Most people visit brothels seeking pleasure. I went seeking the guidance of a self-described “feminist pimp” who promised to teach me something more valuable.
I have a PhD in economics. I am an expert in assigning value to esoteric financial assets, exotic forms of labor, and pension finance. But like many women, I often don’t demand to be paid what I am worth. My career history contains far too many jobs where men, less qualified and experienced than I, were paid more than I was. I don’t stand up for what I am worth because I am terrible at negotiating—it terrifies me. I have a paralyzing fear of hearing no or offending someone. I normally don’t negotiate at all and feel silently grateful I am paid anything.
When I was invited to visit the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, to observe how it teaches women to own their value and get paid accordingly—many of the women who work there make well into six-figures a year—I figured I had something to learn from them. Did I ever.
My negotiation guru was Dennis Hof, the owner of a Nevada brothel that was featured in an HBO documentary and reality series during the mid-2000s. Of the 18 licensed brothels in Nevada, Hof owns seven of them.
“You have to believe in your product,” Hof says. “If you don’t believe in your product you can’t sell it…..They [the customers] will only pay you what you think you’re worth.”
I wasn’t just going to take his word for it. I visited his flagship location and first brothel, the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, and three other brothels he owns nearby. I talked to more than a dozen sex workers, and a PhD candidate who worked in a Hof-owned brothel for her dissertation research. I learned how they negotiate with occasionally spectacular results. I also learned how they develop self-esteem and self confidence, along with financial management skills.
Yet even Hof’s brothels, in this state that regulates prostitution, offer a charged environment; it often felt tense, sad, and seedy. It’s one thing to hear about women selling their bodies, and another to see near-naked women be looked over by prospective clients. And so, I’m not trying to glamorize sex work—many aspects of this story are uncomfortable and disturbing.
UNLV sociologist Barbara Brents, who spent years studying Nevada brothels, describes the mixed emotions (pdf) and contradictions the brothels provoke:
❝ It is an understatement to say that Nevada’s legal brothels are contradictory places for women. The most vulnerable and the most powerful women both fully choose and only sort of choose to come here to work. They work in an environment on the one hand as exploitative as any Walmart, yet these places pay more than any service worker ever dreamed. Their job, unlike for other prostitutes, is legal, yet they still endure a stigma worse than any welfare mother. ❞
It is important to study the darkest parts of the economy. We don’t always see the small, important subtleties that make markets work in the conventional economy. Those nuances are often much more apparent in extreme markets, like vice. When it comes to negotiation, what goes on at a brothel offers unique insights into the power dynamics of women asking for what they believe they are worth and what makes some more successful than others. At their request, we used sex workers’ stage names instead of their real names.
The four brothels I visited are located in Lyon County, Nevada, just outside the state capital, Carson City. By law, brothels must be in a remote location, far from schools or churches. The ones I saw are located off a busy, multi-lane road lined with pawn shops and gun stores. By car, you turn onto a winding road and are immediately greeted with fake street signs featuring small rabbits in compromising positions and a fake 69 mile per hour speed limit.
The brothel itself looks like a wholesome place. It’s a compound made up of several buildings surrounded by a white fence that matches the white trim on the main building. Hot pink, cartoon-like lettering announces: ”Moonlite Bunny Ranch.” A recent hire told me it reminds her of a dollhouse. But the innocent whimsy ends once you enter and are greeted by several women wearing nothing but thongs and push-up bras.
The brothel feels confining, dark, and smoky compared to the bright, open dryness of the Nevada desert. The first room you enter is the parlor, a low-ceiling room full of red velvet couches, a light cloud of cigarette smoke, and a single episode of I love Lucy playing on a loop on mute. When I arrived, Hof was holding court flanked by two young, beautiful, scantily-dressed, blond-haired women and a few of their regular customers.
We ate ice-cream as he described what I was in for.
“It is not sex,” he says then, and at several other times during the visit.”It’s an adventure.”
Nevada has a long history with brothels, dating back to the old west. Brothels have been licensed and tightly regulated since the early 1970s. Legal prostitutes must work out of brothels where they are independent contractors. The women set prices and services every time they see a client. That means women, sometimes as young as 18, regularly make deals with rich, older men for tens of thousands of dollars. I was told celebrities, famous businessmen, and lottery winners often patron the ranch. (Lamar Odom overdosed at a Hof brothel.) But most of the clients I saw seemed like regular guys you’d see at a company picnic; there was even a sweet-looking, preppy couple (they wore polo shirts) seeking a wild BDSM three-way.
