When I was a senior at St. Andrew’s Priory in Honolulu I was selected by my high school government class to spend a week at the Hawaii state capitol observing the legislature. My assignment was to select one bill under consideration, research it and follow it through the session. I chose the effort to legalize prostitution. At the time, Hawaii had a very active sex industry. My school was close to Hotel Street where the ladies of the night did business. The bill eventually died (I don’t recall whether it was in committee or if it actually got to the floor) and prostitution continues to be illegal in the 50th state, as it is in all states except Nevada.
Recently I revisited the subject of prostitution for a story I’m working on for HDNet World Report. What got the report off the ground was Senator Harry Reid’s speech before Nevada’s legislature on February 22 in which he called for “an adult conversation” about ending legalized prostitution throughout the state. Prostitution is already against the law in counties with more than 400,000 people, which includes Clark County (home of Las Vegas) and Washoe County (home of Reno.) Senator Reid said that Nevada would be more business friendly if the state finally eliminated legalized brothel prostitution from the rural counties as well. “Nevada needs to be known for innovation and investment,” Senator Reid said, “not as the last place where protitution is still legal.” As you can imagine, his comments have stirred up quite a pot.
The point of this blog is not to rehash the morality of the world’s oldest profession, nor is it to discuss the economic impact of brothels in the rural areas of the state, or make the case that legalized prostitution seems safer and smarter than its illegal cousin. The point of this blog is that this journey opened my eyes to the humanity of women who do this kind of work. Before I criss crossed Nevada visiting brothels I had a predictable response to prostitutes. They were messed up and misguided. Who could possibly do this kind of work? Why would anyone sell their body to a stranger unless they needed the money to finance a drug addiction? They must have a crushing amount of baggage that would lead them to this lifestyle. And, of course, many do. But the ladies we met in the rural and suburban brothels that dot the landscape were attractive, smart, friendly, savvy, confident and defied stereotypes. Most were not fallen women without other options. Many were educated and had goals in mind. They were wives and mothers. This was a means to a different end. And at least in the brothels, pursuing their careers as independent contractors, they were confident and satisfied. Now I’m certain the lives of women who do this illegally, on the streets, is much more dangerous and seedy. But in the safety of the legal brothels we found women who do this with class and dignity.
We met Asya at a small rural brothel called Donna’s Ranch in Wells, Nevada. She had been working illegally on the street for years with a pimp who eventually dumped her. Asya cried when she told us how painful that experience was. But she chose to better herself. She was sweet and chatty and enjoyed flirting with the truckers over the CB radio. She smiled and batted her enormous false eyelashes and said she loved her life. Asya was going to do this for two more years then wanted to start her own jazz bistro in her hometown of Houston. She said it would be “groovy.” Her friend, Simone, was a pretty blonde who had finally escaped the streets. She said she had so many arrests that she would be in prison if she was busted once more. She was happy here with a big huge laugh and strong opinions. She loved to help in the kitchen and fancied herself a good cook. She was saving to buy a house and was proud to be paying her taxes and contributing to social security. “I do my part,” she said.
At the Mustang Ranch outside of Reno we met Demi. “This is not my first passion, believe it or not,” she told us. Demi became a prostitute to get through college and now owns a fashion boutique with her mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her goal is to open one in Los Angeles. “This is a means to an end for me to create my own life.” Emily, stood out in a crowd. She had cascades of platinum blonde hair and a girly dress and once made $84,000 in a month. She was living with her grandmother and son in a car before she came here. “I have options. I just choose to do this as my option.” She loves her job and her enthusiasm was palpable. Both wanted me to know how empowered they felt and how proud they were to be Mustang girls.
