In the dimly lit parlor, I wait for the doorbell announcing the next john. The disco ball throws colored light off the mirrored walls. Scantily clad blonds suck on cigarettes and chat about the cars they want to buy or their next boob jobs. Business is slow. The girls fidget, leafing through glossy magazines, as if were in the waiting room at the dentists. I'm the only one here who didn't get her nails done on Tuesday. Marta has fake red ones. Gina's are deep burgundy. They could be in a Lancôme ad at Nordstrom. There are no windows in here, and were not supposed to go outside. When the door opens, I gaze at the blinding rectangle of light and dream of roaming the Nevada desert gathering bundles of sage.
The bell rings, and I stagger into the line-up on stiletto heels. There are a few dark-haired women, a few with small breasts, but we're far outnumbered by triple-Ds and platinum blondes. Some of the women look at me funny because, when we're not in line-up, I read or do e-mail.
I've worked in this brothel for the last week. Like many women, I began working as a prostitute to help put myself through grad school. In San Francisco, the women on this same twofold track are a proud, independent breed: sex radical feminists who figured out that sex work could pay the rent and leave them time to pursue less lucrative careerslike writing, visual arts, or grad school.
I had been working several years before I packed my bags for the Nevada brothel. The inspiration for this trip came from an acquaintance who made $10,000 in only two weeks. I was sold. Plus I didn't have to worry about being busted.
San Francisco has a long history of lenience toward sex work. The current district attorney has a policy of not prosecuting prostitutes, but this doesnt always keep the cops at bay. In 1998 I was naked in bed with a client when a cop burst through the door and pointed a gun at my head. The feminist slogan Get your laws off my body has never felt more real.
I was one of thousands arrested in this crackdown. Many, like me, were middle-class whores, working independently out of our own homes. We each received an official-looking letter detailing our options: Fork over $1,000 cash or face charges. I didnt pay, but charges were dropped. It was a scam. The vice squad lined their pockets with cash extorted from whores, and the press skirted the issue, aside from a couple articles in a local weekly (Huang Wages; Policing).
These jarring events didnt stop me from whoring but sent me in search of legal alternatives. Here in this Nevada house, the threat of arrest is lifted, so I can shed the precautions and inhibitions I wear like a second skin.Suddenly I can talk about sex and money in the same breath without worrying whether a prospective client is a vice cop hiding a microphone. This legitimacy is a relief, but it comes at the expense of certain freedoms.
The brothel is saturated with rules and regulations. In San Francisco, before the cop aimed a gun at my head, I had worked under a diffuse but constant threat of arrest. In this legal but tightly controlled laboratory, intimidation tactics are more direct.Ive been registered with the police, photographed, fingerprinted, and surveyed.
I fly into the Reno airport and meet the "runner" who will drive me to the brothela swaggering, poker-faced local named Stan. Stan doesn't talk much. Jogging beside him to the van, I ask if we can stop and pick up some Baby Wipes, antibacterial soap, and paper towels. "We'll take care of all that," he says. "But first, we're goin to the doctor's."
The madam had told me over the phone that as soon as my plane landed, I'd go straight to the doctor's, and it would cost $85. Stan pulls into the parking lot of a building that says "Fast Medical Clinic"the McDonald's of health care. I fill out paperwork with my name, address, birth date, person to contact in case of emergency, place of employment, and, of course, occupation. I've completed forms like this for numerous jobs, but this is the first time I've written "prostitute on a job application. I spend a good ten minutes agonizing over which of my friends would be least fazed by a phone call from a legal brothel saying that I'm hospitalized or dead.
Once I turn in the paperwork, the nurse takes me into a private room and draws my blood. Under Nevada state law, I have to test negative for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV before I can register with the county sheriff and get my work permit. After the blood draw, I have the world's fastest and most painless gynecological exam.A man enters the room, deftly inserts a plastic speculum in my vagina, glances around inside and says, "Thank you, ma'am." He leaves the room without ever having made eye contact, and I hardly feel a thing.
