Nevada Rose is the first book of its kind: a comprehensive survey of all Nevada's legal brothels, sprawled throughout quaint desert towns. Photographer Marc McAndrews spent six years traveling between New York and Nevada, shooting 4x5 film with a tripod, documenting the environments of brothel life (sex workers, bedrooms, gyms, chefs, bars, regional typica, personal ephemera) and the inescapable bureaucracy of basic business (desks, schedules, clocks). The book features an interview with Dennis Hof, a glossary of brothel sex terms and an essay by Patty Kelly, feminist anthropologist and author. Kelly's essay Among the Last Honest Places in America identifies the particular tension in the American brothel's cultural symbolism: "...free market ideals suggest everything has a price, yet our Puritan heritage equates sex with sin." McAndrews's work goes beyond such residual tension, showing us the complex and the mundane within a stigmatized profession. Nevada Rose exposes the human presence, psychology and isolation of the All American Brothel.
Nevada Rose is McAndrew's first monograph, published by Umbrage Editions in May 2011. In conjunction with the book launch, Umbrage Gallery will exhibit a selection of McAndrews' work, curated by Jon Feinstein, from May 12 through June 30th. Opening reception for the show and book is tonight, May 12 at Umbrage Gallery, after-party to follow.
Marc McAndrews made time to thoroughly discuss with me the arc of this project, as well as the more nuanced aspects of brothel culture. What follows is an edited interview completed in April 2011.
Patricia: When I hear the word brothel, I immediately imagine creaky floorboards in suites above a loud saloon, with double doors swaying slowly in the heat of noon. Applejack stench everywhere.
Marc: The type of brothel you’re describing is closer to what exists in what are considered 'country brothels'. Those that are further out into the desert and exclude the brothels in the Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City vicinities. I can think of a few houses, that specifically that had this type of atmosphere without any irony or pretension. Up until about 2 years ago, there was a brothel on “The Line” (the section of town where various brothels were located in Winnemucca) called the Pussycat Saloon. On slow nights in the summer I’d often see some of the working women sitting out front on the wooden porch waiting for customers.
The Line was mainly a place where locals, truckers and various transients hung out drinking on the weekends with a handful of ‘working girls’ milling around or sitting at the bars. While quite rare, there have been a few times, on crowded nights at various Nevada brothels where I’ve witnessed almost stereotypical, old west drunken brawls with the participants literally being thrown out the front door. In Ely, the Big 4 and Stardust had a similar atmosphere with the patrons rarely giving their real names, opting instead for local monikers. Nevada is also an open carry state so there are many brothels where the bartenders wear holstered pistols and patrons will check their weapons at the bar much like a coat check. The various city houses outside of Carson City, Reno and Pahrump have a more updated, modern approach with their décor, but it’s easy to imagine similar scenes before their recent renovations.
Patricia: Speaking of renovations, has the presence of brothels affected zoning/agriculture/farming? Are other businesses affected by a proximity to brothels?
Marc: I can’t really say how the existence of legal prostitution in certain areas has affected the overall business climate and I don’t know what studies have been done on that. But I can talk about what I see surrounding the brothels. In smaller towns like Ely, Elko, Battle Mountain—the brothels are located in residential parts of the town. When I first arrived in Elko, I saw kids playing in front of brothels, riding their bikes and chasing each other.
There are also several brothels that are literally, in the middle of nowhere. For instance, The Shady Lady Ranch in Scotty’s Junction is literally, a junction where Highway 95 and State Road 267 which comes out of Death Valley. Many are located in Industrial Parks or in the industrial part of town. Outside of Reno, The Mustang Ranch and the Wild Horse Spa and Resort share the same property as a pet food mill. Most of the land in Nevada (it was quoted at one point as being over 75%) is owned by the Nevada BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and people can easily stake claims.
Harry Reid recently tried to bring up the prostitution issue at a state congressional meeting, but the lack of response, from Republicans and Democrats alike, hinted at the general feeling about prostitution in Nevada. Reid’s swipe at the brothel industry was also widely viewed as an attempt at retaliation after almost of the counties where prostitution is legal voted for his competitor Sharon Angle.