Finally, at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Dayton, Nevada near Carson City, we met Paige and Brooke. Paige is a 19 year old, new to the business. She is studying nursing but hopes to become a physicians assistant instead. She had the body of an athlete and said she participated in all sports in school. She spent her free time trying to perfect pole dancing in the parlor and was very good at it and completely comfortable with the television camera. And then there was Brooke. She is a household name for her role in HBO’s series “Cathouse” and was featured in Hustler. She was beautiful, smart and articulate. We figured she has a career as a politician or lobbyist should she ever change course. She came here of her own accord. Wasn’t cutting it financially in Illinois working with adults with developmental disabilities and figured she would try something new. “I’m using my best asset that I have been given which is myself,” she proclaimed. Was this her long term career? “No. I think I’m more of a free spirit than that. When this is not enjoyable, when it’s not fulfilling, when the wind changes I’ll change with it. Right now this works for me. I’m having a good time, I’m making a good living, setting up a good future for myself, able to have the choice to do whatever I want. And how lucky am I turning 30 to be able to say that. Really.”
This was one of the most interesting immersions of my career and I came away from it with the realization that many of these women, at least in the legal brothels, are comfortable in their skin and see this as a career like any other. They are not ashamed and seem to have a good time and they are able to look at the men who come through their doors with compassion. Many prostitutes, believe it or not, go on to become nurses. It was an eye opening week for me. Each of these women made it clear to me they were doing this of their own volition. They were in charge of their lives. They were calling their own shots. You can meet these young women on HDNet World Report on April 12. See if they don’t make a big impression on you too.
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8 thoughts on “Prostitution in Perspective”
A thought-provoking post. Here, in the UK prostitution is legal but many of the activities associaited with it (such as soliciting) are not. Escort agencies operate in a semi-legal grey area (they are not supposed to offer sex, however, in reality it is well known that most, if not all escorts do provide sexual services).
It is now against the law for a person to pay for sex with a prostitute who has been forced into the sex industry irrespective of whether he was aware that the person in question had been coerced into the industry. This has lead some to claim that men who visit a prostitute and suspect she has been forced into prostitution will now, no longer report their suspicions because of fears that they will, themselves be arrested for having sex with a person who has been coerced into the sex industry.
This was sent to me in an email with permission to post.
I am not sure what time of year you made your ‘jaunt’.
During the summer, in days of yore, when I had a nodding acquaintance
with the places, you would find more than several teachers maximizing
their break, so they could afford to be teachers.
One anecdote from those times:
I used to go to NE Nevada to work on ranches during my summers. I
first visited those establishments that summer (16, which was legal
age for such ‘education’ in those days). My parents picked that time
to change high schools in CA.
One of my favorites turned out to be an English teacher at the new
school. We maintained a friendship – not sexual, for actually a few
years until she eventually married. Needless to say, we had some
good laughs and shared some ‘in’ jokes. I last saw her at my 20 year
high school reunion. She never regretted her life. She had a
goal…a PhD and college tenure…that she realized with her
earnings. An amazing and talented – in all respects – woman.
Maggie McNeill who writes the blog “The Honest Courtesan” and used to be a working girl and a madam had some very thoughtful comments on my post.
I read with interest your article “Prostitution in Perspective” in Huffington Post, and I was especially pleased at your admission that working with real prostitutes opened your eyes about us (I’m a retired prostitute who writes the blog linked in my signature below). I did have to wonder about one passage in your column, though; you stated “And at least in the brothels, pursuing their careers as independent contractors, they were confident and satisfied. Now I’m certain the lives of women who do this illegally, on the streets, is much more dangerousand seedy. But in the safety of the legal brothels we found women who do this with class and dignity.? This leads me to wonder if you believe that these are the only two options? The National Taskforce on Prostitution estimates that only about 15% of all prostitutes are streetwalkers, and the English and French Collectives of Prostitutes have similar estimates. Clearly, only a tiny percentage (let’s be generous and call it 5%) of American prostitutes are in Nevada brothels; that leaves 80% working off the streets in the rest of the U.S., unseen by the public until one of us is entrapped by police.
Over 60% of American prostitutes are independent escorts, working for themselves or through agencies, and Prince’s study in 1986 (quoted in “New Directions in Research on Prostitution” by Ronald Weitzer of George Washington University, Washington,DC) (http://www.bayswan.org/New_Directions_prost.pdf) found that 97% of California escorts surveyed reported an increase inself-esteem after they entered prostitution, compared with 50% of Nevada brothel workers and 8% of streetwalkers (Prince, 1986: 454). That study (page 497) also reported that the escorts saw their work positively, while the brothel girls were merely satisfied and streetwalkers were largely dissatisfied. What I’m saying is that if your views on prostitution were changed by talking to brothel girls, you really need to interview some independent escorts; I can put you in touch with quite a few of them if you’re interested.
