Selling sex in Nevada is like selling burgers in McDonalds
Nevada, famous for its casinos, Mafia and the Sin City of Las Vegas, is the only state in the US where brothels are legal. Since the days when the place was populated by gold miners, prostitution has been accepted as just another service industry.
In September I visited four legal brothels as part of a radio documentary on the enduring debate about whether legalising prostitution makes it safer for the women involved.
On this journey I met the pimps who ran the brothels, the women who worked in them and the punters who paid for sex.
Outside my Vegas hotel men line the streets inT-shirts advertising “A girl to your room in 20 minutes”. The phone directory has more than 200 pages of adverts for prostitution services.
Unsurprisingly, most of the people visiting Vegas, one survey says, think that all prostitution in the state is legal.
In fact there are just 24 legal brothels in Nevada, operating mostly in the sparsely populated northern region. Allowed only in counties with populations of fewer than 400,000, the trailer-type compounds are in the middle of nowhere and the women often live in prison-like conditions, locked in or forbidden to leave.
The lawful scene – which is widely publicised and promoted by the brothel owners through TV debates and “docuporn” shows – encourages the illegal scene in Las Vegas to flourish.
As one pimp tells me:”Tourism [to Vegas] is our bread and butter. Stag parties are very lucrative.”
The women in the legal brothels are considered to be “private contractors” and must register as prostitutes at the sheriff’s office.
They are also legally required to be tested once a week for sexually transmitted diseases – something not required of their clients. The women must present their medical clearance to the police station and be fingerprinted.
Dennis Hof is a famous pimp. Owner of the Love Ranch in Nye County and the famous Moonlight Bunny Ranch, a few miles outside Carson City in Reno, Hof is the star of the HBO TV series Cathouse, which follows the lives of the women working in the brothel.
We meet in Trump Tower, Las Vegas. Hof, in his mid sixties, brings with him Camie, a woman in her early twenties who works in his brothels. She is hoping to marry Hof. “I saw Daddy on TV and thought he sounded really fine.”
“The legal environment is like the world’s greatest singles bar,” Hof says when I ask why he thinks legalisation is the best approach.
“There is no rape, no trafficking, no HIV, no illegal activity. It’s safe here.”
Melissa Farley, the psychologist and academic who spent two years researching legal brothels in Nevada for her book Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada, says that she “has rarely seen people as harmed” psychologically and physically as the women who work in legal brothels in Nevada.
A pimp, according to Hof, is somebody who operates in the illegal world. “I am a businessman. I have a licence to do this.”
Brothel owners typically pocket half of the women’s earnings. Additionally, the women must pay tips and other fees to the staff of the brothel, as well as finders’ fees to the cab drivers who bring the customers. They are also expected to pay for their own condoms, wet wipes, sheets and towels.
Meanwhile, illegal brothels are on the increase in Nevada, as they are in other parts of the world where brothels are legalised. Nevada’s unlawful prostitution industry, according to research by the US Government, is already nine times greater than the state’s legal brothels.
We go to dinner with Hof and his sharply dressed Italian-American lawyer. “I’m selling sex like McDonald’s is selling burgers. Not, ‘Can I have a quarter pounder and fries?’ but, ‘Can I have a blow job and a missionary?’ ”
The next morning we visit the Love Ranch brothel, an hour’s drive from Vegas. We pass a sign School Bus Ahead and a car boot sale on the roadside. The Choice Hills Baptist Church is next door to a dental surgery.
Two hairy bikers, possibly security for the brothel, nod at us as we pass. It is bleak and the inside is no better. It has the feel of an institution, and the barbed wire surrounding it adds to that effect.
I meet Dallas, one of the women working in the brothel. She has a copy of the book Water for Elephants by her bed, but that is the only visible personal item.
“I move all my things before a customer enters. I don’t want him touching a picture of my daughter with his spermy hands.”
Dallas, like the other women, lives in the brothel for weeks or months at a time, often not seeing a customer for days.
Those I interviewed all had the same thing to say about their work - they enjoy it; it pays well; they are treated with respect by the brothel owners and punters. I ask Dallas why the women call Hof Daddy.
“He likes to be called Daddy. If I’ve been a good girl he spoils us rotten. We are his girls.”
I walk past the in-house ATM with Hof as he begins to explain what great cash cows the women working for him are. “Take a hundred-dollar girl and put her in an $80 room and you make $100,” he says, bragging about how much money he has invested in refurbishing the Love Ranch.
“Put her in a $10,000 room and you make more.”
I ask him if any of the women have ever made a complaint. Camie answers: “Yes. When I first came here they said this and that, but I knew it was just because they were in love with him. Dennis is so lovely, he even lets us go outside. The door isn’t locked.”
The next day I hear on the radio that Nevada has the highest rates of domestic violence-related homicide in the US and that rape and sexual assault are rife.
