April 26, 2000 09:00am
A San Francisco whore in a Nevada brothel
Source: SF Life
by: Ann deLorenzo
I'M SITTING IN the parlor of a legal brothel in Nevada. I'm the only one here who didn't get her nails done on Tuesday. Marta has red nails; Gina's are deep burgundy. They could be in a Lancôme ad at Nordstrom. When the bells ring I get into the lineup with 10 other girls. There are a few dark-haired women, a few with small breasts, but we're far outnumbered by tit jobs and platinum blonds. A few of the women look at me funny because when we're not in lineup, I read or write e-mail.
I've been working in this brothel for the past week. The inspiration for this trip came from an acquaintance who told me she'd made $10,000 in two weeks. I was sold. Plus, I didn't have to worry about being busted. Since 1998 the S.F. vice squad has been cracking down on middle-class whores like myself, who do in-call. They've been arresting adults engaged in consensual sexual activities in the privacy of their own homes – and they've also targeted the key organizers and groups promoting prostitutes' rights.
Here in this Nevada house, the threat of arrest is lifted, and I can shed the precautions and inhibitions that fit me like a second skin: suddenly I can talk about sex and money in the same breath without worrying whether a prospective client is a vice cop hiding a microphone. This is such a relief. As an illegal, self-employed whore in San Francisco, I had worked under a diffuse but constant threat of arrest. But this safety (and legitimacy) comes at the expense of some freedoms. The Nevada brothel is saturated with regulations and rules. In this legal but tightly controlled laboratory, intimidation tactics are far more hands-on: I was registered with the police, photographed, fingerprinted, and surveyed.
To get to the brothel, I fly into the Reno airport and meet the "runner" who will drive me to the brothel – a swaggering, poker-faced local named Stan. Stan doesn't talk much. At first I think he doesn't like me. Then I realize it's just business as usual. Jogging beside him to the van, I ask if we can stop and pick up some Baby Wipes, antibacterial soap, and paper towels. "We'll take care of all that," he says. "But first, we're goin' to the doctor's."
The madam had told me that over the phone too: as soon as my plane lands I'll go straight to the doctor's, and it will cost $85. On the way to the brothel, Stan pulls into the parking lot of a building with a sign that says Fast Medical Clinic – it's the McDonald's of health care. I fill out paperwork with my name, address, birth date, person to contact in case of emergency, place of employment, and, of course, occupation. I've completed forms like this for many other jobs, but this is the first time I've done so as a "prostitute." I spend a good 10 minutes agonizing over which of my friends would be least fazed by a phone call from a legal brothel saying I'm hospitalized or dead.
Once I turn in the paperwork, a nurse takes me into a private room and draws my blood. Under Nevada state law, I have to test negative for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV before I can register with the county sheriff and get my work permit. After the blood draw, I have the world's fastest and most painless gynecological exam: A man enters the room, deftly inserts a plastic speculum in my vagina, glances around inside, and says, "Thank you, ma'am." He leaves the room without ever having made eye contact, and I hardly feel a thing.
The brothel where I'm working is a ranch in rural Nevada. Although Nevada is the one state where prostitution is legal, it condones prostitution only in counties with less than 200,000 people – this excludes the counties housing Reno, Vegas, Carson City, and Tahoe. The cities fear that too much tolerance of whoring might scare away the middle-American tourists and detract from their main business, which is gambling. Still, the women who work illegally in the cities far outnumber the brothel workers in the sticks.
The ranch looks like a large trailer home with a fence around it and a few cows lowing in the backyard. Directly inside the door lies a dimly lit parlor where the clients check out the girls. There's a bar against the wall. To the left of the bar there's a long hallway leading to the girls' rooms, where we sleep and turn tricks.
The rooms are like any cheap motel room except that they feature an emergency button and an intercom system so the women at the front desk can hear what's going on in the room. As I'm filling out my paperwork, the madam suddenly comes barreling down the hall wailing, "Hey! Somebody's in trouble!" It turns out that one of the new girls pressed the emergency button, thinking she could order drinks that way. I feel well protected here – but at what price? I'm forbidden to work outside the brothel. I have to abide by its rules and give it half my pay. It doesn't feel that different from the classic middle-American trade-off, in which "good girls" give up their sexual freedom in the hope that they will thereby be protected from sexual violence.
