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."
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."
As in the state's gaming and tourist industries, Flint says, the recession is taking a toll on the prostitution business as potential customers find themselves with less disposable income. "Right now," he says, "the brothel industry is in the toilet. Several houses are on the verge of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Only a couple of them are turning a profit."
View all photos in Kevin Scanlon's slideshow, "The Family Prostitute: Portraits of Women Brand-New to the Sex Trade."
One of the profitable brothels is the Love Ranch. A small compound of prefabricated portable buildings, it sits at the end of a cul-de-sac on Kit Kat Drive. In place of a street sign is a roughly designed billboard advertising what lies beyond the turn.
The parlor of the Love Ranch is dimly lit and dominated by wingback furniture and red velvet plush in the Old West style. A closer look reveals that the upholstery is threadbare and frayed. Mirrors on one wall create the illusion that the room is bigger than it is. The other walls are covered with fake gilt-and-velvet paper. The cornerstone of the room is a small gas fireplace that's not being used in the heat of Nevada's high summer. Opposite is a small, six-stool bar well stocked with high-end spirits. A cloud of blue cigarette smoke hangs in the close air.
A couple of young women wearing nothing but lingerie and cell phones lounge on the sofas, text-messaging. In a concession to modern tastes, a brass stripper's pole connects the floor to the low ceiling and a petite blond with pigtails and the look of a debauched schoolgirl takes a few halfhearted spins on it. When two pudgy, middle-aged men in cargo shorts and polo shirts enter the gate, a buzzer rings and the other working girls on shift materialize like ghosts from the kitchen or the warren of 26 rooms in the back of the complex.
This is what's called "the lineup," and it's endlessly repeated throughout the day. The two gentlemen callers, in a bid to be funny and show their bona fides as staunch Republicans in what's still definitely Reagan Country, introduce themselves as "President Obama" and "Joe Biden." The two punters laugh uproariously at their display of wit, but the girls mostly seem perplexed.
One by one, they introduce themselves to the men, stating a name (all of the names in this article are the girls' working names) and offering a polite handshake before performing a prim turn and falling back into the line. It shows off the goods, but also says wordlessly that this part of the game is strictly business and there's going to be absolutely no action until a deal is struck and cash changes hands.
"Joe Biden" decides to sit out this particular dance, not finding any girls to his liking. "President Obama" picks 22-year-old Eva, a cute, bottom-heavy brunette in a blue bikini and matching silk robe, and is led off on "a tour."
It's on this trek that the prospective client will be given a rundown of the house "menu" — sexual acts like "Asian cowgirl," "whipped-cream party" and "bottoms up" — and will be shown special areas like the jacuzzi and the "VIP Room," which looks like something out of a Matt Helm movie ... if Dean Martin's titular character had a taste for the sexually exotic. In one corner, some sort of basket contraption hangs from the ceiling. In another corner, for those into mild bondage, is a wooden pillory. A king-size bed takes up a lot of real estate here, but the showpiece is a huge bathtub for special "bubble bath parties." Encounters in this room can set a customer back a couple of thousand dollars. Mostly, though, the customers just go to the girl's rented room and conduct their encounters there at whatever rate they both agree to.
Nikki, who has been booked for a two-week stay, says that what concerns her most isn't the work, but getting along with her co-workers. "My biggest fear is the other girls here. Living here for 15 days and not knowing anything is intimidating. That ... and getting into the car at the airport made me nervous. 'Am I going to get drugged and taken away?' "
The prospect of performing sexual acts for money doesn't bother her nearly as much. "I do like sex, honestly. I don't mind having sex with strangers, so why not get paid for it? I have to take care of my kids and I have to take care of Mom, so if it seems bad, then I'm sorry."
According to Lynn Comella, assistant professor in the Women's Studies department at UNLV. Nikki's attitude is typical of many women coming into the brothel business. "A lot of them find the work enjoyable. They like sex and they have no moral qualms about approaching it as a business."
