Sex sells. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that sex sells things. The saturation of our society with sex and sexuality is more a marketing tool than a wholesale breakdown in “family values” that the religious right constantly frets about. The sheen and illusion of sex is attached to all manner of products with the hope that you, the consumer, will connect the emotional and physical intimacy of sex with the purchase of this nice sports car or that case of beer. We try to protect children from it. We try to ignore it. We see through it but, in truth, we’re all seduced by it to some degree.
Though polite society more or less allows itself to be seduced by the illusion of sex, it always seems to draw a bright line between that and the actual selling of sex. The media’s acceptance of young, scantily clad women and men frolicking in every direction is contrasted with the condemnation of sex as a pure commodity. It is this world, much less alluring than what’s depicted in polished advertisements, that is the focus of The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland by Barbara G. Brents, Crystal A. Jackson, and Kathryn Hausbeck. These three University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociologists bring the reader into the rarefied world of legal U.S. prostitution.
The new American heartland that the authors discuss is the only state in the union with legalized prostitution: Nevada. At the beginning of the twentieth century, brothels (then more commonly called saloons) could be found in cities large and small across the country. It was no different in the boomtowns of Nevada, as miners moved west in search of fortune. When no more could be taken from the mines and people began to leave Nevada in droves, the state turned to tourism for its salvation. Over time politicians and businesses strived to turn the state into a place where those tired of bourgeois culture could experience a bit of the Wild West.
Though casino owners eventually drove legalized prostitution out of Nevada’s larger urban areas in their desire to maintain a “classy” image of Las Vegas, brothels are still able to operate in counties with less than 400,000 residents. And the biggest defenders of those rural brothels (the authors estimate that twenty-five to thirty are in operation at any given time) are the very locals who live near the so-called houses of ill repute. A libertarian attitude, in addition to the revenue from those passing through, has solidified local support for brothels, though this isn’t to say that state leaders have never tried to do away with this legalized system of prostitution.
The most interesting chapters in The State of Sex discuss the way that sex is sold, the paths that lead women into this line of work, and sex as labor—that is to say, the transference of sex as a personal, intimate act into a commodity, and how that process impacts the prostitute’s self-image. Based on their interviews (the authors talked with thirty-eight women over the course of four years, with visits and time spent in various brothels), they break down three categories of practices when it comes to commoditized sex.
The first encompasses “body practices,” where the woman’s focus is mainly on her body, her appearance, and the performance of the sex act. “For each guy that comes in that door, only one of us is going to look perfect to him,” notes Misty, one of the women interviewed. “And it doesn’t matter what the other girls say, do, will do, or how much they charge. He’s still going to think that one girl is perfect. Only one.” The second focus is on “caring practices,” where the woman is primarily concerned and responsive to the customer’s emotional and psychological needs. “Believe it or not, there have been customers that will come in here and don’t want sex at all,” says Sadie, a worker at a brothel called Angel’s Ladies. “They just need to lie in your company.” Finally, “holistic practices” are a mix of both body and caring techniques. Dusty, a worker interviewed from another brothel called Miss Kitty’s, observes that “a lot of men who have been married to their high school sweethearts a long time, not allowed to do anything, haven’t experienced [something] they want to. And they can come in here and ask for certain things and don’t worry about being ridiculed for wanting to experiment or try something. So that’s why they come.”
The brothel workers interviewed all tended to favor one approach over another when dealing with clients. The understanding that visiting a brothel can be about more than just sex is also exemplified by an expansion of services at the larger brothels for a broader range of sexual experiences—including themed rooms—as well as nonsexual ones, such as a small resort on brothel property and a sports bar. This enhancement of amenities is primarily a marketing strategy to draw in a wider range of clients. As the authors note, “Today’s sexual tourist demands an experience of escape, relaxation, fantasy fulfillment, intimacy, and authentic connection beyond bodily gratification.”
What makes this book interesting is the act of stripping—not by the women in question, but by the authors, who have removed much of the titillation that usually accompanies discussions about legalized prostitution. As fascinating as HBO’s reality show Cathouse may be(spotlighting the women of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch), the authors succeed in this book by exploring the basic dignity of those working in brothels. This is not to say that the authors don’t weigh in on the debate about legalizing prostitution. Though they favor Nevada’s legal model more than the criminalization of prostitution, they understand that what happens in Nevada isn’t easily transferable to other cities or states.
Of note is the fact that, in the course of their interviews, the authors never detected anything that would make them think that the women they were talking with had been coerced into sex work. The Nevada model only works if the women in the brothels can work free of fear and intimidation, from authorities and clients alike. Of the women who were interviewed, a third came to sex work from other sex industries, such as adult films and stripping; another third came from illegal prostitution; and the final third came from the service industry, where they weren’t making enough money to survive.
Of course any reasonable and compassionate person would say that forced prostitution is unacceptable, and pimps (or whoever) who coerce people into that line of work should be severely punished. However, what if someone decides to work at a brothel simply to make ends meet? Is this proof that society is forcing women to sell their bodies because of structural sexism in our culture? Or is it no different than anyone else working a job they despise simply because they need the money? Though sex is hardly the sacred gift bestowed upon us from above that religion makes it out to be, it does involve a level of emotional and physical intimacy that’s not demanded when working at a McDonalds.
The State of Sex provides no answers to these questions. But instead of offering up condescension or sympathy regarding the choices and circumstances that led these women to brothel work, the authors allow them to simply speak for themselves. It seems that far too often the women involved in sex work are used as pawns (by both sides) in the political debates about legalizing prostitution. This book, at the very least, gives some voice to the women for whom this is a very personal, and not political, issue.