The brothel is on a ranch in rural Nevada. In 1971 Nevada legalized prostitution in rural counties with populations of fewer than 200,000and only within state-licensed brothels. As Wendy Chapkis observes, no woman can work legally without agreeing to share her income with a state-licensed pimp (162). Prostitution remains illegal in the counties housing Nevadas main citiesReno, Las Vegas, Carson City, and Lake Tahoe. City governments fear that too much tolerance of whoring might scare away tourists and detract from their main business, which is gambling (Congressional 516). Still, the women who work illegally in the cities far outnumber the brothel-workers in the sticks.
The ranch looks like a large trailer home with a fence around it and a few cows lowing in the backyard. The front door opens onto the parlor. When a client steps inside, the girls scurry into line-up, and the madam introduces us one-by-one. Most clients are too overwhelmed to choose right away and head for the bar at the opposite wall. To the left of the bar, a long hallway leads to the girls' rooms, where we sleep and turn tricks. The rooms are like any cheap motel rooms except for an emergency button and intercom systemso the women at the front desk can hear what's going on. As I fill out my paperwork, the madam barrels down the hall belting: "Somebody's in trouble!" It turns out one of the new girls pressed the emergency button thinking she could order drinks that way.
I feel somewhat protected herebut at what price? I am forbidden to work outside the brothel. I have to abide by their rules and give them half my pay. It doesn't feel that different from the classic trade-off, where "good girls" give up their sexual freedom in hope of protection from sexual violence.
Of course, the laws regarding prostitution are not primarily intended to protect whores. The fact that we can only work in state-licensed houses keeps the brothel owners in business and protects the neighbors from whores running loose in their streets and backyards (Chapkis 155). State regulations benefit everyone but the working girl. (This is why most politicized whores want prostitution decriminalized, as it is in Amsterdam, but not legalized, as it is in Nevada.) Meanwhile, the brothels pay up to seventy percent of the county's property taxes, hence the friendly relations between the bordellos and their neighbors. I had no problem getting directions to the nearby brothel from a cheery housewife watering her garden. Try asking the locals on the streets of San Francisco the way to the nearest whorehouse, and you'll see how unusual this is.
But the neighbors friendliness is the benign face of surveillance. At 9:00 the next morning, Stan drives me to the sheriff's office, where I must present my test results to get a work permit. The secretary looks downright grandmotherly, but she does not take her job lightly. She orders me to stand on one yellow line while she photographs me, then another yellow line while she takes my fingerprints. The fingerprinting turns out to be a difficult procedure. She insists on having total control of my handwhich she stretches out so far that I repeatedly stumble across the yellow line. "Don't cross the yellow line!" she barks anxiously, as if I'm a dangerously confused teenager behind the wheel for the first time. After fingerprinting each thumb, finger, and all four fingers together on each hand, she checks me for identifying birthmarks, scars, and tattoos, as if there were a high probability that I would escape from prison or that she'd have to identify my mangled body. By the time she finishes, I feel like I've just been through an "arrest drill" for hookers.
Upon my return, the madam introduces me to Starlet, who will train me in the ways of brothel life. There's something very prudish and schoolmarmish about her, despite her see-through red dress and platinum hair. She opens a thick black binder and starts reading me the "house rules" one by one.
"All new girls work from 8am to 8pm. You can stay in your room if you want, but as soon as the bell rings, you have to be up in the parlor and ready to go.
"Never answer the door yourself. You'll be fined $100 each time you do. When the bell rings, you get in line with the other girls, and the greeter will answer the door and introduce you to the customer. You aren't allowed to talk to the customer while you're in line. That's called 'dirty hustling.' Some girls do it, but you're not supposed to.
"Sometimes the customer picks someone right away, but most times they don't. They're too intimidated by all the girls, so they head straight to the bar.
"You aren't allowed to speak to a customer before he's ordered his drink. Once he's ordered his drink, you can come on to him all you want. Just don't butt in while another girl's talking to him. That's 'dirty hustling' too, although lots of the girls do it.
"Never talk prices on the floor. When a guy's interested in you and wants to know your price, take him to your room. This is a classy joint: We don't talk in the parlor about what we do and how much it costs."
