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Funny while it lasted

The brothel tax never had a chance, but one thing’s sure: a good time was had by all

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Bunny Ranch local Sunny Lane.
Photo: Sarah Feldberg

For a split second, I lost my cool and my mind. That’s always fun.

I was in a small conference room at the Sawyer State Office Building in Downtown Las Vegas crowded with people who hate prostitution (because they love prostitutes) watching the feed from Carson City where the most surreal public hearings to take place anywhere in America this year were under way.

The folks in Nevada’s capital had had their say, for the most part. State Sen. Bob Coffin, who sponsored the bill that might have assessed a $5 tax on every legally sold sex act in the state, had laid out his views. A bevy of babes-for-sale spoke up in support, as did Dennis Hof—the Moonlite Bunny Ranch owner—and a few others.

Finally it was Las Vegas’ turn to contribute to the proceedings, and I couldn’t have been more excited. The people who hate prostitution (because they love prostitutes) had waited patiently through dullsville chatter from the Senate Taxation Committee about money for cops, something about property taxes and some other blah-blah-blah before, finally, the discussion had turned to the good stuff: whores!

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From the Archives
Ask not what your state can do for you … (4/9/09)
Beyond the Weekly
Senate committee kills prostitution tax bill (Las Vegas Sun, 4/9/09)
Prostitutes testify in favor of tax (Las Vegas Sun, 4/8/09)
Nevada lawmakers squeamish about prostitution tax (Las Vegas Sun, 4/3/09)

It began slowly with some guy in Vegas who was incorrectly introduced as being in favor of the whore tax but who instead read a letter from a nun who hates prostitution (because she loves prostitutes). But it then got good in a jiffy when prominent anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley insisted all legal prostitutes need to be rescued, but, anyway, the idea of the state taxing this crime against humanity would amount to “legislative pimping.”

Awesome, I thought. The bar is set high now! Here we go! Let’s see how totally nuts the rest of these folks can get!

But as Farley finished, the feed from Carson City switched to some other hearing. The Vegas crowd, which had just started sharpening its pitchforks, was short-circuited. A secretary came in to explain that the Taxation Committee had run long thanks to the earlier snooze festival on serious tax matters, and anyone who hadn’t testified could fax or e-mail their views to Sen. Coffin and friends.

I was furious. I claimed to be furious on behalf of all the people who hate prostitution (because they love prostitutes) because they were being deprived of their ability to speak and because this outage interfered with my ability to observe as a working journalist.

Yet as I muttered my righteous indignation to the hapless secretary and then barreled out of Sawyer, I caught myself. I wasn’t angry because First Amendment rights were being trampled or because I was missing a news event I needed to cover. (It turned out the hearing was halted when the Vegas feed stopped, so I missed nothing.)

No, I was angry for the same reason my mom used to get pissed when some news event interrupted her soap opera: Somebody had interrupted a good show.

And then, suddenly, I realized: It was just a show. There was never any remote possibility that Nevada was going to impose a tax on sex acts at legal brothels. Even if it might make it out of committee—it didn’t—and even if it passed in both houses of the Legislature, the governor would veto it anyway.

Everybody—brothel owners, those who hate prostitution (because they love prostitutes), politicians and journalists who covered the matter—knew it. But when Coffin, the chairman of the taxation committee, said he’d propose it and hold hearings, it was one of those irresistible only-in-Nevada stories that are catnip for all the players. Only the governor’s spokesman, Dan Burns, held a sensible view, bemoaning the waste of time and money spent on the hearings.

Clearly, then, he didn’t watch. Whatever it cost, even in these trying economic times, it was well worth it. Coffin, for instance, was having some wicked transference experience as he testified in favor of his bill while incessantly fondling the lid of a water bottle, running his fingertips around the edge like it was an oiled areola. Sen. Terry Care played the pussy by speaking only to clarify that his unwillingness to say anything should not be construed as support for this bill—priceless.

And George Flint, the self-proclaimed brothel-industry lobbyist, used his turn to keep on insisting that the $5 tax could raise $2 million from 400,000 acts a year even though it strains credulity to think that a workforce of about 220 licensed prostitutes could actually perform the 1,096 acts per day that would add up to that amount. Yes, even the math made no sense in this episode and was never challenged.

Still, the best performances belonged to the pros. Hof brought three of his “girls,” who spoke of their gratitude to the state of Nevada for, as Loni Anderson look-alike Air Force Amy said, “allowing me to work at a job I love.” One of her colleagues, a Mary Stuart Masterson look-alike named Brooke Taylor, actually said she didn’t expect “push back” from customers over the tax and would happily do her part.

But Hof himself was the most eloquent actor in this episode. He spoke truth to power about the fact that the parts of Nevada where prostitution is illegal—Reno and Vegas—are where the vast majority of it takes place.

“Do you really want to get rid of it?” he asked forcefully. “I don’t think you do. If they want to get rid of illegal prostitution, you could send an army in and clean it up overnight. Vegas, Reno, do you want this or not? If you don’t want it, you folks here have the resources to get rid of it.”

A few days later, I called Hof to talk about the outcome, the fact that the bill failed. He blabbed that it was a great exercise in democracy, that Coffin was brave for having raised the issue and that the hearings meant the state would now have to confront the questions he asked. (I tend to think there’s never been an easier genie to stuff back in the bottle, actually, especially with Coffin leaving the Legislature next year thanks to term limits.)

That was all interesting, but what I really wanted to know was whether Hof planned to use hearing footage on Cathouse, the HBO reality show about his brothels.

“Oh, if they’ll allow us to use it, absolutely,” he said. “We’re working on getting it right now.”

See that? Someone else knew this was really just great TV!

No, the hearings weren’t a total waste. They produced priceless material for Cathouse, which will in turn continue to promote legal whorehouses in Nevada and make Hof and his colleagues more money.

But you do have to pity the state of Nevada. They won’t be getting a cut.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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