Nevada’s Marginal Prostitution Industry

Harry Reid inadvertently set off a firestorm of controversy by suggesting that Nevada criminalize prostitution. Interestingly, what Annie Lowrey explains is that legal prostitution in Nevada is actually just a totally marginal phenomenon with no real impact one way or the other:

For starters, legal prostitution, which occurs only within the highly regulated brothels, is not a big contributor to Nevada’s economy one way or another, despite the outsize attention it gets. State law allows counties with fewer than 400,000 residents as of the last census to decide whether to allow houses of prostitution. Ten of Nevada’s 17 counties do. Washoe County, home to Reno, is not one of them. Clark County, home to Vegas, could not even if it wanted to, as it is too big. The 24 brothels currently operating mostly reside in sparsely populated northern Nevada, around the I-80 corridor.

For context, it’s useful to look at a map and you’ll see that the I-80 corridor is nowhere near Vegas:

These places are probably more accessible to Salt Lake City than to Nevada’s main population center. The interesting hypothesis is that the tiny legal industry matters as a marketing issue:


These businesses generally cater to tourists and truckers. “It is important symbolically, just because it adds to the ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,’ Sin City environment,” says Barb Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and an expert on the sex trade. “But it’s really a very small industry.” Overall, Nevada’s brothels employ about 1,000 people, total, and have combined revenues in the low tens of millions of dollars per year.

I do wonder if the steady spread of legal gambling options in other states will, over time, push the state toward more widespread legalization of prostitution. Casinos alone used to suffice to make a place “Sin City” but casinos are spreading so maybe bringing prostitution to Washoe or Clark County will be necessary to maintain the state’s comparative advantage.