About 500 women are in rotation and available to work out of a Hof brothel. But like Uber drivers, only a fraction of them are working a shift at any one time. They range in age from 18 to well into their 50s. They include all ethnicities and body types.
Customers (mostly men) enter the brothel and are greeted with a lineup of women (most clad in skimpy underwear and high heels) who introduce themselves. The customer picks the woman he prefers, she then takes him by the hand and gives him a tour of the ranch. Once she brings him to her room, the negotiation begins, and prices and services are decided. If no agreement is reached, the woman escorts the client to the bar. There he’ll be introduced to another woman. If they hit it off, they’ll go to her room to negotiate. When an agreement is reached, they go to the cashier (called the hooker-booker) to pay. At that point, the woman is issued a flat white bed sheet (it is too expensive and time consuming to change a full set of sheets after each customer, so the service takes place on a single white sheet), which she carries triumphantly toward her room. After this, the party (their word for the sex service) begins.
Prices are an opaque function of services performed—certain sex acts cost more—and the amount of time the service will take, anywhere between 15 minutes and several days. Prices vary widely depending on the provider and what’s involved. According to Hof, the average party, a quick (less than an hour) purely sexual encounter typically costs about $400. In addition to choosing a woman in the lineup, customers can make an appointment in advance if they are a repeat client or if they see a woman on the website, or on social media, and wish to party with her. But even those transactions must be negotiated in person, by the provider, and at the brothel. Even repeat clients must renegotiate; it is an opportunity to get more money and sell more services. And as one woman named Harley Lane reminded me, even prostitutes face inflation.
Unlike most industries, many legal sex workers are paid more than their illegal counterparts. Prices on websites selling illegal sex offer about third of what many of the women claimed they charge for a comparable service, though prices can vary. For example, one of the more popular services, the Girlfriend Experience, typically fetches about $1,000 an hour at the brothel. Online escorts in the Reno area advertise about $300 an hour for the same service.
The price difference is in part due to the negotiation, which creates an opportunity for price discrimination (charging more to customers willing to pay); prices are normally pre-set in the illegal part of the industry. Prices also reflect risk. Seeing an illegal sex worker exposes the client to the potential wrath of law enforcement, disease, the possibility the woman looks different in person or is untrustworthy. The legal industry is regulated, operates in the open, and the women are constantly screened for infections. Clients pay a premium to avoid risk.
If a Bunny Ranch worker is successful, she might earn more at the ranch, even after medical and licensing fees and paying the house a share of her earnings, because she benefits from their marketing and brand. Others earn less, but it is still worth it because legal brothels are a safer environment (there’s security, panic buttons) and they don’t have to worry about the law either.
The house takes 50% of money the woman negotiates, including any tips she receives. That cut may sound outrageous; perhaps it brings up cliched images of exploitive pimps. But in every commission-based sales job, the owner takes a large chunk of your earnings. Even Uber takes 20%. The women also have to pay $29 a day in rent, pay for doctor visits, and provide toys and other supplies. The business structure creates an incentive for the brothel to transform a new recruit into a successful businesswoman who can garner media attention and, most importantly, know how to make a deal. Working at the brothel includes extensive training in the art of negotiation.
The Bunny Bible, a confidential “employee” manual, contains instructions on how to negotiate. It was written by Hof and his COO, Suzette Cole, whom everyone calls Madame Suzette. Every Hof brothel has a copy.
The brothels each have a weekly staff meeting called the Tea Party where the ladies, wearing large hats, are taught negotiation skills, get financial advice from a private banker, and receive a little self-esteem boosting from Hof and Madame Suzette, all while they sip iced tea out of fine china and eat small sandwiches. Think part life-skills/part Tony Robbins workshop. When I was there, the women at the Tea Party presented handmade vision board collages, which were made during craft day. The vision boards mostly contained cut-out pictures from magazines of handsome celebrities (representing the desire for marriage and children one day), fantastic real estate, expensive cars, and in one case, strawberry ice cream. There are many activities, like craft day, to keep the women occupied and distracted during the many hours when they’re not with a client. Failure to keep them busy can result in unproductive drama.