Medoff, the general manager, comes out of his office and into the kitchen with some important news for Nikki. "Dennis is taking us out to dinner in a while, so we need to get ready." Dennis would be Dennis Hof, owner of the Love Ranch and Moonlight Bunny Ranch and a figure of some local renown. As Nikki scurries off to change, Medoff posts a memo on an already crowded bulletin board.
The memos are an important way of disseminating information and reminding the girls of certain house rules, like work schedules, time off, proper attire and general decorum. The board also allows the girls to communicate with management.
One of the big issues is food. The ranch has catered food brought in twice a day. The fare isn't fancy, but it's hearty, Middle American stuff: chicken skewers, macaroni and cheese, chops, oven fries, salad. The menu rotates like one at a public school cafeteria. For breakfast, there are bagels, muffins, cold cereals and coffee. To make sure the women are kept happy, there's a write-in sheet on which they can suggest certain grocery items not on hand.
Their requests could just as easily have come from a gang of 13-year-olds. Scrawled on the sheet are things like "Nachos more often!!!" "Cheesecake" followed by a little hand-drawn heart. "Frozen hamburger patties." And a heavily underlined plea for "Froot Loops, Sugar Smacks and Lucky Charms."
When Nikki returns, she's wearing a loud, black-and-white floral-print spandex miniskirt that definitely would not have passed muster at her old office job; nor would her skyscraper–high heels. She may not have worked in the sex industry before, but she knows what she's selling and wants to make an impression on the new boss. Hof arrives in his limousine with several of the Bunny Ranch girls and commands the driver to head west to one of the casinos in Carson City.
Hof knows how to make an entrance, walking into the place — which also features a multilane bowling alley — with six flashily dressed prostitutes and glad-handing the staff; there's no mistaking a pimp is in the house. On his wrist is a huge, jewel-encrusted Jacob and Co. watch with a face that bears a map of the world. He passes it around the table and his guests marvel at its weight. "Jacob gave this to me and said, 'The world is yours!' "All the girls call him Daddy.
Once orders are placed, Hof says he's astounded that business has been thriving despite grim economic realities. "I told everyone here that we were going to have to batten down the hatches," he says. "But we've had the best year ever. I can't explain it other than we're doing business right."
It's a pep talk to his staff. Work hard, make that money, and get yourself a fancy watch, too. There is a round of "woo-hoos!" at the table and, for now, the girls seem happy to get in a nice meal outside the confines of the brothel's dining room.
Unlike most of the other "houses" in the area, neither the Bunny Ranch nor the Love Ranch is a "lockdown" house. The girls are free to come and go as they please, a system that works out well for those who are supporting families and have them staying close by.
Chelsea, a tall, green-eyed redhead sporting numerous rockabilly themed tattoos — a prominent outline of a jukebox, musical notes and Marilyn Monroe's face — is a recent transplant to nearby Dayton, Nevada, via the Los Angeles suburbs. The 26-year-old is currently in the process of moving her parents and half-brother from Southern California's San Gabriel Valley to live with her — "like in a commune."
In high-heeled shoes and turquoise microbikini clinging to a mostly slender frame, she makes a point of standing in a way that shows off her ample backside. Another refugee from the recession, Chelsea says, "I had been working in a restaurant — Gourmet a Go Go in Montrose — and it shut down when the lease was up and the owner went looking for a new location. I worked at a porn shop for a little while. People were constantly approaching me saying, 'How come you don't do movies?' I did two movies, but it didn't seem worth it. The money wasn't worth the time. My body's not free, so I came here."
While Chelsea initially — and briefly — started her career in porn, her switch to legal prostitution makes sense to UNLV's Comella. "You can't underestimate the legal, social and health protections the brothels offer that other sex-industry jobs can't match," she says.
Chelsea agrees: "Porn seemed high-risk. People doing it can have partners in between jobs. You never know. Here, I'm in charge of my environment, of everything I do."
And she's been making enough money to take on the responsibility of supporting her family. "My father lost his home — twice. I've been helping them with rent. I've been doing what I can. My dad was in construction, my mom was in publishing, and both of their industries tanked. I had a feeling it would come to this, so I'm moving them and my brother here to stay with me."