Although it's perfectly legal to exchange sex for money here, it's not polite to talk about it. Politeness, delicacy, and "class," in the sense of etiquette and "good taste" replace the legal prohibitions against whoring. I still can't talk about sex and money in the same breath except behind closed doorshiding the raw economic relationship where Im working him for money, and he's paying me for sex.
The women who work here weren't forced into prostitution by poverty or drug addiction. They chose whoring over straight work largely because they found that prostitution was less exploitative and more lucrative than many straight jobs. Most come from middle class backgrounds, like me. Some are students or have graduate degrees. But as I talk to them, I find theyre much more conventional than the whores I know in San Francisco. They remind me of girls I knew in high school. In their company, I feel like the odd-girl-out. A mismatched patchwork of tomboy-nerd-perviness, I never quite fit together and certainly wasnt anyones idea of what a girl should be. I imagine the girls in the brothel fit in. Long ago Id given up trying.
But realistically Im sure these women dont think they fit in either. The main difference between us is that I live in San Franciscoa culture more tolerant of sex work and sex in all its varieties. The oldest profession has flourished here since the Gold Rush, when whores worldwide set sail for the all-male boomtown by the Bay (Asbury 34ff). In San Francisco I can be a tomboy-nerd-prostitute. Its more acceptable to be sexually weird.
San Francisco attracts a fundamentally different kind of whore than the Nevada brothel. Since the glory days of the Barbary Coast, the city has lured mavericks of all sorts, including sex radicals who transgress many constraints on sexual freedom, sometimes including the laws against prostitution (Queen, Real 182-3). It is perhaps easier to live openly as a sex radical in San Francisco, where the sexual underground is more mainstream. The demi-monde is the main monde.
As a result, Ive had more leeway and encouragement to try this kind of work than most women in the Nevada brothel. I talk about my work with friends who are whores. Although Im not out publicly or to my family, I can tell most of my friends what I do. My partner has experience dealing with the issues that can come up: He has had other relationships with prostitutes and has done sex work himself. When I was busted, I wasnt horribly ashamed or scared of people finding out. This had a lot to do with my environment. Im not especially brave. If I lived in Oklahoma, Kansas, or even New York City, would I tell my friends I was a whore? I might be like the sex workers Kirsten Pullen interviews in Madison, Wisconsin: [T]hey know they dont have the social power to flaunt their whore status without serious repercussions on both self-image and public reputation (209).
For those with the temperament to enjoy the work, prostitution makes a lot of sense; it saves the creative and adventurous from nine-to-five tedium, offers good money and flexible hours, and allows one to go to school or to pursue other projects one simply wouldn't have the time or money for otherwise. San Francisco is known for its bright, witty whores. Like the Nevada brothels, we're a tourist attraction, and we provide a service that will always be in demand.
The Nevada brothel workers are a different breed. There are bright, witty whores here too, but most are less invested in sexual freedom. Hence they don't mind the highly regulated brothel system. Unlike some of the radical whores in San Francisco, many Nevada girls are more concerned with "class" in the sense of upwardly mobile pretensions and refined aesthetic taste. The legalized brothel system reproduces middle-class values, such as the expectation of privacy around sex.The whores are confined to the brothel while working, and, even in the brothel, they aren't supposed to talk about sex in the parlor, because it's "bad taste."
In short, "classiness" eclipses class-consciousness. It's not that I think all whores should read Marx and analyze class conflict, but I like to see some effort at solidarity. One of the friendlier women mentions, Im here to work, not make friends. I feel the absence of womens solidarity more acutely because lesbian and bisexual women are in short supply.
I comfort myself by enjoying occasional glimpses of queer cultureunintentional drag shows by the porn stars, who dress like Liberace and wag their tits at the camera. One of the platinum blondes, Candy Curvature, dresses like a petite hourglass-shaped Elvis impersonator: white polyester pantsuits, fringe skirts made of fluorescent green latex, and stilettos that light up red and green in the black light of the parlor. Her bedroom eyes droop under mounds of sparkly gold glitter paint and false eyelashes.
