving forward and I think we’re going to see a resurgence of the brothels in Nevada unlike anything we’ve seen in the past,” Little said.