There really isn’t anything that solicits such polarized reactions from people as talking about prostitution. Arguments extend on all sides, with conservative family value types waxing on the inherent “immoral” nature of the profession (these same folks are usually participating in the very thing they have built such a public platform against), feminist groups decrying it as an act of enslavement and rape, making claims that those who work in the profession are “entrapped by prostitution“ or “prostituted.” Media outlets often run a titillating spin on stories that either concentrate on either political scandals, Ashton and Demi type efforts, rescue scenarios, Julia Roberts-Pretty Woman type fantasies, or full on character assaults. The fact is, many people don’t really know anything about prostitution, much less other forms of sex work. Luckily, it’s something that author of Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women, Alexa Albert, witnesses by way of a simple public health study.
Albert, then a Harvard medical student running a public-health study, is looking to the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV and sexually transmitted diseases and comes across a statistic that changes her research. Since 1986, the dawn of HIV testing, no employee in any of Nevada’s brothels had tested positive for either HIV or any other STDs. The figures, which Alexa considers to be public health astonishment, leads her to tailor her research to the safe-sex practices of Nevada sex workers, particularly, the women at the Conforte-famed establishment, The Mustang Ranch. So what better way to fully immerse yourself in your research than to live intimately with those who want to participate?
After three years of unsuccessful attempts to talk to the women at Mustang, current owner George Flint invites Albert to live at the ranch for an extended amount of time. What follows is a relatively straightforward account (with honest descriptions of Albert’s own feelings, which range from confusion to disgust,to a deeper understanding) of the “everyday” of what can often seem so clouded in in stereotypes. While Albert still conducts her condom research every day (studying used condoms collected from 41 women in the house), her interest begins to grow in the lives of the women around her. At first, you can sense Albert’s naivety, even slight fear of the situation. She makes it clear that her only experience with prostitution was devastation, as she spent time a few years back working at an outreach center in the then seedy center of Times Square, where she worked with homeless, often underage prostitutes who had seen the worst of sexual and drug abuse, as well as multiple forms of violence. However, Albert is surprised to find an environment that defies her expectations. As time wears on, Albert befriends many of the women at the ranch, learning their own personal histories, as well as the many ins and outs of the legal sex trade. In a world where economic forces are combined with Nevada’s libertarian “do what will” local law enforcement, many of the women work in between worlds. On the one hand, there is the legal stigma of the profession, which although it allows the women to work, still confines them to their work compound for the majority of their time (several laws banned women from visiting bars after 9pm or from being a certain distance from their work place). Many government offices benefit from brothel tax money, yet still require a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that downplays brothels (as well as other lobbying industries like gambling, which create ways to flow the cash to their establishments). On the other hand, there is the social stigma of the profession, which keeps the women in total secrecy or confines them to being extra on guard with many of the relationships they enter. Then there is the one stigma that unites them all–the financial aspect, the one that everyone cites as the reason they got to do what they were doing in the first place. Money. It needs to be made.
It’s a system of both disadvantage and advantage, one that varies differently as each woman who works there. There’s Baby, one of the longest working and oldest women at Mustang, who views prostitution as enjoyable and takes pride in the work she does. Then there are other long-timers like Tanya, who have been worn down by the trade, expressing a serious distrust in johns, the brothel setup (in the case of the Mustang, the house takes half the women’s cut, plus room and board, food, HIV/STD testing, and splits tips between all women and other employees of the house), and anyone else who comes her way, especially Albert. There are women who have been manipulated into the industry or those who came because, financially, they had to (one interesting thing to note was that many of the women who took a job at the Mustang to make ends meet were in systematically low paying jobs like social work, nursing, or other care positions). There were those who got tired of the life they had, and others who had been doing it all their life. One story isn’t ever enough.
While Albert’s book may be one that just scratches at the surface, it also exists as evidence of certain truths. One, for all the public discussion on sex work, no one ever really seems to consult the people actually doing it. Second, like many things that people try to simplify or generalize, sex work is complicated. And third: sex work is not going to go anywhere anytime soon. But Brothel is also a complex portrait, and while ripe with the often green-behind-the-ears commentary of the author, who is still trying to undo many of her former perceptions about prostitution, it still looks at all the different aspects of the Mustang Ranches environment, whether through the women who provide sex for a living, or their supporting managers, floor maids, johns, and family members. One of the questions I often see asked in the reviews of this book is, does it make a case for legalized prostitution? Some argue yes, some argue no. Frankly, I don’t know what the answer is and don’t think it’s for me to answer. What I do think is that people deserve to make a choice. People deserve safety when they work. People deserve to not be raped. Words like”hooker” or “whore” shouldn’t be lobbed around carelessly like the absolute worst thing anyone can do is to have sex with someone for money. Families should not have to work so hard to find justice for their children. Sex work, like any other profession, is one that deserves to be respected. Sex work is complicated. Sex work is best spoken on by sex workers. Sex workers deserves support.
“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,” says Albert near the end of the book. It’s the one sentence of the book that rings truest to me. Even as Albert’s portrayal of the Mustang Ranch is one that delves into the multiple complications, benefits, and complexities of prostitution, it’s still just a mere glimpse by one person, one who has not actually been involved in sex work. This doesn’t mean that Brothel isn’t worth reading; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it has been one of the best books I’ve read in a while, as well as incredibly valuable in de-stigmatizing sex work. But it is still just one glimpse. A person can hope that it leads to more journalist and media members talking about it the way that recently interviewed Audacia Ray suggests:
“”¦spend more time shutting up and listening. That’s just a really, really important piece of this that there’s no shortcut to that understanding ““ you just have to listen, especially when you’re dealing with sexuality and with sex work. Personal shit comes up when people confront this stuff.It’s hard to filter out your personal stuff and really listen and accompany the person that you’re listening to through whatever they’re going through, rather than jumping in with either your solutions, or your ideas, or thinking about the ways that listening to this person’s story might be painful or triggering for you. And feminism has always been about people sharing their stories and all that kind of stuff. And that’s super-super important, but I think there is this thing that happens around sex work when people just don’t want to hear it- because this stuff is really hard, and like you said, there’s the fetishizing or the ““ oh, these poor women. And the truth is really somewhere in between ““ that it is just so much more complicated than empowerment or degradation. I feel like journalists especially want these answers to be small and simple. They’re asking questions based on assumptions, and they aren’t looking to rearrange their thoughts or their readers thoughts on the subject. But the answers aren’t simple.”
They aren’t. Brothel is about sex, sure, but its also about the economic market of sex, class, and desire, as well as the social whims of a culture that is quick to demonize instead of attempting to understand. The book raises more questions than answers,ultimately ending with the closing of the Mustang Ranch and Albert offering that she only intends to “”¦awaken readers to their [prostitutes’] humanity and bring this issue out of the realm of caricature and into that of serious debate.” We can all only hope that, as readers, we could do the same.