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Are Brothels Legal in the United States?

sex worker
Brothels are legal in certain counties of Nevada.

Prostitution means different things to different people in America, depending on their upbringing and exposure to popular culture. Some see it as an old-fashioned trade from the days of cathouses and saloons and others as something seedy on the streets of downtown districts. 

However, many people see the legitimacy of sex work in a regulated manner and the benefits of contemporary escort services or brothels.

This leads to interesting questions about the legality of prostitution in America. Are brothels legal in the United States, and if so, where are they found? Additionally, is there any chance of brothels becoming completely outlawed or decriminalized in the future?

Are brothels legal in the United States?

Prostitution laws in the United States are complex, with different laws relating to brothels, street prostitution, and escort services. These can also vary between both state laws and county restrictions. Because of this, brothels are currently only legal in select areas of Nevada.

There are several counties in Nevada where brothel keeping is legal.

The Legalization of Brothels in Nevada

Nevada is the only state in the United States that permits prostitution. While there are large areas that will allow for legal brothels, with some housing a small number, others are prohibited from doing so entirely. 

Under Nevada law, there are seven counties with legal prostitution and active, licensed brothels, three with legal prostitution but no active brothels, and seven where it is completely prohibited.

The determining factor is the population of the county. Those that have a population of up to 700,000 may host licensed brothels if they choose to.

As such, there are 10 counties where it is legal, but a disproportionate share of the 21 listed establishments. Counties with higher populations, like Clark County, cannot house legal services.

Dennis Hof
Former Republican candidate and brothel owner, Dennis Hof.

Dennis Hof, a Republican candidate for the Nevada Assembly in 2018, was a famous Nevada brothel owner. Hof owned several licensed brothels in the state, most notably the Moonlite BunnyRanch, before his death in October 2018. 

Prostitution law in Nevada stipulates important rules and regulations that need to be followed to ensure that businesses retain their license.

Aside from an annual fee, businesses and employees must register with the county and undergo regular testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The use of condoms is also mandatory to help prevent pregnancy and STDs.

Are There Legal Brothels in Las Vegas?

There is a commonly held assumption that if there is going to be a legal brothel anywhere in Nevada, it would be in Las Vegas. After all, there is that famous adage, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” However, this is not the case because of the rules on population size.

Las Vegas
Some people may be surprised to learn that brothels are illegal in Las Vegas.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t commercial sex, escort services, or some form of an illegal brothel in the city or surrounding area. 

Statistics suggest that the illegal prostitution of Las Vegas and Reno takes in around 66 times more revenue than the sexual activity in the legal brothels in other counties. This is likely due to the size of the population as well as tourism.

Are There Brothels in Other States?

As with the secret and illegal side of the sex trade in Las Vegas and neighboring areas, there are sure to be illegal brothels in other states.

Regardless of the industry’s legality, there is a high demand from those willing to pay for sex. Brothels disguised as massage parlors or other establishments are common.

Massage threrapist
Massage parlors are often linked to illegal sexual activities.

Brothels Were More Widespread Until Outlawed by State Laws

There was a time when brothels were much more common across the United States. Some of the earliest reports of the trade come from the 18th century, when women would service soldiers in the Continental Army.

This trend continued during the Civil War, although, it was legalized in Nashville in an attempt to prevent STDs.

In the 19th century, patrons could frequent cathouses and saloons nationwide and enjoy their services. These spread across the nation as people headed west to seek their fortune, which is why it is a common trope in Wild West stories.

Wild west saloon
Sex workers in Wild West saloons were known as ‘shady ladies.’

Back east, hundreds of establishments were set up in cities like New York, with over 200 in lower Manhattan alone.

By the 20th century, attitudes were beginning to change due to morality campaigns. This included a large demonstration in San Francisco in 1917. Issues of venereal diseases and contraception continued to bring the safety of the work into question.

Prostitution in Rhode Island

Rhode Island has an interesting history when it comes to prostitution laws. At present, it is illegal for anyone to buy or sell sexual acts in any way. This means there can be no brothels, escort services, or street prostitution.

Street prostitute
Prostitution in Rhode Island has been strictly illegal since 2009.

However, this only became the law again in 2009 due to a lack of clear legislation on prostitution and a significant mistake in 1980. Legislators accidentally overlooked a legal loophole until 2003. It then took another six years to close the loophole fully.

Could We See Brothels Decriminalized in Other Areas?

There are calls to reform the laws surrounding prostitution, with many in favor of decriminalizing it all together. 

Advocates in favor of decriminalization argue that better regulation would help to protect sex workers from harm and trafficking while also legitimizing the work of a prostitute acting out of choice. 

Those against it fear it would do the opposite and further exploit women and possibly minors.

There is strong support for the decriminalization of prostitution in New York.

New York is one such state where supporters want decriminalization to protect sex workers. Here, a recent repeal of an anti-loitering law meant that those engaged in street prostitution were less likely to face arrest for solicitation. 

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office dismissed a series of warrants and erased prostitution crimes from criminal records.

There have also been calls for legalizing prostitution in the American territory of Puerto Rico. Arguments in favor of legalization included that it would help boost the economy and provide an outlet for incels.

The Legalization of Brothels Is a Difficult Issue

Brothels are always going to be controversial, legal or otherwise. While many could be well-managed and regulated with full consent and a good business model, seedier and questionable establishments are bound to remain. 

America isn’t going to go back to the era of brothels and an open sex trade in major downtown districts anytime soon, but they could remain legal to a point.

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