Love Shack

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Love Shack - an Interview with Alexa Albert by Albert Lee

What is life like inside a brothel? Harvard-trained physician Alexa Albert went to Nevada’s Mustang Ranch to conduct a safe-sex study, but found herself caught up in the lives of the women who worked there. She ended up staying for seven months. The book that came out of the experience, Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women, is the best kind of accessible sociology — full of empathy, detail and the unique perspective of an outsider who got deep inside.  —Albert Lee

AL: What was your stance on legal prostitution before you started the book?

AA: I hadn’t even really thought about it. I think I came to it with a sort of academic-influenced feminist perspective. You know: this is degrading, this objectifies women. And what I had seen on the streets while doing research in New York was pretty disturbing — I mean these young kids, these men who pick them up, you know, they had sex with them literally either in alleyways, at the Port Authority bus station or in some sleazebag hotel in Times Square, and then just threw them away. Of course that’s a little different because we’re talking about kids — teenagers, mostly — most of whom are runaways trying to get money to get high. But Mustang Ranch was totally different. There were definitely abusive and disrespectful men there, but the violence just doesn’t happen because of the house security.

AL: So how did you end up going there?

AA: I was doing condom studies in Atlanta, and I started studying the legal brothels in Nevada, and found that that, although these women had many sexual partners, there wasn’t a single case of HIV or AIDS. So I said, let’s do a study there — these women seem to be doing something right. I got in touch with George Flint [the executive director of the Nevada Brothel Association] and presented myself as a public health researcher and sent him an elaborate proposal. But he basically refused me entry for three-and-a-half years.

AL: And he finally relented.

AA: That’s right, and I ended up going to Mustang Ranch. This was in 1993, six years before the feds convicted the owner of tax evasion and shut it down.

AL: What surprised you about the place when you got there?

AA: How clean it was! It wasn’t a little dump. It wasn’t a palace either, but the eight-foot gates were pretty intimidating. Actually, it looked like a lounge bar, with parlor couches, a jukebox. And more amazing were the men coming in — they looked like normal guys.

AL: There are these two competing images of the female prostitute — either she’s a beaten-down single mother whose pimp takes ninety percent of her earnings, or she’s a brassy, pro-sex feminist who’s proud of what she does. How much truth is there to either stereotype?

AA: Well, there are about a hundred women at Mustang Ranch, from eighteen to sixty-three years old, and each one had a very different story. Frankly, what amazed me was how varied the women really were. They were all there because it was a job, no question. “Baby” typified the women who had been in the business for a long time, who literally were professional prostitutes. She said, “I didn’t necessarily envision working at a brothel, but it’s what I do and I want to be good at it.” Then there were women just biting their lips, waiting to get out, trying to earn money, hating the sex. Some of them did enjoy the sex, frankly, though that’s very unprofessional to admit. There’s a real code of conduct, a work ethic, among the women.

AL: What are some of the other aspects of the code?

AA: Becoming vulnerable emotionally with the customers. With the Internet, some women have really gotten friendly with their customers, like the CyberWhoreMongers [an online sex workers fan club], and some of the “old-school” women are shaking their heads. “You’re violating the boundaries. You’re breaking a professional ethic,” like a doctor-patient ethic. Some of the women have married their customers, and there’s disapproval over that. You’re not supposed to socialize with these men outside the business relationship, and you certainly don’t fall in love with them.

AL: In your book, you describe one woman who leads men on by increasingly opening up to them emotionally.

AA: There’s some of that, to foster the regulars. You know, these guys have, like, one second of power in the brothel and that’s when they pick which woman they want to be with. Once he’s picked the woman, she is running the show. It’s not in an aggressive way, but these men are just little . . . boys, frankly. They follow permissively and reticently. Part of it’s nervousness and part of it is that you go in knowing the woman is going to be in charge of creating the fantasy for you. I think for some men that was actually a relief.

AL: And then there’s the lineup, in which the women literally line up so the client can choose who he wants.

AA: It’s pretty horrifying, initially. One guy got face-to-face with the women, just staring at them, totally violating their space. And he was dismissive afterwards, trying to retain his power. Some say things like, “Ugh, nothing good here.” But the women know these guys are just so terribly awkward and uncomfortable that they just become mean. As you look at it, it becomes more fascinating and less repulsive because of its subtleties. For instance, you can’t try to get the guy’s attention more than your peers. Everyone has to have their hands behind their back, and you say only your name. “Barbie.” “Champagne.” “Brandy.” The women who try to get more attention by flirting openly really get flak afterward. That’s “dirty hustling.”

AL: How many women are in the lineup?

