Tricks of the trade

A Seattle doctor infiltrates the best little whorehouse in Nevada.


by Alexa Albert (Random House, $24.95)

WHAT'S A NICE GIRL like Alexa Albert doing in a place like Mustang Ranch? Over the course of six years, the Harvard-trained doctor and Seattle native spent a total of seven months inside this Nevada brothel because of her academic interest in prostitution and its public health ramifications. Before it was closed last year due to its owner's fraudulent activities, Mustang Ranch boasted a 30-year history nearly as checkered and mythologized as the state's most contentious profession itself. For almost 100 years, shifty and politically savvy brothel owners have found loopholes through which to run their illicit businesses (Joe Conforte, Mustang Ranch's eventual owner, went so far as to use double-wide trailers so he could wheel between county lines when the authorities in one county gave him trouble). Finally, the state sanctioned strict—and potentially lifesaving—regulations in 1971 that legalized brothel prostitution.

"However disturbing the idea of commercial sex may be to some of us, it's naive to believe that prostitution can ever be eliminated," Albert asserts in Brothel, her account of living among Mustang's more than 30 ladies of the evening. "The demand will be met with supply one way or another, no matter what is legislated. Turning our backs on the women (and men) who do this work may be far more immoral—even criminal—than prostitution itself."

Albert constructs a solid argument for considering the Nevada model on a national scale, based on its obvious public health advantages: Prostitutes are granted work cards only if they clear extensive sexually transmitted disease exams and background checks, and by law condoms must be used by brothel customers. More interestingly, the Mustang women learn how to check their clients' penises for STDs with clinical precision before any sex act takes place. Indeed, the Nevada brothels' exceptionally low incidence of STDs compared with other areas of the country demonstrates the effectiveness of actively managing a profession that's going to exist whether people like it or not.

Beyond public health issues, Brothel provides a fascinating glimpse into a hidden lifestyle, alternating between supply-and-demand transactions and the various reasons many women become sex workers. It's an instantly gratifying page-turner surrounding a taboo topic and an intelligent, if sometimes clinical, compilation of observations about this specialized population. Sex is an alluring subject to begin with, but Albert reveals the extent of its banalities within Mustang's red walls. She gets to sit in on two different prostitutes' "parties" with customers, which leave her bewildered and repelled but grateful for the chance to observe what's generally criticized, glamorized, and otherwise left to the imagination. There isn't much titillation to be found anywhere in the book—especially when we're told early on that the women soothe their vaginas after several clients in a row with Mentholatum-treated tampons, and that many are forced into work by cash-strapped husbands and pimps (despite the legality of the profession, many women actually worked for men on the outside who placed girls in various brothels).

WHEN BROTHEL MOVES beyond the business of sex, it emerges as a personality-filled memoir about an unforgettable group of women. Albert, for all her dogged persistence interviewing everyone down to the brothel's traveling lingerie salesman, serves her authorial purpose best when she steps out of her own head and lets her subjects speak for themselves. And, surprise, these women aren't completely miserable: They laugh, give each other survival tips, confess to experiencing arousal with customers, and count their money until they've saved enough for a new car or a return plane ticket home. The world of the Mustang prostitute isn't all that different than that of a sorority house; work takes a backseat to the ongoing dramas of women interacting with other women. It's compelling how fiercely they support each other because they are initiates in the same club. Most claim to derive personal satisfaction from what they do, by simply making clients feel good about themselves.

"Politically, I thought prostitution degraded all women," Albert writes. "But Nevada's legal brothels were far less repugnant than I had expected. They appeared to be clean, legitimate workplaces, and the women were not shackled hostages but self-aware professionals there of their own free will."

Like Albert the researcher, these women took their duties at Mustang Ranch seriously, and the eventual bonds she made form Brothel's most resonant storylines—and, as the establishment's doors close for the last time, the most heartbreaking. Running the gamut between confessor and chronicler, by book's end Albert's not so much a witness to the finale of a Nevada institution as a fellow member of a family that's being dismantled. And while she makes great strides on behalf of protecting the women prostitutes who put themselves at risk in every conceivable way, she also writes a book she might not have expected to: a paean to a now-defunct community of shared experiences, of which she was very much a part.

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