Book Review: Brothel
Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women
by Alexa Albert
New York: Random House, 2001. ISBN 0-375-50331-5
Nevada is the only state in the Union in which prostitution is legal, and as Alexa Albert makes clear in this book, the business of prostitution is just as complicated as any other legal enterprise. It's a business with many rules and regulations. Nevada state law allows local areas to regulate prostitution, county laws place restrictions on it, individual brothels have rules for customers and prostitutes, and each prostitute also sets her own rules. Prostitutes in Nevada’s legal brothels pay taxes like any other employee; one of them hired an accountant who mulled the proper response for "Occupation" on her tax return. Licenses can be procured at the local police station, and the brothel industry association spokesman is George Flint, a retired minister who also owns a wedding chapel business.
Albert first encountered the Nevada brothel industry when she was studying public health in college, when she wrote a research paper on condom usage. This book is the result of many years of off-and-on observation, most of it in residence at the famous Mustang Ranch brothel. Apparently, she's the first outsider to have been allowed inside. Albert describes the brothel’s day-to-day operation, the interactions between the prostitutes, the role of the support personnel, the business dealings of the brothel owners, and the history of legalized prostitution in Nevada. She also interviews Nevadans who are opposed to legal prostitution.
Intriguingly, she finds that many of the customers purchasing services at the brothel are rather shy and socially dysfunctional. In many cases, it seems like this is the closest that some of these people will get to love. But as soon as the money gets involved, it all comes crashing down. For example, there's an extremely awkward scene in which Albert observes one particularly shy customer with his favorite prostitute, and then the customer attempts to give Albert some money, at the prostitute’s “suggestion.”
The material is presented matter-of-factly, but still with a personal viewpoint. The author grew to be close friends with many of the prostitutes, and still corresponds with some of them. She describes the working women with compassion, and feels angry when she reads crude reviews on web guides to Nevada's brothels. Many of the author’s friends would condemn the industry in conversation, but then press her for juicy details. It's another aspect of the American cultural hypocrisy about sex that would rather see unwanted teen pregnancies than permit contraception in public schools.
Albert is surprised and dismayed at the attitudes that she encounters in the outside world. George Flint's own stepdaughter is not a fan of her father’s work, and she shrieks with fear for her teenaged daughter when Albert mentions her earlier work on condom use. See, condoms only encourage sin and corrupt the young. But there are also several instances in which the author clearly felt uncomfortable while inside the brothel. It happens, for example, when the prostitutes ask her if she could turn a trick, making the assumption that her interest in the brothel signaled that she had a buried desire to be one of them.
After all, the whole Playboy concept of the girl-next-door is that a very prim and proper girl is actually very naughty inside. Alexa Albert hails from the white middle-class, and her fiancé's parents had some awkward explaining to do when asked what their daughter-in-law was up to. Her own "drawers are full of cotton briefs and sports bras," (p. 212) but she can’t resist trying on the lingerie brought to the Ranch by a traveling salesman, yet she finds herself embarrassed when she discovers that the outfit involves a G-string. She is adventurous enough to observe a BDSM session, but finds herself wondering whether this was consistent with remaining faithful to her fiancé.
Many of the working women of Mustang Ranch have boyfriends, husbands, even children. How do they reconcile the opprobrium of society with their need to make a living? Some of the men involved don’t really mind. But others go farther by actively encourage it; is this so different from pimping? Albert also digs into the financial aspects of the business. The women end up keeping a bit less than half of the money taken in, after the house’s cut, “tips” to the support personnel at the brothel, and taxes.
Brothel provides an intriguing look at the brothel industry in Nevada. But it feels like the author is trying to hold back, to avoid crossing the line between observation and advocacy. It is clear from the personal comments in the narrative, however, which side of the debate she is on. The brothel opponents are described unflatteringly, while the women of Mustang Ranch are supported with carefully worded statements. You expect the author to go just a bit farther and suggest policy, but this she doesn't quite do. She can't quite drop the "but" in "Yes, but ..."
Mothers and surgeon generals
Buried in the acknowledgements are the author’s thanks to:
“Judy Albert, my mother, who obliged my requests as a child to drive past the streetwalkers who lined the doorways of Seattle's First Avenue peepshows and porn theaters. Her openness, curiosity, and compassion for others are three of the most important gifts she has given me."
This actually links to an implied theme of the book. By placing something out of sight and out of mind, we avoid tackling issues until they develop into crises. Hopefully, then, this book will live up to what former Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders says about it on the back dust jacket:
This well-written, nonjudgmental, informative book ... could serve as a light at the end of a very long tunnel, and form the basis of both moral and legal discussions about prostitution in the future.