Senator fights to switch off bright lights of Vegas sex trade

 

Los Angeles

What happens in Vegas... could be about to get a tiny bit more respectable. Heated debate has broken out among the good citizens of Nevada after their best-known lawmaker, Senator Harry Reid, called for an end to the free-wheeling libertarianism that has made it the only place in America where prostitution is legal.

His remarks formed a small portion of a lengthy speech to local politicians last month. But in a state built on mining, ranching and the dubious values of the Wild West, they have snowballed into major public controversy.

The issue this week even became a talking point in the election to select a new Mayor of Las Vegas.

Nevada has been home to legalised brothels since the early 1970s. They are only permitted in counties with less than 400,000 residents, meaning that sexually-adventurous visitors to Vegas must undergo the inconvenience of being ferried to them via limousine. But the novelty of a legitimate sex trade nonetheless provides an important part of Sin City's allure.

Both the religious right and the growing Latino community take a dim view of brothels, for obvious reasons.

Mr Reid, for his part, believes that they send the wrong message to business leaders mulling whether to invest in the state, during a period of historically high unemployment.

"Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment, not as the last place where prostitution is still legal," he told lawmakers, arguing that many companies are reluctant to relocate to a hotbed of the world's oldest profession. "Parents don't want their children to look out of a school bus and see a brothel. Or live in a state with the wrong kind of red lights. So let's have an adult conversation about an adult subject."

Senator Reid's comments, during his biennial address to the Nevada legislature in Carson City last month, met with an unenthusiastic response from lawmakers, many of whom regard relaxed laws about smoking, gambling and other bad behaviour as part of the state's heritage. Even his Democratic colleagues refrained from applauding when he addressed the topic.

They met with a fury from brothel owners in the audience. Dennis Hof, the proprietor of an establishment called The Moonlight Bunny Ranch, roughly 50 miles north-west of Las Vegas, told reporters: "Harry Reid will have to pry the cathouse keys from my cold, dead hands."

Brooke Taylor, one of Mr Hof's employees, called Mr Reid's speech "offensive". She said the politician, a Mormon who, as the Democratic leader in the Senate is one of Washington's most powerful men, should be proud of Nevada's pioneering approach to the sex trade, because "here, we are the first ones to do it right".

That view is shared by Oscar Goodman, the former Mafia lawyer and current Mayor of Las Vegas, who completes his allotted 12 years in office in June.

He told reporters at the weekend that the legalisation of prostitution should be extended to major cities such as his own.

He believes that it would help to undermine the illegal sex trade and could also be properly taxed.

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