Of course, the laws regarding prostitution are not primarily intended to protect me. The fact that we can only work in state-licensed houses keeps the brothel owners in business and protects the neighbors from whores running loose in their streets and backyards. State regulations benefit everyone but the working girl. (This is why most politicized whores want prostitution decriminalized, as it is in Amsterdam, but not legalized, as it is in Nevada.) Meanwhile, the brothels pay as much as 70 percent of the county's property taxes. Hence the friendly relations between the bordellos and their neighbors. I had no problem getting directions to the nearby brothel from a cheery housewife watering the plants in her front yard. Try asking the locals on the streets of San Francisco the way to the nearest whorehouse, and you'll quickly see how unusual this is.
But let's not forget the connection between that helpful citizen and police surveillance. At nine the next morning, Stan takes me to the sheriff's office, where I have to present my test results to get a work permit. The secretary looks downright grandmotherly, but she doesn't take her job lightly. She orders me to stand on one yellow line while she photographs me, then another yellow line while she takes my fingerprints.
The fingerprinting is a difficult operation, since she insists on having total control of my hand – which she stretches out so far that I repeatedly stumble across the yellow line. "Don't cross the yellow line!" she barks anxiously, as if I'm a dangerously confused teenager behind the wheel for the first time in driver's ed. After fingerprinting each thumb, finger, and all four fingers together on both hands, she checks me for identifying birthmarks, scars, and tattoos, as though there were a high probability that I'll escape from prison or that she'll have to identify my mangled body. By the time she finishes, I feel like I've just been through an arrest drill for hookers.
Upon my return, the madam introduces me to Starlet, who will teach me how this place works. There's something very prudish and schoolmarmish about her, despite her see-through red dress and big platinum hair. She opens a thick black binder and starts reading me the house rules one by one. "All new girls work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. You can stay in your room if you want, but as soon as the bell rings, you have to be up in the parlor and ready to go.
"Never answer the door yourself. You'll be fined one hundred dollars each time you do. When the bell rings, you get in line with the other girls, and the greeter will answer the door and introduce you to the customer. You aren't allowed to talk to the customer while you're in line. That's called 'dirty hustling.' Some girls do it, but you're not supposed to.
"Sometimes the customer picks someone right away, but most times they don't. They're too intimidated by all the girls, so they head straight to the bar.
"You aren't allowed to speak to a customer before he's ordered his drink. Once he's ordered his drink, you can come on to him all you want – but don't butt in while another girl's talking to him: That's 'dirty hustling' too, although lots of the girls do it.
"Never talk prices on the floor. When a guy's interested in you and wants to know your price, take him to your room. This is a classy joint: we don't talk in the parlor about what we do and how much it costs."
No talking prices in public. Although it's perfectly legal to exchange sex for money here, it's not polite to talk about it. Politeness, delicacy, and "class" – in the sense of etiquette and "good taste" – replace the legal prohibitions against whoring. You still can't talk about sex and money in the same breath. Only behind closed doors – hiding the raw economic relationship in which you're working him for money and he's paying you for sex. Middle-class decorum and privacy conceal the actual exchange.
Like myself and many of the whores I know in San Francisco, a lot of the women who work here come from middle-class backgrounds. These women weren't forced into prostitution by poverty or drug addiction. Many of them chose whoring over straight work precisely because they found that prostitution was less exploitative than their straight jobs. Yet, unlike some of the San Francisco whores, these women don't seem especially interested in challenging the codes of sexual propriety.
San Francisco attracts a fundamentally different kind of whore than the Nevada brothel. Since the glory days of the Barbary Coast, San Francisco has been home to mavericks of all sorts – activists, artists, intellectuals – and, of course, sex radicals, who frequently transgress many constraints on sexual freedom, sometimes including the laws against prostitution.
For those with the temperament to enjoy the work, prostitution makes a lot of sense: It saves the creative and adventurous from nine-to-five tedium, offers good money and flexible hours, and allows one to go to school or pursue other projects one simply wouldn't have the time or money for otherwise. San Francisco is known for its bright, witty whores. Like the Nevada brothels, we're a tourist attraction, and we provide a service that will always be in demand. (Isn't it a shame the city wants to throw us all in jail?)
The Nevada brothel workers are a different breed. There are bright and witty whores here, too, but most are less interested in sexual freedom, which is why they don't mind the highly regulated brothel system. Unlike some of the radical whores in San Francisco, many Nevada girls are more concerned with "class" in the sense of upwardly mobile pretensions and refined aesthetic taste. The legalized brothel system reproduces middle-class values, such as the expectations of privacy regarding sex: the whores are confined to the brothel while working, and, even in the brothel, they aren't supposed to talk about sex in the parlor, because it's "bad taste."
