Book Beat December 05 2001

Legalized prostitution in America is like a dinosaur from the Wild West, having survived alone in the dusty Nevada outback as the rest of the nation evolved into a more civilized place. The fact that most Americans have never even dabbled in illegal prostitution makes the notion of a regulated sex industry seem downright exotic.

It not only exists, it thrives. Scattered through the state in a cathouse archipelago, Nevada’s brothels offer intrepid drinkers and gamblers a chance to lawfully indulge in another, more forbidden, vice. But beyond the obvious sex-for-money dynamic, their inner workings have been largely a mystery — until author Alexa Albert convinced the Nevada Brothel Association to let her interview prostitutes at the Mustang Ranch, perhaps the most famous of the bordellos.

What was to be a brief public-health study on condom use grew into a lengthy exploration of brothel culture, a cloistered world that vacillates between hard-core sex and everyday concerns — an awkward but inevitable swing of events when hookers, essentially, work from home.

Albert discovers that the women of Mustang Ranch, like everyone else, are not easily defined. They are young and old, intelligent and naive, confident and insecure, sober and drug-addled. Some are middle class, while others come from broken homes. Some have orgasms on the job; others wouldn’t dream of it. The common thread is simply a willingness to have sex for money, whatever the underlying motivation. “If you’re going to put out, why not get paid for it?” says one prostitute in a declaration of sexual realpolitik. “There’s too many women giving their bodies away for free and getting nothing but heartache and pain.”

Having lived at the Mustang during her research, Albert is able to portray her subjects — including brothel customers — with unique intimacy and authority, also delivering a detailed history of legalized prostitution in Nevada and an explanation of how the system works today.

“It is not my intent to redeem these women,” Albert says, “but to awaken readers to their humanity and bring this issue out of the realm of caricature and into that of serious debate.”

Neither titillating erotica nor ponderous, scholarly tome, Brothel is a well-written, eye-opening (sometimes eye-popping) read, one that makes a compelling argument for legalizing prostitution.

It is, after all, the world’s oldest profession.??