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Why Is Las Vegas America's Sex Capital?

September 9 2022 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)

Famous for representing the most sinful values, Las Vegas symbolizes money, recklessness, fast days, long nights and of course, lots of sex. It comes as no surprise that Las Vegas consistently ranks as the number one city in America for sex tourism, amongst other questionable accomplishments (yes, it’s consistently crowned one of the top American cities where the most infidelity takes place.)

But how did it Las Vegas become the global destination for all things sex and excess? This blog is a quick history of how Las Vegas became the global landmark for sex and pleasure, and what this means for consent in sex work.

The Rise of the Desert Town 

Las Vegas, Nevada wasn’t always Elvis impersonators, Britney Spears residencies and strip clubs. Surprisingly, the first permanent settlement was built by a group of Mormon missionaries in 1855 after Nevada was claimed as U.S territory. 

As water pipes developed throughout the town, Las Vegas became a major hub for wagon travellers. 

Fast forward to 1931, gambling became legal in Las Vegas, as it became apparent that gambling was a great way to generate profits for local businesses. 

During the post war years, financing for major hotels and casinos were in full swing thanks to the mafia and infamous mobsters like Jimmy Hoffa and Bugsy Siegel. The premature birth of the Las Vegas residency started during this era as well when famous singers like Frank Sinatra and Liberace began performing there in limited settings. 

Legalization of Prostitution 

The sprawl of Sin City continued from the 70s well until the early 2000s, with the rise of the ‘megaresort’ era, which gave birth to the famous strip as it’s known today, with hotels like the MGM Grand, Luxor, Bellagio and Planet Hollywood. 

But the big boom also coincided with the state of Nevada’s legalization of prostitution in 1971. But this doesn’t mean that every county in Nevada permits sex work. Currently, only 10 counties in the state do so. Also, prostitution and sex work can only occur in a licensed house of prostitution.  

It’s safe to say that wherever there’s money being tossed around, there’s probably even more avenues for sex and sex work. Las Vegas’ rise to become one of the biggest sex capitals in the world was practically inevitable, and even though the state of Nevada has tried to monopolize on the ‘whatever happens heres stays here’ motto by regulating brothels and prostitution, more money is spent every year on illegal prostitution than on regulated brothels. 

An Imperfect System 

While fees and costs vary depending on the house, workers keep half their earnings and the house keeps the rest. But workers pay for transportation, food, and other costs within the brothel operations. 

Also, workers must also pay for weekly STD tests and sex worker registration cards, and this price varies by country. In Nye County, workers are charged $150 each quarter for registration, plus another $150 annually. As of 2018, there were 97 workers registered in the county for the second quarter. 

The Beacon of Sex: The Mustang Ranch Lounge 

To give you an idea of the brothel scene, let’s look at the Famous Mustang Ranch. When prostitution was legalized in Nevada in 1971, the Mustang Ranch opened its doors as the first brothel in the state. It was spread out over 166 acres and undoubtedly became the most profitable brothel in the state. Today, it remains a multi-million dollar enterprise. 

Of course, I had to Google this place and lo and behold, it’s labeled as a ‘resort’ on Google, (I guess brothels aren’t SEO labels as yet?). Almost innocent upon first glance, The Mustang Ranch Lounge doubles as a restaurant, and offers some appetizing photos of its food options. But tucked away on its site menu is the “Brothel” option. 

The Wild Horse Saloon, Las Vegas


Jokes aside, the Brothel side of the website is all black and definitely seems more appropriate. It even features a ‘Pleasure Menu’- which includes some interesting items like: 

  • The Lingerie Show 
  • The Vibrator Show
  • Shower Show 
  • Nude massages 
  • Fire and Ice Oral Sex 
  • Cuddly Softness (literally, just cuddling)
  • Menage a Trois 

What Does Legalized Sex Mean for Sex Workers and Consent?

While the debate about whether legalized sex work helps or hurts the autonomy of the worker is beyond the scope of this blog, but what we’ll discuss is what sex workers have to say for themselves. 

Most do not want to be casted as victims, and consider themselves on the frontlines of a consent war.

Consent is A Collective Task

Chanelle Gallant, a strategist and speaker on the rights of sex workers says that the idea of consent is a unique and collective responsibility. But what does this mean exactly? Take it from Reese Piper, a sex worker and journalist who has learned how to avoid situations with people who will violate her. 

While not every sex worker has a sixth sense for nefarious clients, it’s also a part of the job to detect dangerous customers, and to invest in clients who will value the labour of sexual relations. This goes back to Gallant’s point- that sex workers sort of have a joined responsibility to empower one another to exercise consent. 

This means working together to exchange information about bad customers, workplaces or managers. This could also extend to collaborating to improve workplace conditions, Gallant says. 

Consent is A Constant Exercise 

One sex worker interviewed for the Washington Post says that sex work is a lesson in differentiating between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Words that in this type of business get easily misunderstood because of the physical aspect of sex.

She says: 

“I can say ‘yes’ to a blowjob, then say ‘no’ to intercourse’...saying ‘yes’ to one sexual act is saying yes to that particular sexual act and nothing more. Sex workers navigate these waters all day, every day.”

Ruby Rae, who works at a well-known house in Las Vegas, says, “In the brothels, we have the choice, always, to say which clients we will say yes and no to.”

While whatever happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, there is a complicated machinery of sex enterprises and sex workers who make the dream of excess and fun all possible. It’s strange to think that a town practically built by Mormon missionaries has evolved into a place where you can watch a ‘shower show’, and order sex off a restaurant-like menu. I suppose it’s a testament to the culture of possibilities and unwavering fantasy that Las Vegas represents.