review: legal tender

I’ve finally gotten all my stuff out of storage. The greatest joy has been unpacking my books. Legal Tender was bought in Vegas a few months before I set off traveling. It sat in my “read” pile until it was boxed up. Now that I’m working through my unread books, here it is.

First, my disclaimer. I’m personally prejudiced against the whole idea of brothels as practiced in the US. Giving 50% of my money from every booking to someone just for the privilege of renting a one-star hotel room doesn’t sit well with me. Being told what to do doesn’t work for me either (ask any former boyfriend about that). I’m a control-freak about my working environment and brothels go out of their way to wrest control from the girls working there. Then there’s the whole being-an-employee-without-the-legal-benefits, i.e. Nevada brothel-style “independent-contractor” status that’s accorded to the working girls. If I’m going to work within a heavily-regulated legal system then I want my legal benefits retained. The book looks at a lockdown brothel, so that’s what I’m going to be discussing here.

Rebuttal to my disclaimer is that I personally know several girls who have worked as indies and in Nevada brothels who thoroughly enjoyed their brothel experiences (though most still dislike the flouting of legal employee status and most were in non-lockdown brothels). They were happy with the money they made, happy with their working environments, happy with the brothel customers and overall have a positive impression of working within the strict bounds of their chosen brothels. I do not know any who worked in the brothel I did and had a positive experience. There is that.

I picked up my copy of Legal Tender when I attended a presentation given by the author Laraine Russo Harper. I said nothing, clapped at the end and purchased my book. I disagreed with a lot of what she said but I hadn’t read her book yet. So now I have.

the brothel

While there could have been more focused editing for better flow, the book moves along in a more or less orderly fashion, probably following the line of questions she’s gotten over her six years as madam of Sheri’s Ranch (2001-07), along with staying in a roughly chronological order. The stories are entertaining and her tone is conversational. If you want an inside look at a lockdown brothel, Legal Tender gives a good long look and is worth the read.

When she came on at the request of the new owners (whom she knew), she was appalled at the conditions and frankly, so was I. I cannot imagine living and working in the squalor she describes. While she touts her management skills learned during a career as a Vegas casino host, common sense was really all that was necessary to walk into a dingy trailer and wish to burn it to the ground and start over. Preferably while wearing a hazmat suit.

She rebuilds the ranch from the inside out and turns it into a destination brothel. She can be justifiably proud of this. The brothel sounds great. The book’s a terrific sell.

I toured Sheri’s Ranch while living in Vegas and yes, it was a very nice brothel. Was it as fabulous as it sounds in the book? No. A little more worn, a little more utilitarian, a little more déclassé. (Hotel Zaza knows how to do theme rooms.) The brothel was clean, spacious, with lots of natural light and light colors inside. I don’t recall it smelling funky. There were plenty of amenities for the girls. Our tour guide was a polite and mannered working girl who had done this before. Paid, guided tours were something Harper invented and it’s a sound idea.

She cleans house in more ways than one. She stops the system of the girls trading favors with the staff/management (money or sex), which is a good thing as what she describes tended to be exploitative of the girls (big surprise). She also stops the girls from skimming from the house — she wants the house to get its 50% of the girl’s earnings. After all, if these ladies are independent contractors, then technically they can conduct business however they please. If they’re employees, then yes, they’re stealing from the company. Naturally, when they’re hired, they sign a form stating they’re independent contractors, then are forced to sign a form listing all the policies and procedures they’re going to live under, including surprise prison-style searches that tear apart their rooms and personal belongings. She even limits the amount of luggage they’re allowed to bring. Sounds like an employee contract to me. Nobody, including her, gets conceptual whiplash from any of this.

I am amused by her original maintenance man who apparently broke anything he touched and professionals had to be called in to fix his “repairs.” Her second maintenance man was solid gold, except for his mysterious inability to fix the tanning bed for the warmest six months out of the year. The girls would have to tan outside at the pool.

Though she routinely claims her girls aren’t about “sex for money,” she also makes it extremely clear that her girls aren’t selling time but sexual acts. When the customer comes, he goes, regardless of what he paid. She does actually understand that brothels and the girls in them are there to make money. The house minimum is $200. Since the house sells sexual acts, not time, your $200 will buy a handjob; a blowjob if you’re lucky. She’s all about the upsell. I can’t argue with that philosophy.

