Albert's 'Brothel': A study in scarlet

May 20, 2001|By Norah Vincent | By Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

"Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women," by Alexa Albert. Random House. 271 pages. $24.95.

Most feminist and irreligious opponents of prostitution claim to be against its legalization because they say it harms and exploits women. But the statistics show that illegal prostitution harms and exploits women far more.

Why?

Because street walkers, as opposed to brothel prostitutes, are afforded no physical or financial protection from sexually transmitted diseases, grifting pimps, abusive johns and the diabolical whims of every other deranged miscreant to whom they're randomly exposed. Meanwhile, incidents of this kind are dramatically reduced, if not almost eliminated, in legal brothels where managers can, to a substantial degree, be held accountable for upholding safe work environments and fair labor practices.

Aside from the usual libertarian argument that what one chooses to do with one's own genitalia, provided it harms no one else, is not the state's business, this may be the most compelling reason to decriminalize the world's oldest profession.

This is also what makes "Brothel," Alexa Albert's immensely absorbing in-depth study of one of Nevada's legal brothels, so socially important. Albert, a recent graduate of Harvard Medical School who has been researching human sexuality since college, lived on and off at Mustang Ranch for extended periods of time over the course of the last decade. She conducted extensive interviews with brothel management as well as most of the 75-odd "working girls" in the house. She also managed to get some of the johns to let her, and therefore the reader, in on their thought processes. A few of them even let her observe them in the boudoir, or "partying," as they euphemistically call it in the trade.

The result of this exhaustive and surprisingly compassionate research is a document that reads like a cross between a voyeuristic pulp novel and a thoroughly professional, not to mention essential, contribution to the annals of public health policy.

There are a lot of surprises in these pages, not least of which is many prostitutes' insistence that they take pride in their work, and sometimes even enjoy it -- sexually, that is. Then there are the "boyfriends." Most of the women have full-time lovers, many of whom behave like pimps, sponging shamelessly off their girls, demanding steep weekly percentages of their earnings. Albert's attempts to get to the bottom of why these women, who have no need of traditional pimps, still allow themselves to be used by "boyfriends" are part of what makes this such a complex and all too human study.

Still, Albert reveals that some women do manage to maintain healthy relationships with husbands, significant others and even children in absentia. Though our prejudices would have us believe that all hookers are supremely dysfunctional loners, some of the women Albert interviewed were even supporting families whose dire financial needs had led them to the sex trade years before.

Of course, Albert can't and doesn't offer a romanticized vision of life in a brothel. So, though you may very well finish this book with newfound respect for, and a significantly better understanding of hookers, chances are, you'll still end up feeling unsettled by the experience. You can't help feeling disgusted, for example, by the clientele, who are, to a man, unsavory characters. And you can't quite escape the sense that, however you dress it up, whoring is a dirty business.

Norah Vincent is co-author of "The Instant Intellectual: The Quick and Easy Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured" (Hyperion, 1998). Her work has appeared in the New Republic, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Lingua Franca, and elsewhere. She writes a regular column for the national gay and lesbian news magazine, the Advocate.

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