Patricia: After the photograph of Lucite shoes, how did it become easier to slowly, meet every brothel owner and record a piece of each house?
Marc: Getting that first shot was the hardest. I was extremely nervous and uncomfortable at the first few brothels I approached so, understandably, they didn’t let me photograph in the houses. Eventually I ended up out in Elko at Mona’s Ranch. Mona’s was the first place that allowed me to photograph a few of the women and interior shots. Being able to make those initial images (successful images, in my opinion) really put me at ease and helped me feel comfortable in what I was doing. They became my key to getting into other houses. However, even with a growing body of work it still took me 5 years to finally photograph all of the houses.
Patricia: So, 'all the houses' in your book are really all the legal brothels in Nevada?
Marc: These are all of the legal brothels in Nevada. Right now, 11 counties have legalized prostitution and one county has no laws regarding prostitution at all. Legal specifics and fees vary from county to county. At the moment, only 8 counties have brothels in them. Over the course of the project some brothels opened and some closed. Nevada Rose encompasses 33 individual brothels, which is every one that was open during my time there.
Patricia: Nevada Rose is as dignified as it is radical. What do you think most pleased your sitters in becoming part of your project?
Marc: A big part of it was flattering the ego. This isn’t meant in a derisive way, it’s a pretty basic human trait (me doing this interview, for instance). Everybody likes to be paid attention to, be put up on a small pedestal every now and then. Every person I photographed would get a signed Polaroid in exchange for letting me take their portrait and often times, they would immediately take these Polaroids out to the parlor area and show off their picture.
There were also many women, customers and owners I never photographed who personally made calls—to other houses and women they knew—to help me gain access around the state. I can only guess, but it’s my belief that as the project progressed and people saw the breadth of the work, they began seeing it as a historical document they believed in and wanted to be a part of.
Patricia: Why do you as a photographer think legalizing prostitution is such a hot button for American politics?
Marc: I don’t think it’s a “hot button” issue. It’s more of a non-issue. Except for a few brief flurries when certain types of people get all up in arms and denounce the practice, people generally don’t talk about it. The criminalization of sex-for-sale by two consenting adults has successfully moved the trade into the shadows and I think people are happy with that. Unfortunately, the present system of 'out of sight, out of mind' opens the door for the exploitation and trafficking of women.
That puts many vulnerable women in the position of potentially becoming sex slaves; hidden from any type of regulation and from the police. It's naïve to think prostitution can be legislated out of existence. In many countries, prostitution is punishable by death and yet, even with such a deterrent, prostitution persists. I don’t know if the present system is the perfect answer, but in places where it’s been legalized, it has significantly reduced the victimization and exploitation of women by illegal pimps. It has reduced the market, which has proven to be historically resilient over thousands of years even in the face of prosecution, for their services.
As far as why Americans are so closeted and uncomfortable with the topic of sex, I think a lot of it has to do with the Puritanical foundation of the country and subsequent view of sex for pleasure as sinful or bad. There’s also a common association of street prostitution as being fully representative of all types of ‘sex for money’ transactions. I know it’s a cliché correlation, but look at the structure of a “traditional” romantic date in our society. There’s the frequently asked question (at least asked by those who have pre-marital sex, which I think is safe to say is the majority of Americans, whether they admit it or not…) of “how many dates is appropriate before it’s ok to sleep with someone”.
Again, taking into consideration the “traditional” date where the man pays and add in the more unemotional, cerebral negotiation of “when is it ok, has he ‘courted’ me enough?”, the traditional date appears to be not much different from prostitution. Whether the ultimate goal is finding a potential mate or finding an orgasm doesn’t matter: the process is the same. Brothel sex at least gives one the assurance that there haven’t been any documented cases of HIV in a working legal prostitute since testing began in 1986.
Patricia: What did you see or hear that is empowering to the sex workers as they perform agreements of commodified sexual fantasy? I'm curious if women really want to exploit men (as the Dennis Hof claims) or if women treat it as a job and couldn't care less who is exploiting who, because maybe, maybe in the end, there can be no capitalism without exploitation anyway.