The special party rooms and villas have a minimum charge. She doesn’t reveal what those minimums are, though she gives an example: if the minimum for the Jacuzzi Room is $1000 and you book a party worth $1000, then you have the option to use the room if you choose. It’s a fair system. I assume if a man liked a room, the lady he was with would know the minimum and start the sell somewhere above that. I don’t get the impression the men were told exact prices for anything — which is how Nevada brothels usually work.

While Harper enjoys classing up the joint, that doesn’t extend so far as to take the steps high-end strip clubs had already done, such as stocking a decent wine cellar. She talks about a man who books a villa for $80,000 and requests a fine red wine. She pours some of the screw-cap house red into a crystal decanter and sends it over. The wine is included in the cost of the villa so at least she doesn’t rip him off, but really, that sort of antic is exactly what one would expect from a brothel.

Of course, she devises ways to empty those with less-endowed wallets: there is a gift shop, a restaurant, she installs a stripper pole in the bar, has guided tours, creates a boutique hotel. These cheaper entertainments are available to anyone and paying for sex is not a requirement to spending time on the property. By doing this, she opens up her market to women, couples, locals, tourists and roving hoards of social groups who aren’t afraid of an unconventional gathering place.

the life

This is where I started having issues. She describes the rules the girls live under quite openly. She, never a working girl herself, sees commercial sex as something to be regulated to the nth degree. Why stop there? Why not just regulate all sex? Sex is sex, isn’t it? She never goes down this line of thought and I wish she did as I’d love to know how she differentiates it in her head, how she justifies the rules she makes for her girls.

While some things do make sense in the context of a lockdown brothel (e.g. limiting girls to six drinks per 24hrs), she never fails to make sure the reader understands the girls are “independent contractors” even though they live and work on premises for 24/7, 2-4 week shifts and are treated exactly like employees (or prisoners). Except, of course, for not having the legal benefits of being an employee (or even a prisoner). She’s very proud of the legal, regulated status of the brothel and the ladies but never once thinks about that legal regulation applying to her girls’ rights as employees.

Yes, the girls are not only in a lockdown brothel with only four hours per week in which they’re allowed to leave the property and they’re on-call 24/7. If there is a lineup, they have three minutes in which to get ready. She says the girls slept in their makeup. I know what one night of sleeping in my makeup does to my skin, I can’t imagine a month straight of doing it. I’d not look like a fresh and lovely daisy, that’s for sure (maybe being an indie has turned me soft?). And what about girls who have to take out their contacts at night? I don’t know what they did, presumably wear glasses at night or live with the threat of an eye infection.

Though Harper continually moans about the working hours the brothel demands of her, she really doesn’t think of what it’s like to live with a month of serious sleep-deprivation and what it’s like to have to be sexy and accommodating to some random stranger at 3am. While most people don’t have the ability to place themselves in someone else’s shoes, her inability irks me because she works overtime trying to curry sympathy from the reader about how hard being a madam was on her yet spares almost no thought to what being a prostitute in these conditions is like for her girls. This is one of the big reasons I consider her a pimp: the lack of empathy, the lack of understanding what the job entails while making a living off those doing the work.

She discusses pimps four times in the book, shaking her head at the insanity of a legal working girl giving 100% of her hard-earned money to a man who does nothing. Apparently girls with pimps are very different from the sane girls without pimps who happily give 50% of their hard-earned money to the house. She never makes that connection. Her rules, her “security checks” in order to make sure girls weren’t hoarding money or drugs sound extremely pimp-like (or prison-warden) to me. Then again, that’s what pimps do. Pimps believe that girls cannot manage their finances without a man; she believes the girls cannot manage their professional/personal lives without her.

legal vs criminalized

Naturally, she takes a shot at all the free-range chickens just over the mountains in Vegas (ignoring the entire rest of the US). Having never known anything but the legal Nevada brothel system and that only recently, she speaks with incredible authority over such “facts” as the lack of condom use among “illegal” prostitutes — even though she’s writing these words sometime in the late-2000s. Harper is a former casino host who doesn’t blush to admit supplying her high-rollers with equally high-rolling call-girls. They were “illegal” too, weren’t they? What about them? She decries the rampant STDs among non-brothel workers without a single stat or even a personal anecdote to back her up. Most sex workers in the US take paranoid care of themselves. They have families and lives which they’d rather not disrupt with a career or life -ending disease. Pretty much like anyone else.

The most vile propaganda are the few warnings she includes about the “dangers” of “illegal” prostitution which she presents as fact. Such as a prostitute beating up, drugging and/or robbing the client. Even wilder are the enterprising prostitutes who take pictures of themselves with their clients in compromising situations in order to blackmail him. Yeah, happens all the time. That’s why sex workers all over the US keep bad client lists and there are several sites devoted to bad clients. Because obviously, outside of being legally-smothered in a brothel, a prostitute just goes wild and can’t possibly make her money the old-fashioned way. She must resort to truly criminal acts.

