In August, two Quartz reporters, Allison Schrager, who’s also an economist, and Siyi Chen, a video journalist traveled to Carson City, Nevada to visit the famed Moonlite Bunny Ranch Brothel. They interviewed some of the few legal sex workers in America, and found that to really understand the work, they also needed answers to some basic questions. In this piece we invite five of the people we met to speak for themselves. At their request, we used sex workers’ stage names, not their real names. The following is lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
We went into this story thinking we’d learn about the economics of brothels and pick up some negotiation tips. But when humans sell their sexuality and personalities as commodities, it is not like any other economic story. Our time in the brothel pushed the boundaries of how we thought about economics and gender dynamics, and brought up questions beyond the scope of our story that nevertheless demand an answer. The people who work at the brothel can answer these questions, in their own words, far better than we can.
Can you sell the most intimate part of yourself and not take it personally?
The ladies all claim they feel an authentic connection with clients, and this connection is what they use to sell them more expensive, time-consuming services. But how real can this connection be when clients don’t even know the women’s real names or personal details? It seems the brothel sell a totally un-demanding intimacy (they call it “no drama”), where someone listens to your problems, concerns, and cuddles with you—but has no emotional needs of her own. The one-way nature of the interaction may be why the woman can sell emotional, intimate connections, yet not take haggling over it personally.
❝ More often than not, the clients are not interested in who I am as a person. Why am I here? What’s my family like? I very, very rarely get asked those types of questions. And if a client ever wanted to know such things, usually I’ll just be like, “Hey, that’s, you know, personal information, I’d rather focus on us. Let’s focus on what we’re about to do and all the fun that we’re going to have.” ❞
❝ I’ve been doing this for three years and I’ve sold intimacy, but it was counterfeit intimacy, and I’m only speaking for me. A lot of women would say that it’s not counterfeit and even though they’re getting paid, there is a genuine connection there. I can’t say the same for myself.
I mean, and that’s why we’re performers and to some extent I think we’re actresses. They don’t know our real names for the most part. Some women might share more than others. Some women make up completely different stories and personas from their real life.
And others are really candid and forward with their clients, especially the regulars that they’ve gotten to know after a while. But I always wonder how do the men really know, you know? And some would say at the end of the day does it matter? But I think it does matter to the men.
At least from the research studies that I’ve read, that they’ve collected from looking at like message board sites and review sites where men can talk about this kind of stuff. A lot of the men are really concerned with: Is she enjoying herself? Do you think she’s faking? Do you think it’s all just for the money?
So the research has shown that the men are truly interested in the woman’s pleasure, and that they really do want authenticity, and that there is some worry over whether they’re getting it or not. ❞
❝ One thing I won’t do is I will not tell a client I love him. I’ve had a client ask me that a couple times, and some girls will say, “Yeah, I’ll tell you that if you give me more money.” Well, even if you offered me double what I asked for, I’m not going to do that because, I mean, that’s hard to do that to people, you know? Sometimes they take it seriously or they believe it, and I think that’s really cruel to play with someone’s emotions and feelings like that, you know? So I want them to feel that connection and intimacy, but I don’t want to lie to them and break their heart either. ❞
How can selling your body make you a more confident person?
Nearly all the women we spoke to gushed about how much confidence they’ve gained working in the brothel. It’s surprising because most outsiders (the women call them civilians) would assume selling your body is a sign of low self-worth. The women who are successful claim the experience does the opposite. Some did sex work before the brothel, as strippers or pornography, but most (especially the younger women) worked more typical jobs in retail or other service industry jobs. They say their feeling of self-worth wasn’t based on male attention, material wealth, or physical appearance—it came from feeling like a successful business owner.
❝ I definitely am a lot more confident in myself. I have found that even just the way I carry myself and walk around has completely changed. When I was the top booker in [July], I was gifted a really nice Louis Vuitton handbag [from the brothel]. And just carrying that around on my shoulder is just like this big confidence boost of like, yeah, I earned that. ❞
Alice has been at the brothel less than a year. Her first financial goal was buying a bed and breakfast with her college friends. She bought it in a midwest college town a few weeks before we arrived and used the negotiation skills she learned at the brothel to get a great deal. After it opens, she plans to continue to work at the brothel and work at the bed and breakfast part-time.
