If you’ve been to a Nevada brothel lately—and the odds of that are increasingly slim—you know it may be the saddest place in America. Most are far from the glitter of the Strip, surrounded by tumbleweed and secluded in the worst sense of the word.
Perhaps the nation’s handful of legal cathouses once enjoyed a cachet (or even a sheen) of respectability as a capitalistic exchange between women who preferred the work and men who desired an encounter free of STDs, wallet theft and blackmail. But everything about the modern brothel feels pathetically retro. With Tinder, OkCupid and Ashley Madison, the idea that anyone—no matter how homely, shriveled or awkward—would fly to Vegas, drive 70 miles and pay for sex in what amounts to a dolled-up double-wide is borderline absurd. Most would find that to-do list so exhausting, they’d rather close Expedia, open PornoTube and scratch the itch themselves.
This is a real problem for Las Vegas and Nevada, names once internationally synonymous with vice and adult pleasure. The industry that put the “sin” in Sin City is facing a death spiral: In 1985, 35 brothels employed more than 1,000 sex workers; today, just 250 licensed sex workers labor in the 16 that remain. These days, the clientele is likelier to be truckers passing through than sophisticated mafiosi of the Casino vintage. And the buck doesn’t stop with the end of the sex industry. For 45 years, Vegas held a monopoly on American gambling before Atlantic City joined the fun; today, casinos can be found within a three-hour drive of every major city in the continental United States. Macau’s gambling industry now grosses more than seven times that of the Strip, and Singapore is set to muscle Vegas out of second place this year or next, with a total of two casinos.
Where else has the Silver State lost its chutzpah? Shotgun weddings and no-fault divorces are now par for the course in America. Given the chance to lead in the same-sex marriage revolution, the state enacted a constitutional ban on the right in 2002, reversing course only after forced to by a federal court in 2014. That made Nevada the 26th state to recognize gay marriage, behind such liberal strongholds as Utah and Oklahoma. Rather than legalize marijuana in 2006, when such flights of fancy were still shocking to our Bush-era sensitivities, voters defeated a proposed measure by 12 points; six years later, Colorado approved Amendment 64, ushering in $53 million in tax revenue in 2014 and more than a dozen weed-laced vacations and tours. And instead of approving a legalization ballot measure last March, after more than 100,000 signatures of support were delivered in a state of 1.4 million voters, lawmakers instead moved to defer the issue to 2016, by which point absolutely nobody in the U.S. will still care.
Where did the renegades who built Nevada on the Western frontier ethos of personal freedom go? George Flint, erstwhile lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Owners Association, offers this bitter answer: “California. California happened.”
For decades, an influx of new residents has come in like a flood tide from the gold rush—folks seeking to escape onerous financial regulations and California’s legendary social liberalism. “More and more people move to Nevada, and they like it,” says Flint. “But once they get here, they try to turn it into something else.” Between 2005 and 2013 more than 425,000 Californians went east—to a state with a population of 2.8 million—on the promise of cheap real estate and nary an income tax to be seen. And they brought their conservative roots with them.
Legal prostitution was (and is) an unpleasant reality for these new arrivals, but one easily kept out of sight by state laws that disallow it in counties of more than 400,000 residents, of which only two exist: Clark County (which includes Vegas) and Washoe County (which includes Reno). That covers more than 85 percent of state residents. Folks like Flint know that a statewide vote today could kill the trade altogether. He and his fellow advocates thus stay as under-the-radar as possible���not exactly a recipe for innovation. When Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss briefly floated the idea of opening a male brothel in 2005, Flint groused it was bait for lawmakers to tighten industry regulations. During the Great Recession, when Nevada faced the nation’s largest deficit as a percent of the state budget, Flint and his allies practically begged the legislature to tax brothels, the better to ensure the industry’s survival. Carson City, desperate as it was, cut school funding instead.
In some ways, this was all foretold by the Strip’s transformation into 4.2 miles of roller coasters, animal exhibits, magic shows and no fewer than eight variations on Cirque du Soleil. The edgiest thing about “What Happens Here Stays Here” became how decidedly blasé the declaration was. It means fun, but just enough fun. The old Sin City, however, meant whatever you wanted it to mean.
Vegas’s latest resorts perform architectural acrobatics that allow guests to go entire weeks without glimpsing so much as a poker chip; casino floors have been fitted with beyond-state-of-the-art air-filtration systems to capture and excise cigarette smoke, lest anyone be forced to suffer its presence. Gone are the city’s halcyon days of Swingers; it has three Gordon Ramsay restaurants and a four-story M&M’s store instead. Even The Hangover struck comic gold precisely because of its absurdity: While Fear and Loathing was funny because it was true, The Hangover was funny because its joyride could never happen in the modern, morally sanitized Vegas. Perchance, audiences said, to dream.
This should make anyone who cares about liberty and vice retch. Maybe this milquetoast, pale imitation of respectability is what Las Vegas wanted to be when it grew up. Perhaps, all along, Nevada was destined to be nothing more interesting than East California. And maybe variations on Disneyland are all Americans want these days. Which is fine: America gets what America wants. Bachelors, we hope you’re brushing up on your Chinese. You’re going to need it when you’re lost in Macau.