AA: On slow days, there were ten to twelve women, and on busy days, when all shifts were working, you could have up to fifty women. The most sexualized were not the ones who were always getting picked. A lot of the new ones would get picked often by regulars looking for newer women, but every woman did get picked, or they weren’t staying in the business. We’re talking all shapes, all sizes, all races, all forms of dress, whether it’s really provocative garb or a conservative black dress down to the ankles.

AL: But did some of the older or less-in-shape women get picked less?

AA: Oh, definitely. A lot of the women said to me, “I don’t do well in lineups, but I’m really good at doing the conversation and hustling in the bar.”

AL: I found it pretty remarkable that you actually hung out in some of the rooms while the sex was taking place. Definitely what you’d call immersive reporting.

AA: I don’t know how you could write a book about the inside workings of a brothel and not go into the room. Baby invited me to watch a dominance party she was participating in, because there were already going to be two women in the room. They told him I was in training, and that I was just going to watch. The LineupSo I basically sat in a chair next to the bed as he got anally penetrated with a dildo, which was definitely mind-blowing. He was into it, and it was his first time. I think he had had this fantasy for a really long time, and had never enacted it, and then to have two women and then me engaged in the room with him, not judging him, not making him feel ashamed, added to the titillation. The lack of shame he felt really was, I think, satisfying and quite powerful for him.

AL: Another interesting encounter you describe in the book is with this very obese man, one of the regulars, who you actually ended up being in the room alone with for a little bit of time.

AA: This guy had never been in a relationship except with prostitutes. He lost it at the brothels many years before. Brittany wanted me to see what a more intimate party was like, so he allowed me to come in purely to please her. He thought that this was giving her something that she wanted. He offered to pay me a tip at the request of Brittany, and I refused. I said, “I can’t. I don’t need your money, Norman. Keep it.” And Brittany was furious I hadn’t taken the money. She felt it undermined her authority with him.

AL: What happens when things go wrong with a client?

AA: There’s a hidden buzzer inside the bedroom that sets off a house alarm. I was there when a guy hit a woman, and she rang the bell, and the bartender and the cook got in that room so fast and kicked the guy out. But usually the women were really able to manage the party so things didn’t get out of hand. Either they’d get the guy out of the room, or they’d get him off his high horse. But it was actually kind of a source of pride among the women that they didn’t usually have to resort to ringing the bell, because for them it was about always staying in control.

AL: Mustang Ranch said 325,000 different men visited every year, and just as there is a whole spectrum of women working at a ranch, you say there’s a range of men, too.

AA: Absolutely. Just to give you an example: on the same day that a busload of Japanese tourists on an organized sex tour came in, with their cameras and an interpreter, a professor at my medical school [Harvard] also showed up. He wasn’t one of my teachers, but he knew he had seen me before. He was really nervous, and he was really careful initially not to tell me which hospital he worked at because he didn’t want to be outed, but spent five hours in the end telling me his whole story, because this is such a closeted thing. He wanted to tell his story.

AL: Whoa, and what did he tell you?

AA: Oh, that he had gotten involved because he had been searching the Internet, found out that brothels existed, that it was safe. He was in the middle of a divorce and wanted to have sex but didn’t want to get into a complicated relationship. And he was intrigued by how safe the houses were.

AL: He flew in all the way from Harvard?

AA: Yeah, from Massachussetts. These men are coming from all over the country. One guy, Stuart, literally up and moved from California to Nevada, because he became hooked on the houses.

AL: It’s ironic that prostitution is legal in a state that’s also known for gambling. Can’t prostitution be addictive, too? In one chapter, you discuss the CyberWhoreMonger fan club, where people post their comments on the Web in a kind of Zagat’s of sex workers, and they even have a little ceremony to present their favorite sex worker with a trophy. Aren’t these guys a little obsessed?

AA: Sure. By making alcohol available, I’m sure more of us drink than if we kept it prohibited. But isn’t it, in the end, done more safely? Sure, there are going to be guys who don’t have relationships with women who aren’t sex workers because they get addicted to these women. But what’s nice is that the women are not physically endangered, nor are the men. These guys who didn’t lose their virginity until they were forty who then become obsessed with the women at the brothels — I think they probably weren’t going to have “normal” relationships anyway. And the Harvard professor is a perfect example of someone who didn’t get addicted. He started going to the brothels and even fell in love with one of the women, but now, though he’s still a friend of hers, he’s got a relationship on the outside.

AL: George Flint, the executive director of the Nevada Brothels Association — who also happens to be an ordained minister — makes an interesting defense of prostitution.

