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Sex

Looking at the history of prostitution in Las Vegas

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The famous 1954 federal raid on Roxie’s Las Vegas brothel.
Sun file photo
Lynn Comella

When Marie Rowley gives public lectures about the history of prostitution in Las Vegas from 1905-1955, senior citizen groups are some of her biggest—and most enthusiastic—audiences. What was life like for prostitutes who worked on Block 16 in the 1920s? What was the city’s response? Are we better off now compared to a time when prostitution was openly accepted and seen as an important part of the local economy?

Rowley, a native Las Vegan who recently completed a master’s thesis at UNLV on the history of prostitution in Vegas, became interested in the topic several years ago after the Review-Journal ran a front-page story about prostitution on the Strip, including the mug shots of more than a dozen women accused of being some of the city’s most “prolific prostitutes.”

“That case made me think about how we got to where we are now,” Rowley tells me on a recent afternoon. “I grew up in Vegas, so I was aware of just how ubiquitous sexuality and sexual commerce was. I wondered, has anyone done this? Does anyone know the history of prostitution in Vegas?”

Rowley quickly discovered a fascinating story waiting to be told about Vegas’ rich history of prostitution. Over the course of several years—which included visits to eight different archives in four states and many hours digging through boxes of old documents—she began to piece together an account of how prostitution went from being openly tolerated in Las Vegas (although never officially sanctioned) to a cause for concern, as Vegas developed from a small railroad town into a modern resort city increasingly conscious of how its reputation for vice might affect federal spending in the area.

Rowley’s account begins in 1905 with the establishment of Block 16, a parcel of land on 1st Street between Ogden and Stewart. Designated for saloons, the area quickly became the city’s red-light district, serving the needs of railroad workers and, eventually, dam workers, who brought their money to the neighborhood after every paycheck. Though Block 16 closed in 1942—the result of a moral crusade by a local real estate developer who saw dollar signs if he could rid the area of prostitution—it was by no means the end of prostitution in the county. Rowley’s story finishes with the 1954 federal raid on Roxie’s, a brothel in the area of town known as Four Mile. The ensuing federal trial, and the revelation that the county sheriff had received bribes to keep Roxie’s in business, was the final nail in the coffin of public opinion.

According to UNLV sociologist Barb Brents, co-author of a book about legalized prostitution in Nevada, Rowley offers the “most comprehensive history to date on prostitution in Las Vegas,” providing not only a layered account of prostitution, but also the increasing power and influence of the federal government to shape local policies.

“It is clear that in Nevada, both our gambling and sex industries developed around larger national concerns that were based on rather prudish ideas about sex,” Brents says.

Rowley, who will relocate to Chicago in August to pursue a Ph.D. in history, has spent the summer sharing her research with local community groups, including a series of lectures at the Winchester Cultural Center. The last installment is scheduled for July 11.

According to Patrick Gaffey, cultural program supervisor at Winchester, Rowley’s research has been met with enthusiasm: “This is Las Vegas, and we are talking about our own history. People regard prostitution differently here than they do in a lot of other states. After her talks, people seem to take a crusading tone about the legality of it, arguing that it should be legal.”

Rowley’s research has piqued curiosity about the women who worked in brothels during the first half of the 20th Century. For example, one of the photos used by the Winchester Cultural Center to publicize Rowley’s talks shows two prostitutes on Block 16, sitting outside the Arizona Club on a hot day. “When you look at the photo,” Gaffey says, “you wonder, ‘Who were these women?’”

Rowley’s study provides some clues. By combing through census records, she was able to determine that, during its peak popularity in the 1920s and early 1930s, between 20 and 40 women worked on the block at any given time. They worked as independent contractors, renting their rooms at a weekly rate and keeping all of their earnings. Brothel owners on Block 16 were “homegrown” businessmen and women—Las Vegas residents who, importantly, paid taxes.

All of this changed when Block 16 closed in 1942. Prostitution was driven underground, outside interests were introduced and decades of tolerance steadily eroded.

One of the most surprising discoveries Rowley made was learning that during World War II, prostitutes—and women thought to be prostitutes—were regularly imprisoned in an effort to curb the spread of venereal disease among servicemen stationed in the area. Hundreds of women were arrested and detained in Las Vegas, until a doctor could verify that they were disease-free.

“I had no idea these women were targeted, arrested and subjected to medical examinations against their will,” Rowley says. “It was a very coordinated effort between federal, state and county agencies.”

For Rowley, prostitution provides a lens through which to view the growth of Las Vegas from a small town with a “Wild West” image into a modern tourist destination. By the end of WWII, selling Las Vegas meant selling an image that conformed to the rest of the nation’s views on prostitution.

As Rowley demonstrates, it’s simply not enough to describe prostitution as the “world’s oldest profession” and leave it at that.

“I hope my research shows that prostitution doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Rowley says, “but that it’s connected to cultural, economic and political trends. I feel like when we discuss prostitution now, we don’t talk about the larger context. We treat it as an isolated issue, but that’s just not the case.”

Lynn Comella is a Women’s Studies professor at UNLV

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