Like Chelsea, Scarlett's family was involved in construction until the recession devastated the family-run business. Working the early shift, she's a rangy 33-year-old with a matter-of-fact way about her; Scarlett comes off as a straight-shooter.
Sitting at the Love Ranch bar in a purple-silk baby-doll nightie and heels, she pours out her tale of economic upheaval while unconsciously putting on the moves she'll use with potential customers: Crossing and uncrossing her long legs, touching an arm for emphasis, leaning forward to show a quick glimpse of what's underneath her bra are second nature to her now, but it wasn't always so.
"Our money came from floor covering, which is tied to construction and remodeling. That's what my husband and I were doing, working with my brother and my dad. Jobs started drying up, so I started looking for something to do to make the most money for my family. And what sells? Sex always sells. And where can I sell sex?" she asks, looking around the room to answer her own question.
Scarlett somehow attributes her choice, in part, to her Southern heritage. "I had never done anything in the adult industry. No dancing, no movies, no 'independent' working, nothing. I decided, 'Hey, why not?' I'm a Southerner. We go big or we go home. I don't believe in doing anything half-ass. I jumped right in."
Running a hand through tousled chestnut hair, Scarlett admits that her new profession has put a strain on her marriage. "There's the kind of guy who gets an ego boost from having someone that everyone else has to pay for. That's kind of where he was at. Some other dynamics changed in our relationship. I grew and he didn't."
As she talks, Scarlett opens up and starts weaving a tale that sounds like an update on some forgotten Erskine Caldwell novel. "We were losing the house through foreclosure because of what my husband did with our money — spending everything at strip clubs for two years. I wasn't pushing for him to do any better because I thought he was doing the best he could. I wasn't allowed near our checkbook. A $10,000 loan in my name that he spent on strippers. I was pregnant at the time and our baby was 22 months old. When I'm trying to get dinner for all of us with $5, that's not cool."
But the move to the Love Ranch, she says, has improved the family's lot. At the job for just over a year, Scarlett notes that the amount of money she makes can vary wildly, but that she averages one customer every day. "When you go to work at a square job, you're guaranteed a certain amount of money. Here, it's different. If I'm here for 12 hours and don't get any customers, I don't make any money. Plus, I owe $25 every day for room and board." She's quick to point out, however, that "There's always food here."
With a laugh, Scarlett notes she might be able to book more customers if she worked the weekend and night shifts. "My kids aren't with me full-time," she says. "They're with their dad, so I have them on the weekends and some nights." Those are the busiest times. Customer flow is random — except Saturdays between 2 and 2:30 a.m., which, she says, is the peak traffic time. "But there will be guys who come in at 5 in the morning and who'll stay all day. We'll order pizza and it'll be really boisterous."
The other boisterous time during the work week is the mandatory "tea party." Hosted by Hof, it's a combination of motivational lecture and business seminar. In preparation, workers have laid out crumpets and sweets on doilies and the girls have paid for drinks at the bar, the most popular being a split of budget champagne spiked with grenadine and garnished with strawberries. They all wear their lingerie but, somewhat comically in the spirit of an old-time tea party, a few of them wear big, Victorian-style hats.
It's early afternoon, and there are no customers. On hand is the local Mary Kay cosmetics representative. The girls take their places in the parlor. Medoff joins them with notebook and memos, and, at the appointed hour, Hof enters like Tony Robbins.
After expressing his dislike for the movie Love Ranch, which utilized uncredited research at the Love Ranch, Hof announces that Medoff soon will be heading up the launch of a Love Ranch magazine to be used "as a marketing tool."
Medoff then goes over some upcoming events. "A photographer for one of the tattoo magazines will be coming here, and this can be a good opportunity to market yourself ... if you have tattoos." Several of the girls are inked, and they seem excited at this news. He then admonishes them to keep the doors leading outside closed so the cool air doesn't escape. In the summertime heat, air conditioning gets expensive. He also mentions that traps are being purchased to "humanely" capture the feral cats that prowl everywhere. He goes through the past week's records and announces the names of the top five bookers.