New escorts are assigned a more seasoned worker, called a “big sister,” who attends the first few negotiations and offers advice. The big sister sometimes does the negotiation on behalf of the new recruit or she may just stand in the background and nod when a fair price is reached. One new recruit told us the negotiation for her first party was between her big sister and the uncle and father of her first client, a 28-year-old virgin. Negotiations typically take about 15 minutes, but sometimes they’re much quicker than that.
The ladies often discuss business with each other, compare tips, and do mock negotiations for practice. One experienced negotiator in her 40s, named Shelby Star, offers formal seminars.
It’s worth noting that at the Hof brothels, older women tend to be the highest earners—some earning hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the younger women who, on average, just barely crack six figures. This is in part due to survivorship bias: anyone who lasts for decades is very good at the job and has a stable clientele. It’s also because older women tend to be more empathetic, confident, experienced at negotiating, and know how to cultivate a loyal client base. Empathy is the most prized commodity at the brothel. It commands far more than youthful vitality. Shelby Star, the same one who teaches negotiation seminars, explained:
❝ I’m in my 40s and I thought that when I came here I would make less money because of my age, and it’s completely opposite. The older you are the more money that you make…
If they see that you have a great personality and that you’re funny, they tend to spend more money, too. Because they want to please you and they realize, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to have a great time with this girl like she’s really cool.” So it just makes it that much easier to negotiate. ❞
Based on what we were told about Bunny Ranch clients and their spending patterns, many men don’t necessarily desire a kinky encounter with a beautiful 20-year-old as much as they prefer to cuddle with a middle-aged woman. I didn’t speak to many clients. They were skittish about speaking with media. A few gushed to me about how much they loved the attention from women “who would have never even spoken to me in college.” I did see many lineups that included women of different ages and looks. It was not always predictable who’d get picked. They often say at the brothel there’s someone for everyone, and that appeared to be true.
I can distill some of what I learned from the people I met into 10 key tips. These are the tips taught to the women at Hof brothels. Some will work better than others the next time you ask for a raise.
1. Establish a connection. The negotiation begins the moment the counterparty lays eyes on the escort. She smiles, says her first and last name, displaying a confidence and warmth that puts the customer at ease and projects value. Almost no one likes to negotiate. The woman’s friendly self-confidence not only makes the counter-party more comfortable, it puts the escort in control.
After the lineup, the woman takes the customer by the hand, the first point of physical contact. They walk side by side—never one in front of the other—as they tour the ranch. As they walk, they talk about why he’s there, his background, and his hobbies and interests. One escort got a large booking ($6,500, versus her usual $1,000) because during the tour they connected over a similar childhood in the Southwest. Forging a connection creates power in the negotiation. If a customer is attached to an individual, he is more likely to meet her price.
By law the negotiations must occur in person, but Hof says given the option, always negotiate in person. It is easier to form a connection that way.
2. Don’t talk about money or time initially, just the service you’ll provide. The women are instructed to describe an ideal scenario while touching the arm, leg, or hair of the client. They don’t bring up money or how long it will take until the client is hooked and wants the full service. Instead of leading with how much they’re worth, they describe their value in a way that’s appealing to the counterparty. Hof described it this way:
❝ The guy’s, like, “Well, I need four hours and I need to do this and I need to do that.” What I would tell her to say is “We’re not going to have to worry about time. We’re going to have plenty of time together, all the time that you want, because I’m not rushing you out of here because I want you to come back.” Now, you just eliminated the whole discussion about time. Then the guest says, “Well, how much time do I get?” “You get what you need. I’m not rushing you out of here.” ❞
3. The most controversial question is whether to say the number first or let the client. The younger women always make the client say what he’s prepared to spend first. It’s hard to tell how much money a client has. Some of the less flashy looking clients ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. If they say the number first, they risk low-balling themselves.
But Hof and the older women like to say the number first. They say it sets the tone and takes control of the negotiation. They don’t worry about saying a number that’s too low, because if the client readily agrees they then go in for the more expensive service and still get more.
I asked negotiation expert Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business school, about who is right. He studies the power dynamics of negotiations in other industries. He agrees with Hof that it is better to say your number first. That’s especially true when pricing is not transparent (as it is in the brothel). It gives the seller more power if she throws out the number first. It also frames the discussion and puts the prices in a higher range. ”It is better to make an ambitious offer and give yourself room to concede—unless the other side has more information” on the pricing.
