The Business of Desire 

Inside Nevada's legal brothels

There are ghost towns in the Nevada hills. You can cross the state at seventy miles per hour, sealed in a car like an air-conditioned bullet. Or you can turn off, roll down a window to smell the sage, and listen to the grit in the wind scour abandoned dreams. The Mustang Ranch, eight miles east of Reno, closed in 1999, but there's a picture of it on the front of this book: a squat, tongue-pink building behind an iron fence. The building is coyly hidden behind half a dust jacket that announces "a brave young doctor's intimate and unforgettable account." The wind is just getting started.Mustang Ranch, in its time the country's most famous legal brothel, opened its doors in the 1960s. Alexa Albert informs us that legal prostitution in Nevada dates back to the Gold Rush, when women were scarce and miners were randy. A brothel called Mona's II has been operating in Elko since 1902.

In a weird way, it's a romantic image, a part of the Old West, like cowboys and saloons. Some of the best parts of Brothel concern the history of prostitution in Nevada and the colorful characters who championed legal brothels. Albert focuses on Joe Conforte, the owner of the Mustang Ranch, and George Flint, executive director of the National Brothel Association.

As a medical student, Albert received Flint's permission to conduct research on condom use at the Mustang Ranch. The dust jacket notes that she was the first "outsider" allowed in. Albert conducted the interviews for her research on the first visit, but then she decided she "needed to learn more."

On the Internet, I found abstracts of two articles Albert contributed to the American Journal of Public Health. She checked used condoms and interviewed the women who had used them. Since the condoms rarely broke or slipped, she concluded that regular users are more skilled in condom use. In addition she interviewed forty prostitutes (her choice of word) and found that although they always used condoms on the job, they did not necessarily use them with lovers. She comments, "Their hopefulness in spite of what they knew about human nature made my heart ache. These women were just like the rest of us."

Albert spent almost seven months over four years at the ranch. When she returned, it appears that she was no longer a researcher but a journalist. She wrote down the women's stories, sat at the bar as the women lined up for the clients, even watched two of them service their johns. I make this point because Albert doesn't--not directly. The dust jacket refers to her "six-year study" at the brothel, but it is hard for me to imagine that a human experimentation committee would have approved a study protocol that involved her watching people have sex or trying on a G-string.

After her first visit, she wrote: "Nevada's legal brothels were far less repugnant than I expected." Since she had only visited the Mustang Ranch, it's not clear how she knew about all the others and could generalize. "They appeared to be clean, legitimate workplaces, and the women were not shackled hostages but self-aware professionals there of their own free will," Albert writes. In the rest of the book, she sets out to prove this conclusion.

She sticks to her bias, even when the story she tells belies her assertion. In a chapter called "Breadwinner," she tells how startled she was to learn that brothels used to require women to have pimps, and many women still have them: "The involvement of pimps enabled brothel owners to leave discipline to men who wouldn't hesitate to keep their women in line." Although the women give fifty percent of their income to the brothel, "law enforcement officials in Oregon, where for some reason many of today's West Coast pimps allegedly originate, estimate that pimps in the Eugene-Springfield area have over forty women working in Nevada's brothels who regularly send tens of thousands of dollars back home." Albert believes that prostitution will always be with us, a pretty safe assumption based on the last 2,500 years of recorded history. From a public-health perspective, the women at the Mustang Ranch were better off than their sisters on the street. The brothel owners enforced a strict condom policy and tested the women regularly for sexually transmitted diseases (the women themselves paid for the testing). Within the confines of the brothel, the women were free from assault and, for this protection, they gave up their personal freedom. They were required to stay at the brothel three weeks at a time, and to pay for an escort if they wanted to run an errand in town. From 6 p.m. Friday until 6 p.m. Sunday, the management locked the only room with pay phones.This is a mighty peculiar way to treat "self-aware professionals." If my daughter came to me and announced that she was going to take a job that required her to stay at a ranch in the Nevada desert for three weeks at a time without telephone contact on the weekends and pay half of the money she earned to the owner of the ranch, I would have reservations, even if the job had nothing to do with sex. Albert admits, "On a few occasions I had caught sight of a carload of tourists posing outside the brothel fence for a photo, and it had struck me that the brothel residents actually lived like animals in the zoo." I wish an editor had pointed out to Albert how often her observations contradict her romantic vision of the working girls.

While Albert didn't manage to convince me that the women of the Mustang Ranch were social workers who use their bodies, she does make a strong case that their work does not define them. "In a business built largely on desire and fantasy," she muses, "it's easy to be deceived by our assumptions and, in doing so, overlook the humanity that's at the core of this complex and timeless profession." Unfortunately, the humanity in this story all seems to come from the women. The men who hire them and pimp them, and officials in the rural counties who license the brothels, seem only to care about money.

In the April 23, 2001 New Yorker, Rebecca Mead profiles Dennis Hof, owner of the Bunnyranch, in an essay called "American Pimp." By coincidence, Mead's article provides a good counterpoint to Albert's book. Mead analyzes the Bunnyranch from a business point of view rather than focusing on relationships among the women who work there. The operation of the Bunnyranch sounds very like that of the Mustang, except that Hof now imports porn stars to work for shorter stints than three weeks. He pays his girls daily in cash. "If we give the girls cash, they will spend it," he explains. "And if they spend it, they will make more. They can make more: it is just creating that desire to make it."

If a brothel is a "family," as Albert claims, it's a family you join by working or paying--sort of the opposite of Robert Frost's concept of home being "where they have to take you in." Albert laments, "People cared less about how decent and helpful the women were than about how much money they made, what types of sexual activities they sold, and what horrible circumstances forced them to resort to selling their bodies in the first place." No kidding. She has to know it's the peephole here that defines the view.


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