Ciara, the young blonde, has the No. 1 spot and receives a round of applause. Over the past week, she's managed to rack up an impressive $8,000, half of which she gets to keep for herself. According to the girls, it's not uncommon to average $10,000 or so over a two-week period, but they also go through lean periods when they make next to nothing.
And a lot of what the girls earn goes toward "upkeep," such as beauty products and treatments. The Mary Kay rep takes the floor briefly to introduce a new fragrance called Orchid as well as a satchel full of discontinued items that have been discounted by 20-50 percent. The girls crowd around and check out the merchandise.
When the Mary Kay rep leaves a little richer, Hof, like a hedonistic self-help guru, begins to pump up his audience for the big finish. Starting low and building, he chants a kind of brothel mantra. The rallying cry is picked up tentatively by his audience, but the small parlor soon reverberates with "Pussy power, pussy power, pussy power ..." Hof works up to a crescendo, stabbing the air with a straight-arm salute as each word booms out. The girls follow suit, stamping the floor with their high heels.
When things calm down a bit, Hof urges the girls to work the customers a little harder and to hustle. "You accept rejection too quickly," he scolds them. " 'No' does not mean 'no.' " In other words, he concludes, "You always have to be closing." When he stands to leave, he's given a round of applause. One of the girls shouts, "We love you, Daddy!"
With the boss gone, the parlor takes on the ambience of a debauched sorority. A karaoke machine is turned on and the girls have a few more drinks and sing songs with sexual themes. Chloe Daniels, a big, buxom blonde in her mid-30s who moonlights as a porn performer, acts as a sort of house mother to the rest of the girls. Wearing a skin-tight spandex dress that features strategically placed cutouts, she improvises dances based upon everyday items. "This one's called 'the Sprinkler,' " she says, mimicking the chattering Rain Bird watering system — left arm cocked at a 90-degree angle, right arm straight out, hips shaking. The karaoke machine kicks into Fergie's "Fergalicious," which elicits squeals of delight from the girls participating in this spontaneous party.
For no particular reason, an auburn-haired girl named Josie pipes up, "I suffer from ADHD, you know." An attractive, fit woman in her early 30s who wears a royal-blue, less-is-more two-piece, Josie seems a bit unsteady. Like the other girls, she is constantly laying down the "whore con" which involves touching whatever man she's talking to, calling him "baby" or "honey" and not-so-subtly showing off her body. Done skillfully, it's an art form. Done under the influence of a few drinks, it's comical.
Unprompted, she launches into an awful tale of being "abducted, raped, waterboarded and left for dead" somewhere in Los Angeles, which is where she used to call home. For her, working in a legal brothel has provided something of a lifeline.
"I need Adderall," she says, to treat her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. She also says she needs therapy.
Josie has three children, one of whom, an 11-year-old daughter, stays with her. She says she has "joint custody" of the other two. "I don't expose my kid to this," she says of the brothel. "She knows what I do. ... I just don't expose her to it."
A former production assistant and archivist working in the film industry, Josie says that when work in Los Angeles became harder to find — and she went through numerous personal problems — she came to the brothels, first working across the cul-de-sac at the Kit Kat. "The rates here are much cheaper," she says of the $25-a-day fee for room and board. "At the other place, you had to pay for the maids, too."
But, mostly, Josie says her brothel work is for her kids.
Although it's a familiar refrain here, it's not always children the prostitutes are supporting. Ciara, at 20, one of the youngest girls working at the brothel, supports her boyfriend and his family.
It's not hard to see why she's popular with customers. At nearly 6 feet tall, with short blond hair, she's striking. Her satin lingerie ensemble emphasizes long legs and a taut torso. And as she talks, she exhibits a pleasant demeanor and a quick smile.
A local girl who grew up near Lake Tahoe in the solidly middle-class suburb of Incline, she had no prior sex-industry experience before she began her stint, in February 2009.
"I couldn't find a job," she says. "I lost my apartment. I had a best friend working here and it didn't seem so bad. She told me that it's just like a one-night stand — but that you have four or five of them a night. I had only had two one-night stands in my life."
