When former NBA player and reality-TV star Lamar Odom was found unconscious in Nevada, the hardest part of the story for some people to wrap their heads around was this: He was in a brothel. A legal brothel.
Not so far removed from its Wild West past, Nevada is the only outpost in America where a person can legally purchase sex, and even then, only in 10 of its 17 counties. It is up to each county to decide whether to allow prostitution.
"Mining, ranching, prostitution, gambling is just Nevada," said Tom Collins, a cowboy-hat-wearing former state legislator and former commissioner in Clark County, the home of Las Vegas — which, for all its many vices, has not legalized prostitution. You won't find lawful bordellos in or around Reno, either.
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While the law of supply and demand would suggest that Nevada's houses of ill repute are doing great, the truth is they are struggling to remain relevant in a world in which Las Vegas is awash in call girls and a sexual liaison — licit or illicit — is only a smartphone app away.
The number of brothels open for business has fallen from 30 in 2009, according to University of Nevada-Las Vegas research, to something closer to 17 today. The exact number isn't clear, since the state doesn't advertise the fact anywhere.
Those that remain are trying to reinvent themselves.
Brothels once filled with women who sweet-talked truckers on their CB radios are now reaching out to potential customers via live-streaming events, blogs and social media and sprucing up their accommodations for weekend getaways and fantasy role-playing.
Naughty teacher? There's a faux classroom for that. Or a "lustful locker room" or "Geisha girl bedroom," both recent additions to Sheri's Ranch in Pahrump.
Odom, 35, was found on Tuesday at the Love Ranch in Pahrump, where he had paid $75,000 for a four-day stay. He remained hospitalized Thursday. His condition was not disclosed, but the Rev. Jesse Jackson visited him on Wednesday and said the former athlete and estranged husband of Khloe Kardashian was on life support.
The Love Ranch said Odom told at least one of the women when he arrived on Saturday that he had used cocaine earlier in the day. And he bought 10 sexual stimulants, or "herbal Viagra," during his stay, according to a brothel spokesman.
Getting to the Love Ranch deep in the barren desert requires about an hour's drive from Las Vegas that slices through cactus-covered expanses and mountains.
A doorbell outside the main brothel dictates one ring for sex, two rings for just a drink at the bar. Upon hearing a single ring, the women rush from their rooms and line up to be chosen.
Odom's getaway at the Love Ranch wasn't a themed fantasy room, just a typical three-bedroom rental out back with wood floors, a living room, kitchen and outdoor Jacuzzi.
It's an industry that doesn't seem to have many powerful friends willing to make a public display of their affection.
Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin tried to impose a state tax on the industry in 2009 when he was in the Legislature. The bordellos didn't mind, and even welcomed the proposed levy, in the hope that the revenue would create goodwill toward the industry. The measure failed in committee.
"One guy, lost his nerve just before the vote," Coffin said, adding that the man's wife was sitting in the front row. "No one ever wants to put their name on a bill relating to prostitution."
The state was hurting for money at the time, in the midst of the Great Recession, and he estimated his fee could have raised a couple of million dollars a year.
"We allow everything else but man's greatest urge, greatest desire. We satisfy everything else," Coffin said. "I would like to regulate it and bring it under control and get it off the streets. It's dangerous out there."
But Republican state Sen. Joe Hardy said taxing brothels would "give legitimacy to a profession ... that may not meet the Judeo-Christian religious approval."
"I'm not sure we want to paint the whole state of Nevada with that reputation," he said.