The legal prostitution industry in Nevada is on its back. So say brothel owners, their employees and customers.
George Flint, who somehow manages to be both a retired minister and the brothel industry's lobbyist (hey, it's Nevada) told ABC News that gross revenues are down 40 percent to 50 percent from what they were 10 years ago. The number of legal operators has shrunk from 37 to 19.
"Just like every other small business in the U.S.," said Flint, "brothels have been affected by the downturn in the economy. In as much as they depend on discretionary spending, there's not a lot of that to go around."
Nevada has recovered more slowly from the recession than almost any other state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nevada, as of July, had the nation's highest rate of unemployment -- 9.5 percent, versus a national average of 7.4. According to an analysis by Bloomberg, the state's economic health has declined 46 percent since the last quarter of 2007 -- the second-worst decline after New Mexico.
Brothel experts say additional factors explain their industry's slump. The Internet now makes it easy for illegal, freelance prostitutes to hook up with customers, circumventing legal brothels.
"Substitute service is being offered," Flint said.
In addition, he said, the price of diesel fuel is up. That means truckers -- among brothels' most reliable customers -- have less to spend.
By law, sparsely-populated parts of Nevada, which is to say most of the state, can decide on a county-by-county basis whether they want to permit legal prostitution. Ten out of 17 counties have decided that they do.
Not all brothels are suffering equally.
"Small mom-and-pop operations with three or four girls" are suffering the worst, said Flint.
But even the biggest operations are reporting sharp declines. The owner of the famous Mustang Ranch, said Flint, told him just the other day that his business, compared to a year ago, is down by 3,000 "dates."
"The concept that sex will always sell probably is not a true concept," said the lobbyist. "It's not that there's any less interest in sex; it's just that people don't have the dollars to spend."
Hard times beget consolidation, and at least one big, deep-pocketed operator is using the downturn as a chance to expand by buying up struggling competitors.
When the economy comes back, Bloomberg quoted him as saying, "I think I'm going to do real well."
In June, Hof told the Legal Post of Canada that he was even considering expanding into Canada. Barring legal setbacks, he told the paper, "The Bunny Ranch will be there, and we'll be there in force."
Meanwhile, a new threat looms on the horizon: higher taxation. To date, brothels have not been subject to Nevada's 8 percent tax on live entertainment. But bills introduced in the state's last legislative session would change that.
"We are watching very carefully," said Flint, who worried his association's political action fund will lack the money to mount a vigorous defense.
"I used to have $70,000 a year for political action," he said. "Now, I don't know how much longer the state legislature will feel they owe us anymore."
On a lighter note, he quipped, "I have said for years, tongue in cheek, that I'm not sure brothels qualify as live entertainment."
Hof told the Legal Post that his Nevada operations, even without a tax on live entertainment, are already paying $500,000 in taxes, making him the biggest taxpayer in his county.
David Neidorf, president of Deep Springs College, questioned how bad off the brothel industry really is -- at least in his corner of the state, 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
(Deep Springs College's student body of 26 men occupy and run a cattle ranch the size of New York's Manhattan island. All 26 have the academic credentials to have gotten into Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Why they're attending a cattle college in the middle of nowhere is the subject for another story.)
Neidorf regularly has to drive the desolate wastes between Deep Springs, Nev., and Las Vegas.
"All I know is what I see from the road on my three-hour stretch of U.S. 95," he told ABC News. "Eight years ago, we had four brothels."
Back then, he said, two of the four, the Cottontail and Angel's Ladies, were closed, and the other two, Shady Lady and Nevada Joe's, were just hanging on.
"Today we've got five, with only one of them out of business," Niedorf said.
Of the five, one is fresh-built and entirely new:
"Bikini's, on the south side of Beatty, has nude dancing and is always packed when I drive by," Niedorf said. "So, between Goldfield and Las Vegas, business is thriving."
In closing, back to Mr. Flint for a minute: How in the world did he manage to be both an ordained minister and a brothel booster?
Being a minister, he said, is what first got him into lobbying. In 1961, he bought Chapel of the Bells in Reno, which provides quickie (including drive-through) weddings.
"I realized soon after opening the chapel that the legislature did not look with favor on the quickie marriage business," he said. "So, I got involved in the legislative process."
He became a lobbyist, and now, at age 79, ranks as the longest-serving lobbyist in Nevada.
"I am dean of the lobbying corps," he said with bemused pride.
In the mid '80s, the Nevada Brothel Association turned to him to represent them.
As for the seeming incongruity of a retired minister representing brothels, he said, simply, "Who was Jesus' best friend? Mary Magdalene."