Ciara's entry into the business was prompted when her boyfriend was diagnosed with lymphoma and began chemotherapy. "I'm supporting my boyfriend and his mom. Her disability insurance ran out. My boyfriend can't work because he's so fatigued. The chemo takes a lot out of him. Basically, I support him completely. I've been doing it for almost a year." Even though she mostly does well as an earner, she sums up her home life by saying, "We squeak by. It just depends on how work is going."
Ciara is certainly doing better here, she says, than at her previous gig at an Applebee's restaurant. "I have parties that go from $3,000 down to $100. The big money is with the VIP parties. One guy will pay me a couple grand just to take a bubble bath and watch movies with me. You develop a clientele after you've been here a while."
Jenai's been trying to develop a clientele since she lost her job in the human resources department at the University of California, San Francisco. A petite black girl who wears little other than a silky bikini and a heavy dose of perfume, she's the mother of a 5-year-old son, although she has the sleek, muscular figure of a sprinter. She talks about "hanging on" at the university for as long as she could. "I was shifted around to different departments," she says. "I tried to stay there using the university's temporary-employment program, but things just slowed down for me."
Eventually out of work, Jenai was getting desperate. "If you're into sex, this is an ideal occupation," she claims. "After trying for job after job and not getting any responses, I figured I might as well do this legally instead of doing it illegally and running the risk of getting caught or killed or having someone take away my son."
Asked if she ever thinks her new profession is immoral or wrong, Jenai rolls her eyes and says, "My son has to eat and have clothes ... and this isn't going to be a lifetime career." She says she still carries her UCSF identification card with her as a "motivational tool," and as a reminder that she once had a place in the "real world."
A lot of the girls working at the Love Ranch have vague plans about starting their own businesses. It's evident from the magazine rack in the kitchen area: Instead of the expected Us and People, Entrepreneur and Fortune seem to be the favored periodicals.
But there's no denying that Jenai likes the opportunity to make more than what the UC system afforded her. "The money I make is double or triple," she says. "And it's safe. I get tested."
As if on cue, a local doctor straight out of central casting arrives in a set of scrubs and carrying a little black bag. He's here to perform the monthly HIV and weekly STD screenings. Jenai rushes off to be checked along with the other girls. The examination room is small, but features a table of the type you'd find in any gynecologist's office. Not surprisingly, it also doubles as a party room for clients who might desire some kind of medical fantasy.
As the girls receive their weekly medical check, the buzzer goes off alerting the house to the arrival of customers — a group of young outdoor types who, during the winter months, likely would be spending their free time snowboarding. The girls in the lineup giggle. For them, it's a change from the typically older customer they see, a change they seem to like.
The guys, none of whom seems more than 25, make their choices (Ciara, Chelsea, Chloe and Josie) and it's off to the rooms for some negotiations before getting down to business.
Two weeks into her stay, new girl Nikki has adapted to the routine and is closing in on the top earners. This is a considerable feat since, according to Medoff, black women don't tend to get as many customers at the Love Ranch as the white girls do.
Sheila Caramella, owner of the nearby Kit Kat Guest Ranch, confirms this, and offers some explanation. "Black girls don't get booked as often as blonde girls or Asian girls, but it's just a matter of taste. I'm trying to be honest here, and most of our customers are white and they seem to prefer white girls — although we have white customers who specifically want black girls."
Nikki, however, isn't particularly concerned about the race issue. She just shrugs, "I have to hustle a little more, maybe."
That, she's been doing. "The money's amazing," she gushes. "I did office work before. Hour for lunch, Monday through Friday. I was probably bringing home about $245 a week after taxes. Now I make, like, three times that in a day."
Nikki's scheduled time at the Love Ranch is almost up and she'll be going back home to Riverside, but she says she plans to return as soon as she can. "I was able to pay all my bills today. I'm renting a house. I even put $400 down for my son's fifth-birthday party. I'm able to do all of that now," she says with some relief.
But, she confides, "I'm still probably not going to tell my boyfriend what I do."
What happens in Nevada stays in Nevada.