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I spent months in a brothel
for research : Alexa Albert

A lexa Albert was a student at Harvard Medical School when she conducted a public health study at Mustang Ranch, one of the most famous and richest brothels in Nevada (the only state in America where prostitution is legal). The study lasted six years and allowed an outsider the closest possible look into the world of legalized prostitution. Mustang Ranch was closed in 1999 on charges of racketeering.

Albert stayed in the brothel to get a first-hand account of the lives of the prostitutes, the clients, the bartenders, the cook, the maids, the hawkers, the owners.

Brothel, Mustang Ranch and its Women is a non-judgmental book about a group of unforgettable women. Story of Dinah who became a prostitute at the age of 51; of Donna, who made sure she made at least $ 4000 a month to cover the monthly bills of her husband and her children; of Keri, who liked virgins; of Baby, who loved 'dominance' parties and; of Savannah, who thought prostitution was a healing service for needy men.

Albert vividly describes life in Mustang Ranch. Under Joe Conforte's ownership women could wear only sequined gowns for line-up and black was a taboo. However, George Flint, the executive director of the Nevada Brothels Association and an ordained minister, was all right with the idea of women wearing tights or shorts for the line-up. But during the line-up they had to keep their hands at the back and could not speak their name seductively. In Ranch jargon that was 'dirty hustling'.
I have seen and written about prostitutes in India, and reading Brothel was really an eye-opener. The difference is stark. In India girls are abducted and forced into prostitution, sold by their parents to brothels, or compelled to do it because their mothers are/were prostitutes. They sell their bodies really cheap, some as low as a dime per client.

Prostitutes at Mustang Ranch did not seem too unhappy about selling sex, most seem to take it as a job and feel good about it. At times it gets difficult to believe that none - none - of them were unhappy. Did you ever feel that they were putting up an arrogant front?

I think many were unhappy. But the difficulty for them seemed less about selling sex to multiple strange men but the conditions inherent in their work environment. For example, being estranged from family and loved ones for weeks/months at a time. Having to keep their work secret because of stigmatization. Dealing with work fatigue/burn-out both physical and psychological (i.e., dealing with all the different personalities and psychological needs of their customers). I think the women I met worked hard to cope with their life and circumstances. And this may have looked like a front. However, the front was less for me than for themselves.

Did you walk into the Ranch with preset notions about prostitutes and brothels? Were those notions shattered?

I discussed my initial prejudices on Chapter One I think. I went in believing all prostitution was "bad" and violated and objectified women... was a male/ patriachal construction that disempowered women. I think I can see prostitution more practically (less abstractly) as a function of supply and demand.

Didn't the women ever find the line-up demeaning, embarrassing? There are 20 women in the line-up and the man gets to choose one. Is there a common denominator to get picked up? The prettiest? The one most provocatively dressed? The youngest in the lot? Or the freshest face?

The amazing thing about line-up was that all the women ultimately get picked (or women don't stay at the brothel) ... and the women were truly all shapes, sizes, and colors. The youngest and freshest were usually picked the most frequently by novice customers and by those regulars who liked to experience all the women. But regular customers usually picked their tried and true. Time and time again, men said they frequently were too intimidated to pick the most classically beautiful women. Many said they often picked women that looked like their significant others at home.

What went into the mind of a prostitute who has not been picked up for days? Does that hurt her self-esteem? Or, do most take it as part of 'occupational hazard'?

I spoke about this a bit in the Chapter about the Nair shampoo. Not getting picked did take a toil on women's egos eventually (how would it not?) and also exacerbated internal stresses about money and making ends meet.

You sat with two prostitutes and watched a 'dominance' party where the man wanted anal sex with a dildo. You also watched another prostitute having sex with a fat regular. What was your initial reaction? Disgust? Excitement? Turn-on? Or, did you manage to sit there as a passive spectator?