Marc: I can’t say there’s an overall feeling or sense of empowerment among women. I do know of a few women who have ‘straight’ jobs or ‘regular’ employment in the towns where they live, but get off on the idea of being a prostitute or on the idea of being objectified and desired to the point of being paid. However, those examples are more about someone internally accepting their personal kink; or someone personally feeling empowered by accepting themselves sexually as opposed to feeling empowered through the interaction with the customer.
I don’t think the term “exploit” is a good word choice to describe the situation. It’s a choice for the men to be there and they are there of their own free will. They’re fully aware of at least the general idea of what takes place in a brothel. It’s my experience talking with the women, many view their job like most people view their jobs—it’s work. They go in, work their shift, clock in and clock out. They may not necessarily enjoy it, but how many people truly, whole-heartedly love their jobs? Most labor jobs are physically demanding and have adverse effects on the body. After many years on the job, some jobs are so dangerous that they can potentially result in physical disability. The only difference with a brothel worker is society’s relationship with sex and the demoninzation in general of sex workers.
Patricia: So, what do you think legal brothels Nevada reflect about American attitudes towards sex?
Marc: Brothels are regulated in ways attempting at secrecy, tucked away. Yet, everyone knows where they are and, as evidenced by the deafening silence in the room as Harry Reid floated a proposal to ban prostitution in Nevada, the local communities are generally supportive of the practice. It’s safe to say that there’s an amazingly wide range of sexual tastes in the general population and the brothels satisfy many of those tastes. There are many men who visit the brothels with various needs they don’t feel comfortable asking their wives about. It might be easier for a ranch hand to go to a brothel and ask an anonymous woman for anal play as opposed to asking his wife.
I’d say the best way to describe the American attitude towards sex is ‘conflicted’. It seems the most vocal opponents of “immoral” sexual practices, be it homosexuality or BDSM, are often the very ones who are caught practicing it in their private lives. Jimmy Swaggert and his prostitute; Ted Haggard and his male prostitute meth dealer; Mark Foley and his pages; George Rekers and his Rentboy.com luggage carrier: they pop up in groups every few years. To be fair—outside of meth, adultery and underage pages—a lot of what these people have done is really not that bad. What makes it bad is their own personal relationship to their sexuality. I find the moralizing self-deception the most curious part of it all. If George Rekers gets off on a random person hired through Rentboy.com carrying his luggage and then giving him nude massages after, there’s really no reason why it should bother anybody. But what’s fascinating, and troubling, is why Rekers undertook a years long anti-gay crusade that was completely unnecessary.
Patricia: I really like what you said, "moralizing self-deception'. I think self-deception comes from the deep shame that is really society's greatest weapon. To shame someone and humiliate a person or group into thinking they are lesser, less equal, different. How accepting are Nevada brothels of homosexual and/or queer clients?
Marc: My second to last trip out to the brothels was actually very eye-opening in terms of how the brothels functioned for homosexual men and women. I wasn’t aware of a woman booking a party, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t ever happen. There are many parties at brothels involving couples and multiple people, which could be construed as catering to the lesbian community. I’ve seen many women in the bar areas drinking and interacting with the sex workers in the same way as many male customers do, but I don't know if they were there to party with women or just having a drink. It’s my thought that—given the conservative nature of the areas where the brothels are located—if a woman does book, they’re much more discreet about it compared to when a man books a party.
Many of the brothels in the smaller towns also function as clandestine gay bars. One night I was hanging out at the bar in one of the brothels and it had many of the same types of people I’ve seen at the other houses. I noticed the women not really paying any attention to men at the bar, so I asked them about it the next day. They explained that the men hanging out and drinking were all gay. By the very nature of their business, brothels are a “safe” place. Men can go there and sexually be however they want. This doesn’t mean that the men are there soliciting or flirting with each other, it’s not a pick up spot, but merely a place where people can go and drink without fear of harassment.
Patricia: Some of your interior photographs show rooms as re-constructions of domestic space: the wood paneling, the home comforts. What do you think about these domesticated constructions of space? What emotions besides comfort and familiarity do you think these constructs assuage?