She notices me quickly averting my eyes and starts flirting with me. The main problem with cruising these girls is that they're hypersensitive to being cruised, and most of them aren't lesbian or bisexualjust panseductive. As I unwrap my Quaker granola bar, the sweet strawberry smell wafts over to Candy, who coos, Oooh, I want... She never has to complete a request before the basking addressee (me, in this case) simply places the item in her hand like a mechanical doll. Thank you, she mouths sensuallybefore I even realize shes taken most of my lunchand plants a kiss on my cheek in slow motion. When I come to, I wonder why she worked me as if I were a straight guy. It's not like I could give her anything she'd want, not even an expensive dinner. So much for sisterhood.
Candy's not malicious, but shes so used to seducing men for money that she can hustle a granola bar from a coworker without realizing it. Sex work does not typically turn people into hustlers on autopilot. The work affects everyone differently. Yet Candys granola bar seduction highlights one commonality that most women sex workers share.They perform some form of feminine seduction or heterosexual mating ritual for economic gain. As Eva Pendleton writes:
Following Judith Butlers interpretation of J.L. Austin, Pendleton emphasizes the performative character of sex work. In Austins speech act theory, a performative utterance does not state the truth about a preexisting situation. Rather the performative produces that which it names (Butler 13, 244). In Austins example, the words I do in a wedding ceremony bring about a contractual relationship (marriage) which did not exist prior to this utterance.Similarly, a strippers seductive dance on a customers lap does not reflect the truth of a preexisting situation.It does not express her love or desire for the client, or a truth about her sexuality. (She may identify as lesbian.) But the lap dance produces the heteronormative dynamic that it enacts. Like a movie actor, the sex worker makes an artificial situation look natural, so the customer can (in some cases) forget hes paying and believe the dancer really desires him. Unlike clothing, which a person can put on or take off at will, the performance transforms the performer. In Candys case, the endless repetition of heteronormative acts for money had become so engrained that she sometimes treated coworkers like customers.
Pendleton argues that sex workers performance of heterosexuality for money queers heterosexuality: Using femininity as an economic tool exposes its constructedness, because selling sex isnt natural or normative (79).But while these performances show that heterosexuality is constructed and perhaps queer in theory, most whores at the brothel identify as straight and refuse to have girl-on-girl sex, even for pay.
The first time a client chooses me from the line-up, Starlet comes into the room with us. She's only there for the beginningto teach me how to do "dick check." That's when I check the client's penis for visible symptoms of STD's. Once "John" and I decide on a price for a blowjob and intercourse, Starlet spreads a towel on the bed and asks John to drop his trousers. As he pulls down his pants and boxers, his erect cock springs up like a flagpole. Starlet puts on a latex glove and squeezes the tip of his cock, which eagerly emits a clear droplet.
"What you're looking for," she turns to me, "is anything greenish whitethat's gonorrheaor any blisters or sores on the skin."She peels off the glove. "It's that simple. Now he can put his pants back on, and you take him to the cashier in the hallway, so he can pay."
"Wait a second... How much would it cost for the two of you?" asks John.
"I don't do doubles," Starlet says in her crisp professional voice. "But if she's ok with a two girl party, I'll take you out into the parlor and introduce you to another girl who does that." The client declines.
After the session, Starlet tells me about "two girl parties": "Some of the girls like it because you can make more money. There are more things the three of you can do together. Most of the girls, she says pointedly, just fake it."
Shes defending "two girl parties" by saying I can make money without actually having to engage in lesbian sex. She repeats that I shouldn't feel this is something I have to do. This shocks me. It's never even occurred to me that some women would rather have sex with a client than with another working girl. I've always preferred "doubles"the threesome between a client and two girls. Frequently I get to work with a friend, and there's camaraderie in turning a trick together. In San Francisco even the "straight" whores I know will do other women for pay. Once again, this brothel reproduces some of the most depressing constraints around sexuality.
Ultimately, this isn't surprising, since most of the sex industry caters to people who are straight, or at least pretending to be. But there I waspresuming all whores were willing to participate in bisexual activity. I'd been a whore all these years and had never come upon the stereotypical "straight girl" prostitute who can only talk about hair and nails.