❝ Oh, man, they [the sellers of the bed and breakfast] did not know what they were getting into as far as negotiating with me. I have definitely gotten to be a lot more sharp in how I look at things. And I view every situation as not just a conversation, but also a negotiation. So when I went to purchase my car, Dennis [Hof] really walked me through what that process looks like when it comes to acquiring a new vehicle. He helped me with the price. He got me a really great deal, which is so, so helpful. And now that I’ve got that like saved in my knowledge bank, I know the next car I get, I can handle that no problem, I’m a pro. ❞
❝ Well, I think negotiation in general not only can help a woman know her value or worth or, you know, whatever that even means. But I know for me it’s been helpful in other areas of life.
I remember being a single woman and you have a crush on a guy and you want him to call you back. So you might do a little more on, you know, an earlier date than you’re comfortable with. I think that that might have more negative impacts on women than when a man’s coming to you with, you know, a bag full of money and says, “You’re beautiful. I’m ready to pay hundreds or thousands or whatever and you’re worth it.” You know, I mean, that’s empowering. Or at least I thought it was. And a lot of the women that I’ve interviewed have agreed with me.
I really do see prostitution as just another form of work and service labor. I think my confidence came from being good at the job. So it’s not only looking good—because there’s a wide variety of women that work there. There’s heavier women, there’s skinnier women, there’s all sorts of different women. So it’s not always the most beautiful woman that’s getting picked in the lineup.
I think when you’re successful, and you’re savvy, and you understand that it’s a total package, and it’s not just your looks and money, that’s probably where more of the confidence comes from. At least for me it did. Like I made good money. And I know it wasn’t just, you know, my looks or whatever. It was because I was intelligent, and I took professional photos, and I worked on my bio, and I would tweet every day, and I put a lot of work into my business. And then it succeeded. And I felt good about that. ❞
Can prostitutes and pimps be feminists?
Many people consider prostitution to be exploitation—the polar opposite of feminist ideals. The notion there is any female empowerment can seem absurd. We spent days with women in their underwear, watched them be leered at and picked out of a lineup by much older men. Watching what went on was, to put it mildly, unsettling.
But all the women say they feel in control and are the ones with the power—not only at the brothel, but in other areas of their life. Many of the women describe having found financial empowerment and independence. Several people at the brothel proudly call themselves feminists, including owner Dennis Hof, who firmly believes women should have their own professional identities, be financially independent, be paid equal to men, and be able to take care of themselves.
For most, the job only lasts a few years; Hof encourages the women to use the money and resources to lay the foundation for future success—buy a business, a house, pay off student loans, and use their negotiation skills in their next job. He readily admits he profits from their empowerment, as better negotiators means more money in his pocket, but that doesn’t take away from what the women gain.
❝ I’m all about women’s rights. I’m about women doing better. I think it’s disgusting that women make 78% of what men do in the workforce. Except in this job where they’re making 300% or 400% of what men do because men in the sex business don’t make any money. Some of them brag about it. No, they don’t make any money. Gigolos don’t make any money. If they do, it’s gay sex.
I want these girls to have great lives, to be successful; I work with them on goal setting. And you know, it’s not just enough to come in and have fun and make money. It’s, like, why are you here? You know, and I tell people, you know what, there’s a lot of great jobs out there. Work in a bank. You’re only going to get 28 hours a week. Get plenty of time off. You’re not going to make any money.
