Given its long association with various forms of vice, it is ironic that "[f]ederal spending, and lots of it, triggered the rise of modern Las Vegas" (Moehring 1989: 13). In the early 1900s Las Vegas was a fledgling railroad and mining town and a nascent resort city, with a small but boisterous red-light district that formed on the two blocks of Fremont Street where the sale of liquor was allowed. In the 1930s and 1940s, federal spending on public works and defense projects pumped millions of dollars into the economy of southern Nevada and brought thousands of workers and soldiers eager for entertainment. In 1931, Nevada reinstated legalized gambling (following a brief and failed experiment with Progressive reform), and from that point on Las Vegas began to develop as a resort city catering to adult pleasures.
It was not until the 1940s, however, that Las Vegas began to shed its dusty frontier image for the flashy modern resort image that persists today. The transformation was initiated by mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegal, who brought a Miami Beach-style resort to the Mojave Desert with his lavish Flamingo casino and hotel. Although the Flamingo struggled financially at first and Bugsy was whacked, the formula was replicated in elaborate new casinos/hotels built with Teamster pension funds and controlled by Mafia families. This was a city of pleasures contrived by and for the common man (Wolfe 1965), and each new casino offered the fantasy of an exotic time and place in the explicit semiotics of its "pleasure-zone architecture" (Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour 1972). Sex was an integral part of this world of pleasures.
Gambling and prostitution are longtime companions in Las Vegas. Prostitution is legal in rural counties of Nevada, so the conscientious john might legally obtain the services of an "independent contractor" in one of the brothels that operate on the fringes of Clark County (Spanier 1992). But casino operators have long recognized the value of sex to their businesses and have conspired in its availability. In the past, it was understood that the complete Las Vegas experience, termed the "Las Vegas total," included food, lodging, gambling, shows, and a woman for sex (Gottdiener et al. 1999: 78). As one insider described the situation: "A good casino had an arsenal of stunning showgirls, stunning call girls, and stunning classy dames it could call on to grease the high-roller action, and it was a good host's job to match weaponry with circumstance" (quoted in Martinez 1999: 201). Today's corporately controlled casinos keep prostitution at arm's length, fitting with their cleaner image, but it hardly matters; the city has a vast reserve army of escorts, advertised everywhere, who will "come right to your room" with a simple phone call (Gottdiener et al. 1999: 79).
The success of Las Vegas depends, however, on the ability to manufacture desire itself. Therefore, in the creation of modern Las Vegas sexuality had to move from beyond base carnality and into the realm of fantasy. This is the function of the Las Vegas showgirl. Decorated in a costume studded with rhinestones and topped with baroque plumage, revealing bare breasts and long bare legs, the showgirl represents an untouchable object of desire (Schiff and Leibovitz 1996). Showgirls emerged during the 1950s, when casinos competed by offering exotic stage shows imported from Paris. These Parisian-style revues are now a dying breed, falling victim to a proliferation of nude and topless jiggle shows that abandon any pretext of a "classy" presentation of female nudity. Nevertheless, the showgirl still figures prominently in the city's marketing material and remains a powerful icon in the symbolic construction of Las Vegas. Her image establishes Las Vegas as a sexualized place, and one that is safely heterosexual. And, by introducing aestheticized sexuality into the city's image, this endangered creature serves the material interests of the casinos, attracting visitors and fueling the condition of desire that is at the heart of sex and gambling.
Because sexuality remains an important ingredient in the casino economy, themes of sexuality permeate representations of Las Vegas disseminated by the city's local image-makers. Las Vegas is legendary for the power of its marketing machine (Gottdiener et al. 1999). Today it is the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) - together with the advertising by individual casinos - that serves as the primary image-making device for the city's casino-dominated growth machine. The LVCVA is awarded the lion's share of the 9 percent hotel room tax, and in a metropolitan area with a phenomenal stock of over 120,000 hotel rooms (more than double the supply of New York) averaging 80-90 percent occupancy rates, this translates into an annual budget in excess of $120 million (ten times that of its counterpart organization in New York) (www.lasvegas24hours.com; personal interview with Ruth Nadler, Vice President of Research, NYC & Co., October 12, 2000). The enormous resources of the LVCVA reflect the remarkable degree to which the city's economy is built upon the symbolic realm of images.