All of the above. I went through an emotional roller-coaster ride. At times I felt distanced, like a passive spectator in a movie theater, however that veneer was pierced every time I made eye contact with either the woman or the man.

To me, the most surprising information was the fact that not a single legal prostitute in Nevada has contracted HIV since testing began in 1986. Who ensured that kind of strict discipline about use of condoms? Or, even the mandatory washing of the client's genitals before sex?

These practices have become standardized and routine now. It was hugely important (and imperative) that condoms were made mandatory by law initially so that everyone had to comply (and management had to support their use). However, now there is such improved public health knowledge among the working women, it would be unfathomable for most to work today without a condom. (Most expressed horror when thinking back on what they used to do/tolerate.) In instances when women broke with standard practice, the other women usually caught wind of it somehow and really blasted their colleague for undermining their practices.

You say Mustang Ranch had nearly 325,000 visitors each year and most women made up to $ 100,000 annually. That kind of earning is very high even for a regular blue collar job. Did the prostitutes have a safe egg nest? Did they invest well?

Some tried. However, frequently their standard of living increased as their incomes increased. This is a cash business for these women and unfortunately no 401Ks existed to help assist them in tucking money away.

How vulnerable were these women to physical violence? In other words, how safe were they inside the Ranch?

As I discuss in the book, there is zero tolerance of physical violence against the women. I was there one day when a woman was hit and she rang her security button (one hidden in every room) and assistance arrived immediately and threw that customer out.

Did they ever have a woman as a client? You talk of men who came to the Ranch because their wives or girlfriends could not fulfill their sexual fantasies. I am sure there are women ready to pay for the sex with another woman? They have unfulfilled sexual desires/fantasies too.

Occasionally men brought women with them to "party" together with a prostitute or to watch their partner with another woman. However not all prostitutes were willing to service these "parties". The house did not allow solo women in (basic homophobia in my opinion). In all my research and talking about the book, however, I have heard very few women who say they would utilize brothel services by a female prostitute. This speaks to the notion that prostitution is a male construction established to satisfy male desire. Perhaps I am wrong and there would be many women knocking on Mustang's door if permitted.

You spent a lot of time with the prostitutes and the workers of Mustang Ranch, what surprised you most?

That the women viewed their work as professionals and took their work so seriously, some even feeling pride in the service they provided.

You have worked with street walkers also, mostly teenage prostitutes. If you were to point about one big difference between them and the legal prostitutes what would it be?

The teenage street prostitutes were prostituting to survive ... for cash for their next meal or next high. I don't think any of them would have said they envisioned themselves as professionals nor did they intend on becoming professional. Some of the women at Mustang were also there for short-term gain (to pay off a debt, etc.), but very few to specifically sustain a drug habit (too hard given the confinement demands ... although drug use did exist).

Did the Mustang ranch experience change your attitude towards men? Or how you deal with them now?

For a long time, all men seemed like potential customers to me. However, in the end I came to have a deepened sense of respect for the importance of communication and vulnerability in intimate relationships. That is what the clients seemed to lack at home. We are not as evolved a culture about sex and intimacy as we profess to be. We all have a lot of work to do to be vulnerable. And of course, media sells the glitzy sex not the vulnerable intimate variety.

How did you manage to stay away from the typical feminist rhetoric about prostitution? Most feminists think prostitution is a scourge for anything ethical.

I didn't try consciously to avoid it. But once I got inside the brothels, all rhetoric/ academics fell to the wayside as the people, their individual stories and their humanity became so palpable to me. Hard to maintain intellectual (and frequently self-righteous) distance after that.

Wherever there is society, there would be prostitutes. Prostitution is not going to go away, so should it be legalized?

It definitely shouldn't be criminalized because our current laws fails to protect the women (and men) they allegedly are meant to be protecting. The women in the brothels were disease-free and safe from violence. This is not the case where prostitution is illegal and underground. By legalizing prostitution, society recognizes these people rather than pretending they (and the phenomenon) don't exist.

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