The brothel customers also seem straighter. They expect more conventional sex and gender roles than my San Francisco clientele. I perform relatively conventional heterosexual dynamics with most of my San Francisco clients, but over the years Ive come to specialize in clients who want something outside the norm. They want to be spanked, flogged, fucked with a strap-on, tied up, dressed in lingerie, peed on, or even, in the case of my naughty nephew, beaten with wooden spoons, cutting boards, and other wooden kitchen implements. These clients dont mind that Im not flawlessly feminine. They appreciate my queerness, which reassures them Ill be more open to their kinks. With them I perform a wider repertoire of sex and gender scripts.
Although I still work for money, my kinky clients are especially rewarding. In some cases, wives or girlfriends have rejected them because of their kinks. Some have never acted on their deepest desires and cant get them met anywhere else. Its gratifying to give someone permission and assure him hes all right.He doesnt have to be ashamed.
At the brothel most of the women Ive met say they never enjoy sex with clients.They only do it to make money. When Alexa Albert surveyed women at the Mustang Ranch, 70 percent admitted in private to having orgasms with customers (137). In the company of their colleagues, the women spoke differently: Working girls should never enjoy sex with a customer. You save that for your man. Some workers told stories about how pimps had trained them not to get aroused.In one case, a pimp spent months watching the woman have sex with his friends (Albert 134).This difference between what whores say and what they experience underscores the conservative framework of prostitution; even in the sex industry, many women cannot own up to their own sexual pleasure, fearing it marks them as deviant.
Although I began whoring for money, I would stop if I didnt like it. Ive certainly faked orgasms in my work and in my life. But I try to get turned on with clients and have orgasms whenever I can. I figure that whatever I do for a living, I might as well enjoy it as much as possible.
The sex is not what I like most about the work. Ive certainly had better sex with people I love. But, although sex work is risky and sometimes irritating, Ive also experienced it as a callingin moments of magical intimacy with strangers. Im not just talking about having chemistry with particular clients. Through sex work, Ive found that being able to connect with someone doesnt just depend on a mysterious chemistry. It involves a set of practices one can learn. Although I cant claim to manage a clients transference and my own countertransference in the way MFCCs learn in training, sex work has taught me a lot about my own projections. For instance, Ive learned to recognize and set aside my preconceptions and biases as much as possible (at least for the time of the session), so I can be open to whoever walks through the door. This doesnt mean Ill do anything the client asks, but I try to forget my judgments about what Wall Street brokers are like, so, if the client is a Wall Street broker, my projections dont get in the way. I can pay closer attention to whats happening in the moment.
These practices have allowed me to have heartfelt interactions with people I would never have thought I could relate to. Ive become friends with a few of my clients. But sex work has also taught me that I can have these kinds of interactions without becoming attached.
As a result I dont think it makes sense to classify sex as casual. Sex can be careless or focused and attentive. In this sense, a brief encounter can be more intimate than rote sex between long-term partners who are just going through the motions. Some of the practices I learned through sex work have improved my sex life and personal relationships significantly. They have made me more aware of my projections and made it easier for me to find my way back to intimacy with a partner when weve grown distant or quarreled.
Some women who work at the brothel for a long time develop friendships with their regular customers. But from my viewpoint, the brothels hustle-bustle environment works against this kind of closeness. The emphasis here is on rapid turnover, one client after another. The workers call their clients customers and negotiate different prices for different activities. This terminology is modeled on strip clubs. The self-employed whores I know in San Francisco charge their clients hourly ratesa terminology modeled on therapy.
My week in the brothel has shown me how thoroughly my assumptions about sex workers were based on a few exquisitely rare cultures in San Francisco. I had somehow acquired an irrational faith that all middle-class sex workers would be radical activists, committed to fighting for sexual freedom everywhere. I'd imagined that whores automatically flouted the bourgeois expectations of privacy around sex. Then I ran into mainstream America head-on in a Nevada brothel.From what I've seen, legalized prostitution is extremely confining. In some brothels the girls can't leave the premises, but we can ask for time off when we need it. After three days indoors, I go for a walk in rural Nevada. A few motorcycle bars around, some houses, not much else. The wide-open spaces don't ease my sense of confinement. I wonder why this whole experience feels so familiar. On the plane out of Reno I realize it reminds me, strangely, of visiting my parents.
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