Sexuality is a subtle but unambiguous theme in the LVCVA's marketing strategy. The 2000 marketing campaign was built around the theme of "freedom," as in "freedom to do what you want, when you want" (www.vegasfreedom.com). This furthers the image of Las Vegas as an All-American city (Andersen 1994) by linking the Las Vegas experience to the fundamental American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the sexual suggestiveness is unmistakable in the promised "freedom from inhibitions," "freedom to indulge," "freedom to go nuts," etc. Significantly, the first image on the website is not dice or cards, but a showgirl. Sexuality operates less discreetly on another marketing website, Las Vegas On Line (www.lvol.com), which includes a guide to the city's adult entertainment. This site even offers direct links to hard-core pornography, making explicit the sexuality that operates as a veiled subtext in the official marketing of Las Vegas.
The association of Las Vegas with sexual license is reinforced by the Hollywood dream factory. Hollywood celebrities have frequented Las Vegas to entertain and be entertained since the quickie celebrity divorces of the 1930s (Moehring 1989: 29). In return, Las Vegas has been a favorite subject of Hollywood movies, from The Las Vegas Story (1952) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) to Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and Vegas Vacation (1997) (see Gottdiener et al. 1999: 69-76). Sexuality is a recurring theme in Hollywood representations of the city, whether glamorous, romantic, comic, or decadent. But the stock Hollywood image remains that of the attractive bombshell in a sleek evening gown, dripping jewels, who will blow on some lucky man's dice.
The symbolic construction of Las Vegas is not simply a product of casino interests. Even with a massive marketing effort the production of images eludes tight control, as the grim Leaving Las Vegas (1995) illustrates. Moreover, sexuality circulates back into the material realm in the form of activities opposed by the dominant casinos. This is the case with street prostitution and the distribution of graphic fliers advertising sex-related businesses on the sidewalks of the Strip, where the major casinos are located. The casinos mobilized local lawmakers to crack down on both types of activities, the former involving social practices that emerge from below, and the latter involving investment practices of other economic elites. What distinguishes both activities from other forms of commercial sex is their occurrence in public space. And the common response has been to assert control over these spaces.
Las Vegas combats street prostitution by means of a zoning ordinance that designates certain geographic areas as "order-out corridors" (Kalil 2000a, 2000b). Anyone arrested for prostitution in the designated zone is given a suspended sentence provided he or she agrees not to return to the area for a period of six months to a year; those violating the agreement receive mandatory jail time. The zones were first created in 1996, and they have since been expanded twice to complete a buffer around the casino areas of Fremont Street and the Strip. It is a spatial strategy that serves the interests of casinos by sweeping visible prostitution from adjacent public spaces and into surrounding areas.
The casinos have had greater difficulty controlling the distribution of handbills advertising adult entertainment. (Tellingly, the casinos have paid little attention to the ubiquitous ads on taxis and billboards that are of greater concern to families living in Las Vegas, but target people in automobiles rather than pedestrians in the public spaces around the casinos.) Although the Clark County Commission has adopted several ordinances banning the distribution of handbills along the casino corridors, these have been repeatedly struck down in court as an infringement on free speech (Steinhauer 1997; Friess 1998). Consequently, the casinos moved to evade the First Amendment issue by privatizing adjacent public spaces. This was accomplished most dramatically on Fremont Street, an area of older casinos that suffered from a seedy reputation. In 1995, a $70-million makeover transformed the street into a covered pedestrian space featuring a spectacular sound and light show. The new Fremont Street Experience was developed and operated by a casino-led corporation "established in part to put the downtown casino corridor in private hands" (Steinhauer 1997). In 1998 a federal judge ruled that the Fremont Street Experience was no longer a public street (Martinez 1999: 229). On the Strip, the process of privatizing public space has proceeded in a piecemeal fashion as new megaresorts absorb sidewalks into increasingly spectacular, theatrical facades.
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