The Family Prostitute 

As the recession continues, more and more women are turning to the world's oldest profession to support their loved ones

Thursday, Sep 2 2010
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View all photos in Kevin Scanlon's slideshow, "The Family Prostitute: Portraits of Women Brand-New to the Sex Trade."

In the workplace lunchroom, dominated by a Formica table stocked with a condiment cradle that holds four kinds of hot sauce, Nikki furrows her brow as she fishes into her purse and retrieves her driver's license. A resident of Riverside, Nikki is filling out some paperwork for her new job. "There's a lot of stuff they want to know," she says.

It's been a busy day for the former administrative assistant. "I flew in and saw the doctor before I even got here," she says. Dressed in "business casual," Nikki is an attractive 24-year-old African-American woman with a retro hairstyle reminiscent of Mary Tyler Moore on the actress's eponymous '70s sitcom. Speaking with a slight but charming lisp, Nikki notes that she can't work until she gets cleared by the authorities, and the doctor visit is the first part of that process. In the meantime, she says, "I'll stay here and get some training because I don't know anything. Tomorrow, I'll get my license at the sheriff's office, and then I can work."

click to flip through (13) PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON - Chelsea, 26, used to work in a restaurant in Montrose. She’s now helping her parents pay their rent.
  • Chelsea, 26, used to work in a restaurant in Montrose. She’s now helping her parents pay their rent.

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Nikki is one step away from becoming a prostitute in one of Nevada's legal brothels.

She's the sole supporter of two small children and her mother, and the work is important to Nikki. "In the Inland Empire," she laments, "there are no jobs at all. I couldn't even get a job at McDonald's right now."

And so she's come to Moundhouse, Nevada, just east of Carson City, where four of the state's 28 brothels are located just off U.S. Route 50, a desolate track that cuts through a high plain of sage and scrub and is known as "the loneliest road in America." It's here — at the Love Ranch, the Moonlight Bunny Ranch, the Sagebrush Ranch or the Kit Kat Guest Ranch — that women, acting as independent contractors, sell condom-protected sex and then split the profits with the management.

It's perfectly legal, sanctioned by the local sheriff, and has long been a part of the local economy. But that economy works two ways: Women — many brand-new to the sex trade and acting as the sole support for their families — have chosen it because of economic hardship brought on by the worst recession since the Great Depression. While there's always been a solid group of sex workers who support their families in this way, many on the management side of the industry say they've never seen anything like the large numbers the business is currently attracting.

View all photos in Kevin Scanlon's slideshow, "The Family Prostitute: Portraits of Women Brand-New to the Sex Trade."

"We've seen over the course of the last couple of years a massive flow of women from all around the country," says Marc Medoff, general manager of the Love Ranch. "It's their first time in the sexual-entertainment business and they're showing up here — literally on our doorstep sometimes — for the purpose of seeking work to support their families: their husbands, their children, their parents. It's a zillion-fold increase. When things started to get really bad, in the fall of '07, we started seeing things increase and there's been no let-up."

Barbara Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and co-author of The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland, says that while she has no hard figures regarding the current recession, turning to prostitution in times of economic hardship is a tried-and-true option for women. "When we did our interviews of brothel workers for our book, one of our major findings was that a large portion of the women who entered the brothels without having done prior sex work did so because of financial need," she says. "They were working a low-paying, service-sector job that was just barely supporting them, and turned to the brothels to either get them through a crisis or because they were sick of working a straight job and not getting anywhere."

Brents adds, "Service-industry jobs sometimes pay so little, it is not surprising that people are turning to other kinds of work. Prostitution, if you do it right, is one of those few jobs for women where you can earn a decent livelihood." She emphasizes, however, that it's not only low-income women entering the business. "It cuts across all classes."

George Flint, a 77-year-old former minister and the owner of Reno's Chapel of the Bells, has been the director of the Nevada Brothel Owners Association for the past 25 years. He says that while the women coming into the business may not be adopting it as a permanent occupation, they are coming in numbers he hasn't seen before. But Flint cautions that such a career switch comes with some built-in economic risks. "When this recession started, one of the first things that happened was gas and diesel prices went up, and that had a big effect on the truckers who are the main customers at the rural houses."

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