Marc: Most brothels create a space where the customer base feels comfortable and will want to return to. When discussing Nevada brothels, there must be a differentiation between country and city brothels. City brothels are those found closest to Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City. These houses are usually a mix of bar and brothel, some city houses even have nice restaurants that the local population will eat at just for the food. (In Reno, NV the local chapter of The Red Hat Society hosts their lunch meetings at the Wild Horse Spa and Resort.) Most of the brothels are what's considered to be 'country houses' which are more homey and less glitzy. These are either bars/brothels or parlor houses where no alcohol is served. In these places, it’s not about the “Fantasy” that the houses try to deliver, it’s about feeling at ease and creating a welcoming space.
Patricia: Rules of the workplace: dress requirements. Let's talk uniforms...
Marc:There aren’t many rules about dress requirements except, one can not be naked in the parlor. Before working on this book, I would have imagined the women always out in the skimpiest outfits possible, but it’s often the opposite. Many women hangout in the parlor in full-length dresses or in very conservative outfits. By dressing in a way society would deem classy, it’s a way of standing out from many of the other women who dress in skimpier outfits.
There are unofficial rules regulating “Dirty Hustling”. A Dirty Hustle is essentially any act of dishonesty regarding a customer. There isn’t one specific type of Dirty Hustle, every house and group of women have their own rules. Some examples: a woman is talking with a potential customer and another woman comes over uninvited—that’s a Dirty Hustle. In Line-Up, a woman fixes her skirt or her bra, moves too much, or does something to draw more attention to herself—that’s a Dirty Hustle. If a woman is giving too much away in the bar or parlor, in terms of touching or fondling—Dirty Hustle. There is rarely an actual penalty for Dirty Hustling, however, life can be made difficult by the other women for a colleague who repeatedly offends.
Patricia: Is there a brothel life financial success story you can share?
Marc: I’ve known a number of women who have made significant sums of money, invested wisely and have moved on to other things. I’ve also met a number of women who have put themselves through college by working at the brothels, one in particular put herself through medical school. Many of the women working in the brothels are wives and mothers with the same responsibilities other wives and mothers have. Kids need clothes and school supplies need to be bought. Food needs to be in the fridge, bills need to be paid and retirement needs to be thought about. I won’t point to one particular woman and say that she’s the “American Rags to Riches” story, but there are many women who have built solid, stable lives for themselves by working as legal prostitutes.
What’s really been eye opening to me is the sheer number of people, either prostitutes or customers, who are involved in the legal sex trade. I know a high school math teacher who works as a legal prostitute on summer break and teaches math during the school year. I’ve met successful men from all parts of the country who come in on a regular basis, for either some specific desire or just because they enjoy the company of a specific woman. Many women have found the brothels a safe space to work. Mainly in the country houses, there are many (not all, but many) women who used to work what they refer to as “the track”—which is the street.
Patricia: Are there hierarchies based on beauty, sales, seniority? What stood out to you about brothel structure?
Marc: There is a hierarchy, one mostly based on seniority and experience but sometimes sales play into the equation. In the brothels, the owner is at the top. The structure under that depends on the brothel size and number of women in the house. There’s a manager or bookkeeper or cashier who helps run the business side of things. Sometimes, there’s a “House Mom”. The House Mom doesn’t concern herself much with the business side, but will cook meals, settle in-house disputes, help keep out any drunks or troublesome customers and be someone the women can talk to.
Many mid-sized houses will also have what’s called the “Big Sister”. The Big Sister is usually the woman who has the most experience or has been in the house the longest. She’ll act as the women’s representative to management and management’s representative to the women. She will also help to keep the peace amongst women working there and mediate any dirty hustle or offense, real or perceived, from one woman against another. At the bottom of the ladder will be the turn-out: a woman new to brothels, usually guided through the process by the Big Sister (who gets a percentage of the first few parties) until she can work on her own.
Patricia: How does male vulnerability show itself in brothels?
