Prostitution in Perspective

When I was a senior at St. Andrew's Priory in Honolulu I was selected by my high school government class to spend a week at the Hawaii state capitol observing the legislature. My assignment was to select one bill under consideration, research it and follow it through the session. I chose the effort to legalize prostitution. At the time, Hawaii had a very active sex industry. My school was close to Hotel Street where the ladies of the night did business. The bill eventually died (I don't recall whether it was in committee or if it actually got to the floor) and prostitution continues to be illegal in the 50th state, as it is in all states except Nevada.

Recently I revisited the subject of prostitution for a story I'm working on for HDNet World Report. What got the report off the ground was Senator Harry Reid's speech before Nevada's legislature on February 22 in which he called for "an adult conversation" about ending legalized prostitution throughout the state. Prostitution is already against the law in counties with more than 400,000 people, which includes Clark County (home of Las Vegas) and Washoe County (home of Reno.) Senator Reid said that Nevada would be more business-friendly if the state finally eliminated legalized brothel prostitution from the rural counties as well. "Nevada needs to be known for innovation and investment," Senator Reid said, "not as the last place where protitution is still legal." As you can imagine, his comments have stirred up quite a pot.

The point of this blog is not to rehash the morality of the world's oldest profession, nor is it to discuss the economic impact of brothels in the rural areas of the state, or make the case that legalized prostitution seems safer and smarter than its illegal cousin. The point of this blog is that this journey opened my eyes to the humanity of women who do this kind of work. Before I criss-crossed Nevada visiting brothels I had a predictable response to prostitutes. They were messed up and misguided. Who could possibly do this kind of work? Why would anyone sell their body to a stranger unless they needed the money to finance a drug addiction? They must have a crushing amount of baggage that would lead them to this lifestyle. And, of course, many do. But the ladies we met in the rural and suburban brothels that dot the landscape were attractive, smart, friendly, savvy, confident and defied stereotypes. Most were not fallen women without other options. Many were educated and had goals in mind. They were wives and mothers. This was a means to a different end. And at least in the brothels, pursuing their careers as independent contractors, they were confident and satisfied. Now I'm certain the lives of women who do this illegally, on the streets, is much more dangerous and seedy. But in the safety of the legal brothels we found women who do this with class and dignity.

We met Asya at a small rural brothel called Donna's Ranch in Wells, Nevada. She had been working illegally on the street for years with a pimp who eventually dumped her. Asya cried when she told us how painful that experience was. But she chose to better herself. She was sweet and chatty and enjoyed flirting with the truckers over the CB radio. She smiled and batted her enormous false eyelashes and said she loved her life. Asya was going to do this for two more years then wanted to start her own jazz bistro in her hometown of Houston. She said it would be "groovy." Her friend, Simone, was a pretty blonde who had finally escaped the streets. She said she had so many arrests that she would be in prison if she was busted once more. She was happy here with a big huge laugh and strong opinions. She loved to help in the kitchen and fancied herself a good cook. She was saving to buy a house and was proud to be paying her taxes and contributing to social security. "I do my part," she said.

At the Mustang Ranch outside of Reno we met Demi. "This is not my first passion, believe it or not," she told us. Demi became a prostitute to get through college and now owns a fashion boutique with her mother in the Bay Area. Her goal is to open one in Los Angeles. "This is a means to an end for me to create my own life." Emily, stood out in a crowd. She had cascades of platinum blonde hair and a girly dress and once made $84,000 in a month. She was living with her grandmother and son in a car before she came here. "I have options. I just choose to do this as my option." She loves her job and her enthusiasm was palpable. Both wanted me to know how empowered they felt and how proud they were to be Mustang girls.

Finally, at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Dayton, Nevada near Carson City, we met Paige and Brooke. Paige is a 19 year old, new to the business. She is studying nursing but hopes to become a physician's assistant instead. She had the body of an athlete and said she participated in all sports in school. She spent her free time trying to perfect pole dancing in the parlor and was very good at it and completely comfortable with the television camera. And then there was Brooke. She is a household name for her role in HBO's series "Cathouse" and was featured in Hustler. She was beautiful and so smart and articulate. We figured she would have a career as a politician or lobbyist should she ever change course. She came here of her own accord. Wasn't cutting it financially in Illinois working with adults with developmental disabilities and figured she would try something new. "I'm using my best asset that I have been given which is myself," she proclaimed. When we asked her if this was her long term career she said "No. I think I'm more of a free spirit than that. When this is not enjoyable, when it's not fulfilling, when the wind changes I'll change with it. Right now this works for me. I'm having a good time, I'm making a good living, setting up a good future for myself, able to have the choice to do whatever I want. And how lucky am I turning 30 to be able to say that. Really."

This was one of the most interesting immersions of my career and I came away from it with the realization that many of these women, at least in the legal brothels, are comfortable in their skin and see this as a career like any other. They are not ashamed and seem to have a good time and they are able to look at the men who come through their doors with compassion. Many prostitutes, believe it or not, go on to become nurses. It was an eye opening week for me. Each of these women made it clear to me they were doing this of their own volition. They were in charge of their lives. They were calling their own shots.

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