Nevada has the sole legalized system of prostitution in the country. (iStock)

A new lawsuit from an anti-trafficking activist against Nevada threatens the operation of the state’s legal brothel system. The suit claims that Nevada’s brothels violate a pair of laws that prohibit encouraging anyone to cross state lines to engage in prostitution.

The suit, filed last week in federal court, takes aim at a small corner of the world of sex work in the United States and would affect only the 20 or so brothels in the highly regulated Nevada system. Nevada has the sole legalized system of prostitution in the country.

But it also provides a snapshot of the conversation around sex work and trafficking, one that was roiled by national anti-trafficking legislation passed last year and, more recently, by a prostitution investigation in Florida that ensnared NFL team owner Robert Kraft.

Plaintiff Rebekah Charleston, who lives in Texas, worked in the Nevada brothels off and on in 2004 and 2005 and is now an outspoken critic of the system. Charleston advocated for a county ballot initiative in Nevada last year that could have shut down the brothels. She was recruited to the case by attorney Jason Guinasso, who has been working with the Nevada nonprofit Awaken to combat sex trafficking in the state.

Brothel owners point out that the ballot initiative in Lyon County, one of a handful of counties where brothels are legal, was rejected by 80 percent of voters. “This is an end-run around the people of Nevada,” Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch brothel, said in a statement about the lawsuit. The Mustang Ranch has announced that it plans to file a motion to intervene in the lawsuit, become a full party to it as an intervenor and get the claim dismissed.

The lawsuit highlights the unique challenges that come with even talking about sex work and trafficking. Women have vastly different experiences, and advocates on both sides of the issue often disagree over language.

“Human trafficking has been conflated with sex work since that term first started appearing in the U.S., way back in 1903,” said Kate D’Adamo, a consultant with Reframe Health and Justice and longtime sex worker rights advocate.

D’Adamo recently returned from a meeting of a United Nations committee on trafficking, where “one of the most common refrains was that one of the most serious problems is the conflation of sex work and trafficking,” she said. “Both because it leads to the increased policing of sex workers and because it ignores various other types of forced labor that constitute human trafficking.”

This is not to say that sex work and trafficking can’t collide. “Someone can voluntarily want to do sex work but can then still be trafficked,” said Stephanie Hepburn, a human-trafficking expert and co-author of the book “Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight.” “It’s the same with forced labor. Someone might come to the U.S. to do agricultural work and then against their will be taken to another city to do demolition and construction. That’s not what they signed up for, and if there’s an armed guard and they can’t leave, that’s different from what they initially chose to do. Understanding that nuance is important.”

Women who have worked in Nevada brothels tell very different stories about their experiences. Alice Little, who claims to be the top-earning sex worker in the country, works at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch and is a spokeswoman for the Nevada Brothel Association, seeks to emphasize how much choice and power brothel workers have. But Charleston describes an alternative reality of human trafficking, where she was sent to the Love Ranch (owned by the same company as the Bunny Ranch) by her pimp “as punishment.”

“You’re not allowed to leave the premises; you have other people managing and controlling you,” Charleston said. “They take 50 percent of your income off the top. You’re forced to work overtime, but you’re not paid for the overtime. And you’re forced to sleep in the same room you service customers in.” Charleston said a woman she referred to as “the bottom,” the lowest earner in the group of women trafficked by her pimp, was frequently sent to the Love Ranch as punishment, as well.

Parts of Charleston’s story are easily corroborated. At most brothels, workers sleep in the room where they perform services, the house takes 50 percent off the top and shifts are typically 12 hours. And the brothels do restrict the women’s movements in some ways. They’re checked for STDs weekly; if they leave, they must be rechecked when they return. That means trips away from the brothel must be timed around brothel doctors’ schedules.

Several women, who spoke with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to protect their safety, said they feel safer at the brothels than they would as independent sex workers. “I was doing independent work for a while, but it was sketchy,” said Chloe, who now works at the Mustang Ranch. “I would post up in a hotel, and my boyfriend would send clients up. But I had no idea who’d be coming through that door.”

Another Mustang Ranch worker, who goes by Cherry, came to the ranch as soon as she turned 18 and now, at 23, is the brothel’s top earner most months. “The really harsh reality is that I would probably still have to do this work because I can’t find a job that pays what this pays,” she said. “I pay for my mother’s chemotherapy. And I grew up in a bad area with a bad school system, and the first step to getting out of poverty is to go to a better school. So I pay for my younger sister’s schooling, too. If something happened and this place shut down, most all of us would still be doing this work, but we’d be pushed to the streets, to hotels, to strip clubs selling ‘extras,’ and things would happen to us. Statistically, things would happen to us and it would be awful.”

Guinasso points to stories like Cherry’s as examples of coercion. “Can you really call it choice when women are ‘choosing’ between poverty and not?” he said.

D’Adamo and Hepburn say that most people are driven into their jobs by economic incentive. Yet many of those jobs, they say, include abusive labor practices. The focus on sex work, they believe, is driven by a sort of moral aversion to that line of work. “I know so many people supplementing incomes from jobs they love with sex work,” D’Adamo said. “There’s a problem here, and it’s capitalism, not the sex industry.”

Guinasso doesn’t deny having a moral aversion to the sex trade. “I think it is inherently violent, and it feeds men’s fantasies,” he said. “Because money is being transacted, we call it consent. I call it the thin green line between consent and rape. I can’t say that no woman would choose this work, all things being equal, because I can’t speak for all women. But the institution needs to be rethought.”

For Charleston, “paid sex is coerced sex — there’s no way you can introduce an influencer like cash and say that’s not coerced.”

Guinasso called the brothels’ defense of their system disingenuous. “If they really were all about improving the safety and health of sex workers, they would be pushing for broad decriminalization,” he said. “I’m not for decriminalization, but I’d respect them more if that’s what they were pushing for. But they won’t go there because they know it would be politically unpopular, and it would take the power away from them. The compelling argument for decriminalization is that it takes the power away from the brothel owners and puts it in the hands of the workers.”

On this point, Guinasso and D’Adamo agree. “None of the sex workers outside of Nevada generally advocate for the brothel system,” D’Adamo said. “Because that system has its own vulnerabilities and is equally problematic and generally just supports white men with capital.”

Attempts to improve the lot of sex workers have failed to include support for women who want to continue doing the work safely or alternatives for women who want to get out. To that end, Guinasso has included the creation of a $2 million fund as part of his complaint, which he said would help women transition out of the sex trade and provide vocational training, child care, mental health services, rehab for those who need it, rent assistance and other wraparound services.

Hepburn said it will likely take more than $2 million to provide the key infrastructure and services and real alternatives for those who want them. “If you want to help marginalized people, you can’t keep them marginalized,” she said.