RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Brothels have been a part of Nevada's identity since they were legalized in the 1970s. But now, brothels could be banned. That's the goal of a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year by a woman who claims she was a victim of sex trafficking through the legal brothel system. Bree Zender from member station KUNR in Reno has this report.
BREE ZENDER, BYLINE: When she was 17, Rebekah Charleston found herself homeless. She was using drugs to cope with the trauma of a sexual assault and her brother's suicide.
REBEKAH CHARLESTON: It wasn't long before my first trafficker saw me. And he seemed like a great guy, and he was going to be nice and let me live with him, and so I ran to his arms.
ZENDER: But then things went terribly wrong. He forced her into prostitution. And, eventually, she was trafficked across the country, oftentimes in Nevada. And while prostitution is legal in many counties in the state, it's actually illegal within Clark County, where Las Vegas sits. Charleston says her trafficker would rely on the high sex demand from tourists there who thought it was legal in the city. However...
CHARLESTON: If we were getting arrested too much in a city, or if we weren't making enough money, our trafficker would send us to legal brothels in Nevada as a form of punishment and control.
ZENDER: That's a key point for her federal lawsuit against the state of Nevada. Her lawyer, Jason Guinasso, has made a couple of failed attempts through local ballot questions to ban the brothels over the past year. And this lawsuit, he says, has the same goal.
JASON GUINASSO: When you reduce the female body to a product to be bought and sold, I think we all lose as a society.
ZENDER: And he says the basis of this lawsuit is this. Nevada is in violation of the federal Mann Act. It's a 1910 law that prohibits anyone from being transported over state lines for the purposes of prostitution. Guinasso argues that because brothels are legal in some parts of the state, it creates a sex demand. The Nevada Legislature is attempting to have the suit dismissed. The legislature's lawyer declined multiple requests for comments on the case.
LAYLA: Hey, guys. We are that legal, licensed brothel here in Wells, Nev.
ZENDER: Most of the brothels in Nevada are rather modest and far from town centers. That's the case for this one in northeast Nevada near the Utah state line.
LAYLA: I'm sure you'll have a great time here at Bella's.
ZENDER: Layla is a sex worker at Bella's Hacienda. She's trying to drum up business with truckers over a CB radio. She asked that we only use her stage name because she's involved in prostitution. She's looking out a window as semis drive past the interstate.
LAYLA: So come on off those roads. We sure do love our drivers here at Bella's.
ZENDER: The owner of this brothel is Bella Cummins. She says all the women who work here choose to do so without coercion from others. And she says required FBI checks that each worker completes makes sure that no one is being trafficked.
BELLA CUMMINS: I've seen none of it. How come the ladies that work for me appear to have no pimps? And it's true. I would know.
ZENDER: The brothel industry is vowing to fight the lawsuit. In fact, the Nevada Brothel Association, which was long dormant, has reincorporated for the first time in decades. Chuck Muth runs the group.
CHUCK MUTH: When it occurs within a legal brothel that's licensed and regulated by the government, the safety of the workers and the clients is better protected. So it's pretty hard to make an argument against the legal brothel system other than a moral issue.
ZENDER: That distinction doesn't matter for women in brothels, says Rebekah Charleston, who herself was trafficked earlier in life.
CHARLESTON: They've had significant life events happen to them that got them to that place where they felt like, this is all I can do with my life.
ZENDER: She says the lawsuit is about protecting those who are forced to work, whether by pimp or by circumstance. For NPR News, I'm Bree Zender in Reno.
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