4. Offer options. They key to getting more money is offering more services. It leaves room to lower the price if the number thrown out is too large. The escort can lower the price by removing services. That makes the negotiation less contentious because no one feels like they are losing—they are simply making tradeoffs. Says Hof:
❝ I teach them to start high and work their way down and try to add more benefits, time, activity for fun things to do at the ranch (go swimming, eat here). [I tell them to] try to add those things as more benefits before you come down too far. I teach them that in any sales scenario, it typically takes six no’s to get a yes for the kind of money that you want. ❞
Galinsky says offering options is key, because “it gives the buyer permission to pay more because he feels like his preferences are being met.”
At the brothel the ultimate upsell option is a service called the Girlfriend Experience (GFE). It involves kissing, cuddling, going to dinner, and talking. In addition to other services on the menu (quickies, a porn-star experience) is the less popular Wife Experience, which involves the prostitute yelling at the customer and nagging him to do chores. Christina Parreira, a PhD candidate in sociology, worked at a Hof brothel and studied the dynamics of the GFE:
❝ I’ve interviewed at this point 53 women—when I ask about GFE and which acts they tend to price higher and if they do place a premium on GFE, they almost all say yes. I ask them why and they say it’s, well, because I’m giving intimacy. I’m giving more of myself away, which is interesting, too, because you’re also giving your body and you’re allowing someone to penetrate you. But for some reason—and I do the same thing—that intimacy is priced higher. ❞
GFE specialists are the highest earners. They typically get at least twice the typical rate. A GFE party commands a large premium because it takes longer and it requires more emotional and mental energy on behalf of the provider. It also is easier to negotiate a higher price because there is the scope for more additional options. The GFE may involve many activities (dinner, hiking), unlike a kinkier or more purely sexual service.
5. The negotiation never ends. The most lucrative parties are GFE overnights, which often fetch more than $10,000. Clients may be reluctant to agree to that initially, in which case they start with a smaller party and revisit the possibility of more time later on.
Hof also sees the value of a long-term relationship with a client. He tells the women to say they are offering a special low price (just because this client is special and worthy of being one of a few select regulars), if he offers to return.
❝ And what you want is a willing buyer, willing seller, and a repeat client. Now, don’t charge him so much he’s not going to come back. That doesn’t work. You know, I’d rather see you have $500 every week for the whole year than $1,500 dollars once. ❞
There is an art to getting the most money you can, while still building a long-term relationship. About 60% of the business is repeat clients.
6. Do your research. Hof claims he doesn’t encourage it, because he thinks it is demeaning and will make some women feel bad, but the woman talk to each other about what they charge. Knowing how much others get empowers the women to ask for more. Many said they asked for too little in the beginning, but once they learned what others got, they demanded more.
7. Get comfortable with money. Anyone must understand, and be in control of, their money in order to talk about it. It’s one reason why the brothel offers extensive—and remarkably effective—financial literacy training. Many women come to the brothel shut out of formal banking and have poor credit. At the brothel they work with a private banker to repair credit, establish savings accounts, IRAs, pay taxes, and secure car and home loans.
The women I met spoke fluently about the index funds their IRAs were invested in, and what sex toys they can deduct come tax time. Alice says about when she started:
❝ I didn’t have a savings account because I was really living paycheck to paycheck. I was a small business owner that was investing everything right back into my business, trying to grow that as much as possible. It was hard.
Right now, I’m just in index funds for the most part. I do have a rental property that I’m currently renovating. It’s a very, very large project. And I also have a small business that I am opening. I recently acquired a 30,000 square foot school that I am turning into a bed and breakfast. ❞
Hof encourages women to have financial goals they actively work toward. Being financially literate motivates and makes women more comfortable dealing with money. He says:
❝ First, the first thing we do is goal setting. What do you want? What are you trying to accomplish? Without a goal, you’re not going to be successful. You’ve got to have a roadmap to get going. ❞
8. Negotiation is never personal. Most of the women claim they are rarely insulted by a low offer. Even if he counters with “you’re not worth that much.”
The counterparty is looking to spend as little as possible, it has nothing to do with them. Like Hof says, it takes six no’s to get to a yes. A low offer is not an insult; it’s an opportunity to explain their worth and should never be taken personally. Says Hof:
❝ Nobody wants to pay anything. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that he doesn’t want to pay anything. That’s okay. It’s part of the buyer-seller experience. And, uh, like I go into a restaurant, I don’t want to pay 50 bucks for a steak. But I do. ❞
9. Be prepared to walk away. The escort must be able to recognize when someone won’t meet their price and feel okay about saying no. There is an opportunity cost to taking a low offer. Hof encourages the women to never take “less than they are worth.”