I’m trying to make these girls truly independent businesswomen. And if you’re an independent businesswoman, you have a choice. You determine your own fate, and you determine the money you’re going to make off of what you’re doing. ❞
On people who think prostitution is exploitation
❝ You know, they’re not wrong, often times in other countries where women don’t have the same protection and the same luxuries that we have here in Nevada. In other states where this isn’t legal, there is illegal prostitution that happens where women are kidnapped and trafficked. There are women that are forced into this against their will by these horrible, horrible pimps and abusers. And, you know, those situations do exist, and I don’t want to discredit their existence. But the way I always like to explain it is: That is true, but that is not true for me. That’s not my truth. For me, I chose to go into this for myself. Everything is in my name. My car is in my name. My house is in my name. My savings, all in my name. And for me, it has just been a great experience. I have not had anything terrible happen to me since I have started this job. ❞
❝ In the brothel, they come in ready to pay us. I honestly think it’s really empowering. And people say, oh, prostitution is so dirty and it makes women feel so down on themselves. And, you know, I can’t speak for all women in the industry. Some probably do come out feeling bad about themselves. And it’s not for everybody, and it’s not an easy job. But I know that it’s definitely elevated my self-esteem, my confidence. I’m not afraid to ask for what I want anymore. ❞
❝ I had a decent set of boundaries, but coming out here, learning things like that, it definitely improved everything and helped. I’m a stronger woman. ❞
How long do women work in the brothel? Can it be a long-term career?
Some women come to the brothel and don’t last a week. Some stay for decades. What does it take to make it for the long-haul?
❝ It depends on their goals, how much fun they’re having, and their reason for being here to start with. I’ve seen many girls come in here, split up with their boyfriend once they come to the Ranch. The boyfriend finds out. Three days later they’re gone.
I’ve got a girl, Misty, here now, wanted to make a few thousand dollars. Well, she made it the first day. Now she wants to stay here. So she’ll stay longer. And we’re not concerned about how long they want to stay, but we do hope that they stay here a long time because it makes them more money and us more money.
It’s not a good job, it’s a great opportunity. To either make a good amount of money in a short period of time or to work towards retirement by working hard and investing your money…
I like to tell girls, look at why are you here? There’s better jobs than this. You really want a real job, go down to Bank of America, work 9 to 5, five days a week, and you’ll barely have enough money to make a living…
You get a week off you won’t have any money to go anywhere. That’s a good job. Mine is an opportunity. Now it’s an opportunity to either work, hard-knuckle, focus five years, and you’ll never work another day in your life. If you listen and you invest your money properly, you use financial advisers that we tell you to—you’ll never work another day in your life. ❞
❝ We know that this is going to be a short-term for them, most of them. Two, three years, if they’re lucky. Some have been here for five, 10 years, and they’re successful, and they like making that money because you can easily make a quarter of a million part-time. ❞
❝ Some of the highest earners are in their 50s and 60s. And these are women that are making $400,000 – $500,000 a year. I’ve talked to women that invest in real estate. They open their own businesses on the side, and now all of a sudden they have the brothel income, and they have the supplemental income from their other businesses that they’ve launched. Obviously if you invest well and you are good at saving your money, if you’re making half a million or close to it a year, you can retire early. I’ve certainly seen a lot of career sex workers. Then other women just want to get in and out. And they might have, you know, student loans to pay. And they say, “Okay, I’m going to start it on this date and I want to be done in a year. And I want all my debt paid off.” I think that’s probably more common. I think that’s definitely more common than the career sex worker. But it can certainly be a lifetime profession. ❞
❝ [Describing Air-force Amy, a woman who has worked at the brothel for 16 years, is 51 years old, is one of the highest earners. We were told she takes home $500,000 a year.] Amy has a hell of a personality. She’s a wonderful person to be around. Any time I need help with anything or I’m not sure how to do something or I have questions, Amy is the first person here, as long as she’s been here. She isn’t too good to help us. She doesn’t think, “Well I make all this money, now I’m better than everyone.” She’s not like that. She’s not rude. She’s not mean. She sits down and says, you know, “Hey, little one, I want to tell you a little secret,” or “Well if that’s not working for you, try something else.”
[What she’s learned from her] Don’t give up so easy. She doesn’t walk her clients [ending a negotiation without a deal], doesn’t walk them at all. She always finds some way to come to an agreement with them, and she told me, she said, “I believe it’s bad luck, but I’m here to do a service, I’m here to take care of them, and so I want them leaving with the experience they want.” So she doesn’t walk clients. She doesn’t think she’s too good for them or even if they have a smaller amount of money, she really works with them and does what she can, and I really respect her for that. ❞