AA: He says that men want monogamy. But the problem — and this, I have to say, I never thought I’d agree with him — is that there are a bunch of guys who for some reason or another cannot get their sexual fantasies met elsewhere. There was a professional golfer who wanted really rough, hard sex. Was he right that if he asked his girlfriend for that, she would have dissed him and walked out? Maybe. Or maybe he was just too ashamed and embarrassed to actually ask. For me, it bespeaks our failure still, when we think we’re so progressive, to really speak frankly about sex. Honestly, how many of us are that great about talking about sex in the bedroom with our partner? I don’t think any of us are. I’m not. I’m still learning.

AL: So you’re saying it would be better for these men to be able to discuss sex in the bedroom, but barring that, if they have this outlet, we might as well legalize it and make it safe.

AA: Yes. Because truly some of them are going to go somewhere else. I don’t think prostitution is going to go away.

AL: Are these women well off?

AA: Most of them were making at least $100,000, for at least varied amounts of time. And Baby’s put together a really great nest egg. She’s trying to save so she doesn’t have to work in the long run. But I think it’s hard. What happens, as for many of us, is that you get a job where you earn some money and your standard of living increases, and you get comfortable with the income you’re getting. It’s pretty fast money, if you can tolerate the job.

AL: How many people were they having sex with in, say, a week?

AA: On average, about six men a day. Half the money goes to the house, and they were taking away somewhere between $300 and $1500 a day. That’s at Mustang. The women at brothels in southern Nevada, like the Chicken Ranch outside Vegas, make considerably more. The clientele are just bigger spenders.

AL: Is the brothel sort of like a fire station — while you’re on call, you live on the premises?

AA: Oh, they lived there the whole time. They weren’t coming and going.

AL: So there wasn’t anyone who, on their days off, had a separate home they went back to.

AA: Well, some of them did, but it wasn’t coming and going with the same sort of freedom you and I would be used to. Part of that speaks to the house not wanting the women turning tricks on the outside, part of it speaks to the community not wanting the women turning tricks on the outside. So the way it’s developed is, the women come for stints at a time, then they leave.

AL: Were any of them married?

AA: Oh, yeah. I think a third of them were technically married, and most of them were in relationships with somebody on the outside.

AL: But none of the husbands lived with them at the brothel, I assume.

AA: No, the men weren’t allowed. The men didn’t come in. But in the old days, fifteen or twenty years ago, Sunday was a visiting day when men could come in.

AL: Did they have health insurance?

AA: No, they were independent contractors. All their health, they paid out of pocket.

AL: Have you remained on close terms with some of those women?

AA: Yeah. Baby came and visited me in Seattle. It was pretty awesome, actually, because my husband had not visited the brothels, and as sappy as it sounds, it was very special to have these two people meet. I think she’s a wonderful person.

AL: What did your husband think of the project? I know you two were engaged at the time, and I’m sure he knew that you had worked with sex workers in New York before, but now you were living there.

AA: I think he was pretty freaked out, honestly, and I wasn’t allowed to use the phone any more often than the women, so he didn’t hear from me often.

AL: Maybe he worried you were actually going to end up servicing one of the men . . .

AA: Somewhere in his head he probably did worry a little bit. [Laughs.] Actually, I think he was worried I’d be physically endangered. But the running joke among the women was that they really wanted him to come out and visit, and they were going to dress me up and put me in lineup, so that he’d walk in and see me. [Laughs.] Which reminds me that what I found most interesting was not the sex but the sense of community among these women and the employees. A group of us would be sitting in the parlor, just chatting, and a regular would come in and draw one of the women out, and she’d come back thirty minutes later, going, “Okay, what did I miss?”

AL: Did you guys ever, I don’t know, play cards or watch a movie or bake brownies together?

AA: Oh, yeah! They’d have the runner — the guy who ran errands for them outside — bring in Chinese food and pick up a video. They were crocheting and knitting all the time.

AL: You saw so many different kinds of men at the brothel, so were you ever tempted to ask your husband if he’d ever gone to one?

AA: Of course! Are you kidding? I asked his whole family if they’d ever gone to a prostitute. That’s my style, though. And anyway: no, I believe he never has.

AL: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if it affected your sex life at all.

AA: Definitely. It had to, partly just because you’re thinking about all different people’s sexual desires and fantasies. Your mind just goes down that whole avenue. And these women are really quite erotic, and it made me reconsider myself. I would come home thinking more creatively about being a woman and being sexual in a very positive way. It isn’t the feeling I would have expected myself to walk away with; maybe I’d walk away feeling dirty about being a woman. But these women were really good at being sexual and meeting people’s sexual needs. And it made me just think more elaborately about what being sexual looked like, and how one could be sexual in very different ways — what it could look like for myself and for my partner. All the different permutations it could take. Does it mean howling in the bedroom, does it mean being soft? What can sex look like to be satisfying to myself and somebody else?

AL: It just gave you a broader sense of what sex could be.

AA: Exactly.

© 2000

Albert Lee and Nerve.com, Inc.