Sex And Stigma: Stories Of Everyday Life In Nevada’s Legal Brothels

Authors: Sarah Jane Blithe, Anna Wiederhold Wolfe, and Breanna Mohr
Publisher: New York: New York University Press, 2019. 320p.
Reviewer: Steven Block | September 2020

Less than one-tenth of one percent of the 330 million people that live in the United States reside in a county that allows any form of legalized prostitution. The 21 brothels that currently operate are located in rural Nevada towns far removed from populated tourist destinations like Reno and Las Vegas. For a long time, these brothels have maintained a secretive existence away from the general public and academic researchers. Journalists and researchers were rarely allowed access, and fundamental questions that needed to be asked to properly assess the effect of the regulatory policies in the state went unanswered. In recent years, however, the public has had more exposure to the brothels through an HBO television series and multiple high-profile events, while academic research has also increased with published studies from public health, sociological, and criminological perspectives.

Sex and Stigma: Stories of Everyday Life in Nevada’s Legal Brothels by Sarah Jane Blithe, Anna Wiederhold Wolfe, and Breanna Mohr adds to the growing literature base through an approach derived from the field of communications. The authors explore life during and after brothel prostitution, through the women who have worked in the country’s only legalized brothels.

Readers are drawn into the book in the preface with an interesting story about how the three researchers developed the idea to examine prostitution in this setting. The most noteworthy aspect of this story is that one of the three authors of the book, unbeknown to the other authors initially, had been a sex worker in brothels for several years while also pursuing a graduate degree for part of that time. Readers will recognize that her first-hand knowledge and access to research subjects allow the book to explore sensitive topics. Understandably, Ms. Mohr was hesitant, at first, to reveal her work history to professors, classmates, and, eventually, readers.

The authors divide the book into an introduction and three parts that feature a total of nine chapters. The introduction and first part of the book offer readers insight into the history of brothels in the state, ideological perspectives on prostitution, and the theoretical approach of the book. For students and scholars well versed in brothel history, some portions on the background of the brothels may only serve as a review. The authors do, however, provide an excellent analysis of the controversial lockdown policies that appear to provide a degree of confusion for even those who work there. For scholars from other disciplines, the explanation of the theoretical framework and related research on “dirty work” is necessary and informative.

The second part of the book provides first-hand accounts of brothel life. In these chapters, the third author (Chapter 4) and five former brothel workers (Chapter 5) are provided latitude to discuss their complex experiences as legalized sex workers. Chapter 6 specifically focuses on how former workers find their seemingly transferrable job skills to be outweighed by the stigma associated with their previous employment. Both former and current sex workers are quoted to illuminate the authors’ themes in this chapter.

Finally, the concluding chapters bring together insight from workers, owners, and other stakeholders. These chapters highlight the numerous constraints on brothel workers during and after employment. These constraints are often highly emotional. Complicated questions arise from relationships with customers, co-workers and people in the worker’s personal life. The authors note that these women are not the only “dirty workers” who must find techniques to manage their life working in hidden organizations — but unique cultural and geographical differences do exist for those who work and live in this specific environment.

The study of prostitution has historically been negatively affected by strong ideological differences between those who view prostitution as a form of exploitation and those who support and promote more liberal approaches, such as decriminalizing and/or regulating prostitution. With a lack of reliable quantitative data, qualitative research within prostitution is often presented in a format that is driven by the aforementioned ideological views of the authors. This book is a welcome departure from that concerning pattern. The researchers establish initial criticisms of certain ideological stances in the opening chapters. But when presenting their own data, the authors are quite successful in creating a nuanced discussion about the complicated lives of women in Nevada’s brothels during and after their time working in these facilities, without invoking the authors’ own personal beliefs. Unlike other publications on the experiences of sex workers, the authors here allow the workers to document their own feelings, pleasures, struggles, and regrets. The result is a plethora of interesting findings that identify both similarities and differences across respondent experiences.

There are some consistent themes found in the interview data. Most of the women found at least some aspects of the work emotionally fulfilling. Camaraderie appears to exist among many of the brothel workers which can lead to lasting friendships. The majority of former brothel workers could document at least some positive relationships with other women. Additionally, perhaps not surprisingly most of the women found that working at a brothel affected their own intimate relationships on the outside in some manner.

In other cases, important differences emerged in the narratives from the interviews. The circumstances leading to entry into legalized brothel work for the women vary greatly. Some of the women were still providing sexual services for money at the time of the interviews, outside the brothel setting, while others declared that they would not return and would never advise anybody to consider entering sex work. The women also take different approaches to handling prostitution as a stigmatized profession by choosing to share varying levels of information about their employment to friends, family, and other associates.

There are several critical conclusions from the authors that warrant further consideration. One key finding is the recognition that women who leave Nevada’s brothels possess a series of highly valuable job skills that should hypothetically assist them in future pursuits. These skills include mastering negotiations, marketing, scheduling and organizing, as well as the emotional aspects of client retention. However, many former brothel workers find that these skills are commonly overlooked, due to the stigma of having worked in a brothel. Despite the legal status of brothels in the state of Nevada, working in this hidden, stigmatized occupation has lasting implications for women who actually only spend a fraction of their lives at the brothels.

In addition to restrictions on employment opportunities, brothel workers also report struggles outside the labor market. Incredibly, respondents ran into challenges accessing banking opportunities and leasing vehicles due to their work history. In some instances, the women could rely on the positive relationships between the brothels and certain organizations or companies in order to facilitate transactions.

Another important finding highlighted by the authors is the conflict between the need for brothels to advertise to potential customers while simultaneously allowing workers to maintain some degree of privacy. With the Internet and social media, brothels and their workers must be effective marketers to compete with other brothels and illegal forms of sex work. Several women revealed that they try to maintain secrecy about their employment and be deceptive toward others about their occupation by claiming to work in other industries. The balance between marketing and privacy weighs on all the persons who work at the brothels.

Research opportunities on legal prostitution in the United States are limited. The valuable research presented by these authors along with other accounts in recently published articles and books, is leading to a more comprehensive understanding of the lives of women who work in this highly regulated form of sex work. The fact that researchers are approaching the issue from so many different theoretical positions and academic disciplines only strengthens our knowledge of the people, and of an industry that has been hidden under the sagebrush for many decades.

Steven Block, PhD, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Central Connecticut State University

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