Brian Kunzi is District Attorney for Nye County. He seems happy with legalisation. “In Vegas we have large numbers of johns being robbed and a huge spend on vice squads,” he says.
“In this county there is zero criminal activity coming out of the [brothels]. In Nevada it is a thing people accept. You are not having the girls beaten up. They are taken care of. The girls are the asset. You are going to take care of those assets.”
I ask Anthony DeMeo, Nye County Sheriff, if legalisation works. “It’s a business. It’s protected by law and it isn’t that different to McDonald’s.”
The next day we head up to Reno and Hof’s Moonlight Bunny Ranch, his showcase brothel and star of Cathouse. It is tucked behind an industrial park off a small highway in northern Nevada.
As with the other brothels, it looks like a compound from the outside. Inside it’s dark, plush and teeming with women in underwear and men in cowboy hats and boots.
Madonna is blasting from the sound system and the bell is constantly ringing, summoning the women to the line-up to meet each punter who walks through the door.
The women are required to join the line-up within 60 seconds or face a fine. They run to the reception, pulling clothes off or on. In Hof’s brothels the women are not allowed to smile, flick their hair or appear to be doing a “hard sell”, lest it be “unfair” to the competition.
The punters are ordinary-looking men, all ages, and in the main presentable enough to be able to pick up a woman in a normal bar.
Madame Suzette, who, I am told by a number of sources, can be cold and ruthless, runs the Bunny Ranch. Rumour has it that she once made one of her “girls” get back to work only minutes after she discovered that her mother had died.
We say goodbye to Hof and Camie and head to the Mustang Ranch, a compound set in 30 acres, with a sentry at the front. The Mustang Ranch and the Wild Horse opposite share a compound with a large car park inside a high-security fence with an electric gate. Truck drivers are a steady source of business.
The place is modelled on a prison, and the women used to be called inmates. Lance Gilman, a multimillionaire property dealer, owns both brothels. We are proudly shown around the ranch by Susan Austin, who was working as a prostitute when she met Gilman and he was a punter.
Women of all ages and ethnicities walk around in their underwear. The large reception room is full of stuffed deer and moose heads. By the pool in the outdoor area an electric-blue thong lies abandoned by an empty beer bottle and half-eaten burger.
“As soon as you legalise it turns the predators loose,” Gilman says. “You have to regulate. We have a stable of 1,000. If Susan didn’t run this place with an iron fist it would get out of control. You need to run this place with tough love.”
As with most other legal brothels, the women are not allowed out unless the manager gives them permission and they are accompanied by an assistant pimp. Many are not allowed their own cars and are required to work 14-hour shifts, 15 days in a row.
Outside, the beer and hot-dog tents are being set up in preparation for the bikers. “It’s a big weekend for us,” Austin says. “The ladies are gonna have sore coochies and they will be tired of smiling and tired of the roar of motorcycles, and I just told them ‘keep smiling, cos that means money’.”
We walk past Sindy, a very young-looking woman wearing little and looking vacant. Austin draws us in conspiratorially. “She’s actually a nine-year-old in an adult body. She will never be anything else,” she whispers.
“She’s been in foster home after foster home. Her boyfriend is in jail for child pornography. She’s been with him for ten years: she just turned 22.”
Austin tells the story as though she is running a home for abused children as opposed to a brothel. She tells us that the man who sold Sindy to the brothel is her boyfriend’s father, that Austin refused to send the cheques to him and is managing Sindy’s money for her.
“I called the girls to a meeting and told them, we’re raising a child but she’ll never grow up. When she parties, one of the girls will go and sit in the bathroom, to make sure the man doesn’t take advantage of her when he realises what he has.”
I ask why, if Sindy is learning disabled and vulnerable, Austin has put her on the game. She does not like my question. “She’s been having sex since she was really tiny,” Austin says.
“She loves sex. She’ll be nothing more than a sexual little girl. It’s very sad. I can’t let her go cos she’d be on the streets in Florida, so I’m stuck. I’ve got this little girl who’s a woman. So we’ve all made this pact that we’ll take care of her.”
While the PR surrounding legal prostitution in Nevada would have you believe that this is free-range and organic, it is closer to battery farming.
My conclusion, after spending a week observing it, is that in many ways legal brothel owners are given a licence to take in the most disenfranchised women in society and institutionalise them into an industry that will cause them further harm.
As we say goodbye to Austin, I hear a tiny voice behind me, asking: “Mamma Susan, can I go out please? I’ve done my 15 days.” It is Sindy. Austin tells her “no”. The bikers are on their way and it is lock-down at the Mustang Ranch.
Some names in this article have been changed.
Love for Sale will be broadcast on BBC Leeds at midday on November 17 - 92.4FM/95.3FM/DAB
This article appeared in today’s Times and has been reproduced in its entirety with permission from Julie Bindel.