The Honest Courtesan
Another comment to my blog post sent to me via email. Something I never considered.
Read you piece in the Huffington Post tonight. Here’s why prostitution is so hard to legitimize. Here’s the problem, which rarely gets addressed in either the pro or con angles on sex for money.
Many of the consenting adults who are Johns are cheating on a woman somewhere who is absolutely not consenting to the arrangement. For countless diads of consenting, respectful, respectable adults exchanging sex for money, there is a third party who is not being respected, by either the John or the sex worker.
If the sex worker is a feminist, a lover and advocate for her sisters, or someone who feels strongly that cheating is wrong, being party to the John’s cheating feels lousy. I’ve talked to some sex worker friends about this and they say they have to push feelings of moral responsibility aside. They wish the guys would be open with their partners, but understand the stigma of prostitution is a huge barrier. And, hey, the money is GREAT.
So very many of the normal guys who are Johns can’t speak out about how great prostitution is because they’re cheating. I really can’t see how sex work can ever be a respectable, legal business until the guys buying are doing so openly and with the full knowledge, if not support, of their female partners. Or, sex workers will only consent to do business with men who pass a lout test. What’s the likelihood of that?
Sex work may become legal. But moral, doubt it. You might consider doing a piece about women who feel fine about their partners patronizing sex workers. Perhaps their voices would shift the tide. They are truly the invisible minority.
Another thoughtful reply to my blog. This time from Melbourne, Australia.
I read your interesting and fair minded article on prostitution in Nevada. Despite being the oldest profession in the world, prostitution seems to me to be the least understood. One of the reasons is that many women dismiss men making a case for legal prostitution as male chauvinists wanting to use or abuse women. Very few women are aware of what you have found out in your recent reviews of brothels in Nevada: that many prostitutes are intelligent, decent and strong minded women.
In Australia, prostitution is legal and is therefore not generally linked with drugs or other criminal activity, except in the small red light districts where there are street walkers. Unfortunately, girls on drugs do still turn to street prostitution in these areas and attract very undesirable activities and characters.
But what of the men? Surely they are no-hopers, double dealing cheats? No doubt some are. But many, like me, are intelligent, decent and strong minded men. My wife has a physical condition making it extremely painful for her to have penetrative sex. This has persisted for some years (6 years now) and we are still seeking a cure. In the meantime I am faced with choices: abstinence, continual masturbation, an affair, or a detached professional and ‘safe’ relationship with a prostitute. The nearest to normality whilst preserving my marriage is the prostitute. Not just any prostitute or many prostitutes but as far as possible just the one. By the way, safe sex is in general better practiced by the prostitute in a decent, clean, well run brothel than by a passionate couple having an affair.
But now this strategy has almost come unstuck: I fell in love with the prostitute, Mika, a beautiful Japanese woman in her early 30s, family in Tokyo (and safe). She has just left the brothel to pursue a career in other spheres and gave me her email address. I find myself cast back to my teenage years trying to control my emotions. I have had to break it off with her.
So prostitution is not just comoditised sex, wham-bam-and-thank-you-mam, cheating men, abusive men or criminal. It is in many cases very compassionate and caring.
Vicky Collins, really enjoyed reading your work on “Prostitution in Perspective” i really wish to remain anonymous,but most people when they hear the name “Bonery” will know why im choosing this route. if it weren,t for my help in the last year 90% of the Ladies that work at Mustang Ranch,would be having a very hard time of it about now, and truefuly they are to some degree right now ! Without any type of advertisment ,to help bring in Customers..Most people have no idea of what is actually offered at Mustang Ranch, But if they took the time to ask before showing up at the gate,,maybe they would come as a couple.. Things ARE a changing !! nuff SAID ?
Thanks! for writing great blog for the Perspective of prostitution in Nevada !