Marc: It’s still amazing to me how little sex takes place in the brothels. Just judging by the stories women tell on their down time I’d say, it’s a 70%-30% split—70% sex, 30% “other”. I expect that there’s a lot of male vulnerability in what the men negotiate. Many men come in just for the company or to sleep next to someone all night. I was at one of the houses when a man came in by himself on his birthday. He negotiated a ‘party’ where he and the working woman just watched a movie together in her room. No sex, just companionship. Most brothels offer anyone with a CDL license free showers, hot coffee, maybe a meal and truck parking. Many male truckers come in for just for that, and someone to talk to.
There’s also a unspoken understanding in a very specific game that plays out between a working woman and male client. It very rarely goes from the entrance straight to the negotiation room. Men will usually go to the bar and talk to a woman there, flirt together before moving on to the negotiation room. I don’t know if this is vulnerability per se. Everyone knows it is unnecessary, but it’s a routine followed again and again. The woman and her customer play out this game and it appears to be almost soley for the man’s benefit.
Patricia: Really? Very little sex happens in brothels?
Marc: Very little sex happens if you think of sex in terms of “traditional sex” (i.e. straight penis-vagina action). Lots of intellectual sex takes place though. Truckers and miners often go to the brothels seeking company while a large number of others go there to specifically satisfy fetishes or other “non-traditional” types of sex they may not feel comfortable asking their partners for. One woman working in the brothels described it to me like this: in these fairly traditional and conservative places, if a man asked a woman to stimulate him anally, one of the first things she could do if they get into a fight is to call him gay. That would be fairly traumatic for many men in these parts of the country. It’s easier for a man to seek an anonymous woman and avoid that risk altogether. Although this example is specific, it can expand into any type of “non-traditional” sex.
Patricia: What about female vulnerability in brothel structure?
Marc: This is a tough one. The working women are essentially actors, they’re playing out a part they think the customer wants. Living in a brothel can be difficult and there’s not very much room for vulnerability. The women spend anywhere from 9 days to multiple weeks at a time living with their competition, letting their feelings and emotions through could give their competition a slight edge.
However, there is a certain bond that forms amongst the women. Imagine a very large family all living together under one roof and that’s the type of dynamic that exists in brothels. It’s the same sentiment and, like everybody else, the women have their good days and their bad days, their ups and downs and different moods. I found that overall the women are very understanding and tolerant of each other. With that as background, many of the women connect with specific co-workers. It’s in these spaces that female vulnerability is shown, amongst co-workers.
Patricia: Are there day care centers? Could a dad bring his kid to the brothel, let the kid wait in a playroom?
Marc: Ha! Can you imagine the reaction from some segments of society to that? “Babies being raised to be prostitutes…” No, there are no day care centers in the brothels.
Patricia: One of Gloria Steinam's many astute observations in her essay about posing as a Playboy Bunny for a magazine article in the '80s was that every Bunny was required to always speak the same dialogue to each club member. Meaning, Bunny language was prescribed and never deviated from "I'm your Bunny Marie, may I see your key?" etc. It's obviously a strategy establishing a scenario where men know exactly what to expect, all the time. No Bunny would ask them something they couldn't anticipate, which creates more than comfort: it imposes a sense of control.
Marc: I can’t believe you’re calling me out on my literary credibility! No, I haven’t read that essay so I can’t comment on that. However, thumbing through a Playboy from April 1968, I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, in 1968 Playboy really WAS about the articles; secondly, by looking at Playboy from a distance of 43 years, one could see a similar predictability to what you described.
In the Nevada brothels, protocol affects more how the women interact than talk. In Line-Up houses there is a line-up where women stand in front of the customer and say their names. In Parlor Houses there are certain common understandings about how to approach a customer. Women have to wait a number of minutes before approaching the client, so he’s not rushed. There’s also protocol when dealing with Dirty Hustling, but that’s amongst the women as opposed to how the women interact with male clients. These are just a few examples of the subtleties of the social interactions that take place in the brothels. All of this helps the customer feel comfortable while he’s in there, but I don’t know if his comfort is the reason for these rules or if it’s a byproduct of rules that are in place to make brothel life run smoothly.
Photographs © Marc McAndrews/Umbrage Editions.