In short, "classiness" eclipses class consciousness, or the political awareness of class as a social issue. It's not that I think all whores need to read Marx and analyze class conflict, but it's always nice to meet pro-sex work radical feminists and see some efforts at whore solidarity. This Nevada brothel lacks that sense of solidarity, although the women are friendly and welcoming, and I like most of the ones I've met. I feel the absence of feminist solidarity more acutely because other bi women and dykes are in short supply.
I comfort myself by enjoying occasional glimpses of queer culture: unintentional drag shows by the porn star working girls who dress like Liberace and wag their tits at the camera. One of the platinum blondes – Candy Curvature – dresses like a petite hourglass-shaped Elvis impersonator: white polyester pantsuits, stilettos that light up red and green, and fringe skirts made of fluorescent green latex stand out in the black light of the parlor. Her bedroom eyes droop under mounds of sparkly gold glitter paint and false eyelashes.
She sees me quickly averting my eyes and starts flirting with me. The main problem with cruising these girls is that they're hypersensitive to being cruised – and most of them aren't lesbian or bisexual. They're just pan-seductive. As I open my Quaker granola bar wrapper, the sweet strawberry smell wafts over to Candy, who cooes, "Oooh, I want ..." – knowing full well that she never has to finish a sentence before the basking addressee (me, in this case) places it in her hand like a mechanical doll. "Thank you," she mouths sensually – before I even realize I've given away most of my lunch – and plants a kiss on my cheek in slow motion. When I come to, I wonder why she worked me as if I were a straight guy. It's not like I could give her anything she'd want – not even an expensive dinner. Candy's not malicious – in fact, she's pretty friendly – but she is predatory. So much for sisterhood.
There seems to be a connection between the absence of class-conscious worker solidarity and the sexual conventionality these whores display. When I get my first client, my trainer Starlet comes into the room with us. She's only there for the very beginning – to teach me how to do "dick check." That's where I check the client's penis for visible symptoms of STDs. Once John and I decide on a price for a blow job and intercourse, Starlet spreads a towel on the bed and asks John to drop his trousers. As he pulls down his pants and boxers, his erect cock springs up like a flagpole.
Starlet puts on a latex glove and squeezes the tip of his cock, which eagerly emits a clear droplet. "What you're looking for," she turns to me, "is anything greenish white – that's gonorrhea – or any blisters or sores on the skin." She peels off the glove. "It's that simple. Now he can put his pants back on, and you take him to the cashier in the hallway, so he can pay."
"Wait a second ... How much would it cost for the two of you?" John asks.
"I don't do doubles," says Starlet in her crisp professional voice. "But if she's OK with a two-girl party, I'll take you out into the parlor and introduce you to another girl who does that." The client declines, and after the session Starlet tells me a bit about "two-girl parties": "Some of the girls like it because you can make more money. There're more things the three of you can do together. Most of the girls just fake it."
She seems to be trying to defend "two-girl parties" by telling me I can make my money without actually having to engage in lesbian sex. She also repeats that I shouldn't feel that this is something I have to do. This shocks me. It's never even occurred to me that some women would rather have sex with a client than with another working girl. I've always preferred "doubles," the threesome between a client and two girls. Frequently I get to work with a friend, and there's a camaraderie in turning a trick together. Even the "straight" whores I know in San Francisco will do other women for money. Once again, this brothel reproduces some of the most depressing middle-American constraints around sexuality.
Ultimately, this isn't surprising, since most of the sex industry caters to middle America, where most people are straight, or at least pretending to be. But there I was, presuming that all whores were willing to participate in bisexual activity. I'd been a whore for all these years and never chanced upon the stereotypical "straight girl" prostitute who can only talk about hair and nails.
This place has shown me how thoroughly my assumptions about sex workers were based on a few exquisitely rare cultures in San Francisco. I had somehow acquired an irrational faith that all middle-class sex workers would be radical queer activists, committed to fighting for sexual freedom everywhere. I'd imagined that whores automatically flouted the bourgeois expectations of privacy around sex. But then I ran into mainstream America head-on in a Nevada brothel.
Despite the cultural claustrophobia, I'll probably come back here. The money and safety outweigh my complaints. Besides, I can live with middle America for a week. (I've had lots of practice.) And there are some amazing people here. It just takes a bit longer to find them.
From what I've seen, legalized prostitution is extremely confining. In some brothels, prostitutes can't leave the premises. Fortunately, here we can ask for time off when we need it. After three days indoors, I can't stand it anymore. So I go for a walk in rural Nevada. A few motorcycle bars around, some houses, not much else. The wide-open spaces don't ease my sense of confinement, though.
I wonder why this whole experience feels so familiar. On the plane out of Reno, I realize that it reminds me, strangely, of visiting my parents.