But this can go both ways. I watched one man go from woman to woman offering just $200 for a 40-minute GFE party. He got no takers. After he ran through almost all the women in the house, he mistook me for a prostitute and asked if I’d negotiate with him. The better negotiators recognized he wouldn’t come up in price and walked him to the bar to see if someone else would service him. Hof says 50% of negotiations fail, but that is not always a bad thing.
One woman we spoke to, who goes by Harley Lane (not her real name), explains:
❝ So I might do a $3,500 Girlfriend Experience party for an hour, but the guy might only have $800 and might want the same party. Well, I can’t, you know, down-sell that type of party. It is a specialty. I wouldn’t mind if it was just myself–because I want them to feel good—but other girls in the house who offer that type of party are asking for a similar price and if you sell that too low, then that hurts the other girls and it’s going to make it harder for them to make money too. ❞
10. Confidence is key. Being a good negotiator requires healthy self-esteem. The brothel takes steps to build self worth, by offering advice on make-up, clothes and celebrating success with designer handbags. The women I spoke to said they gained confidence from having men pay so much money for them. High, frequent bookings are rewarded with larger bedrooms and being featured prominently on the website.
But not everyone thrives. Some women who were not top earners described feeling inadequate if they are rarely chosen in lineups, or about their negotiation skills. Like any job where people feel undervalued, these women needed to let me know how good they are, even if others don’t recognize it. They described to me their extensive sexual skills and listed famous (I assume famous…for something—I never heard of any of them) lovers they’d worked with in the past. It reminded me of a former graduate student, who hates his job, bragging about famous members of his dissertation committee. One woman who didn’t want to be named described her frustration:
❝ No, this has been the hardest part for me, this negotiation part. Also, dealing with the line up…everything I’ve done [before] is very different or when I’ve worked before in a service in the past, the arrangement has been done for you and there’s no kind of competition. Guys just call the service and they find out what girls they’re into and the madam or whatever you call it would say what’s special about each person and, you know, sell them. ❞
She told me she earned more working for an illegal service that set the prices for her. She blames her poor negotiation skills, but she has only been at the brothel for a few months and thinks she’s getting better. Like any job, some people thrive in an entrepreneurial role and feel validation from their success. Others prefer to show-up, do what they are told, and get a certain amount each day. The second type aren’t as successful.
My time at the brothel challenged how I think about many things: relationships, the nature of intimacy, empowerment. I also learned a lot about negotiation. Alice Little (not her real name) said everything in life is a negotiation, even choosing a restaurant when going out with friends. It is hardly surprising then, that in the weeks since I’ve been back, I find keep asking myself, “How would they do it at the brothel?”
Now, whenever, there’s scope for disagreement, I offer up my ideal scenario, then several alternative options, collect all the information I can, and have less fear of confrontation. But the negotiations at the brothel are essentially seductions. Touching and showing your body is often part of the practice. That wouldn’t work for me or most people I know.
I asked Galinsky, the Columbia Business School professor, what civilians (which is what the women call non-sex workers) can learn from the brothel. “Power in negotiation comes from two things,” he told me. “Offering options and information.”
The women at the brothel do lots of both. One of the most powerful steps they take is they work together. They train each other, share business and negotiation skills, and bring in other women for three-ways (not appropriate for most jobs, but other forms of collaboration certainly are). Working together and sharing information gives them all more power in negotiation. At one brothel, the women even colluded and established an unofficial price floor. In most jobs, discussing pay with your co-workers is discouraged. Galinksy says it is important to overcome those boundaries. He suggests anonymous pay surveys, if pay discussion is taboo at your workplace.
The women I met came to Nevada for a number of reasons. Some were there because they were curious and intrigued by sex work. Others needed to pay off debt, and this was the fastest way they knew to make money. The women spanned a cross-section of the American economy. Many had families where men didn’t work, drug addiction was common, and everyone lived paycheck to paycheck. You can’t help but have mixed feelings about what goes on at the brothel. But the women do acquire the money and top-tier MBA-level skills that can help them escape the lives they came from. Some use those resources, others don’t.
But many find their voice and ask, everyday, for what they deserve.
Written by Allison Schrager with additional reporting by Siyi Chen.