Despite Harper giving plenty of lip service about how her legal ladies were people too, it’s clear she views them as another form of life: pretty, infantile, ATMs. (While she often comments on the stresses of her job, she seems to think her girls lives stress-free, physically-easy lives.) She doesn’t even pretend that non-brothel workers are human and need protection too, a situation obviously exacerbated by their criminalized status.

Several times she mentions how the brothel provides a safe haven for lots of women. It’s true, it does. However, she never stops to reason that her sampling is skewed and this doesn’t mean brothels are the only answer. Girls who can easily manage their professional/personal lives outside a brothel are going to remain outside of the brothel system. They have no need for it. Everyone needs a safe haven in life but not everyone’s idea of a safe haven is the same.

She often compares apples to oranges. Anytime Harper discusses non-brothel prostitution, she uses imagined examples of Vegas street workers who charge $20 for a blowjob to compare to her beautiful, smart, personable, classy, customer-service-oriented girls. Apples to apples would be comparing her girls against Vegas independent escorts who charge comparable rates and who are also beautiful, smart, personable, classy and customer-service-oriented. Her girls would lose the comparison for several reasons. The rates she quoted are far more expensive than any indie (very few indies could ever compete with $80,000 for an overnight) and…indies get to sleep at night, refuse any client they want and get to take off their makeup when they’re through working. Getting to live life like a regular person does wonders for the psyche, which certainly seeps into the professional life.

From a Vegas client’s perspective, brothels are terribly indiscreet: you’re conducting intimate affairs in a very public venue and her brothel was a two hour roundtrip by car. Not quite the refreshing afterglow one desires after enjoying a great companion. After seeing Vegas indies, most men either fall asleep in their beds or head to the casino, feeling lucky. They don’t hop in the car to drive through the desert for an hour. Clients also enjoy the fact that outcall means the girl is coming to him (he doesn’t have to do much) and the assignation is on his turf. He feels plenty safe.

the future of brothels

The only thing that truly made me smile was the forward of the book. Written by Geoff Schumacher, he talks about the two “threats” facing legal brothels today.

The first is the biggest: the Internet. Suddenly women have discovered (since 1996) they don’t need a pimp! They get to keep all the money they make for themselves! (money-grubbing whores) In fact, the vast majority have publicly-stated, flat-rate pricing! (the horror!) They don’t have to seclude themselves for weeks at a time in some tiny town away from their own lives to make a living! As someone who has been, ahem, an Internet guide for some of those enterprising ladies, it gives me great pleasure to think of how Internet escorts cause needless concern to the brothel system.

The second threat also made me smile due to its appalling misunderstanding of reality. According to Schumacher, prostitution is becoming more tolerated in American society, and brothels fear that unregulated women will take over the industry and make all the money themselves without being forced to give 50% a brothel. There is the terribly mistaken belief that the LVPD has no vice squad and doesn’t arrest working girls (which is why every girl working in Vegas knows to screen like crazy). The documented stats on LVPD prostitution-related arrests are in the thousands, far ahead of such things as burglary and rape.

In truth, I don’t think brothels have to worry — as long as they stay on their toes. If some brothel policies changed they would be much more palatable to working girls who are smart about their business. If you’re an experienced indie, what’s to like about enforced imprisonment, losing half your money off the top, enduring often sub-standard room and board, suffering an extreme invasion of privacy just to get registered to work, having to spend nearly a month sleeping in your makeup every night, dealing with other girl’s drama and office politics? Many indies talk about the isolation of their work but lockdown brothels go to the opposite extreme. You’re isolated from the world at large and lack any privacy at all with the people closely sharing your living quarters.

I don’t think lockdown brothels are as bad as criminalization because they do offer some safety (how much depends heavily on the brothel itself). I really wish they’d realize their working conditions could be easily modified to appeal to a much broader and better range of sex worker. If run extremely well, the 50% off the top might even seem worth it. Currently, no matter how nice the brothel, the trade-off between the indie life and a lockdown brothel isn’t.

One final note. Harper admits twice to liking Toby Keith, the first mention in on page 26. I think that says a lot right there.

14 thoughts on “review: legal tender

  1. Aspasia

    Hm. I tried commenting yesterday and I got a message when I tried again after the first comment didn’t show that I had already submitted a comment.

    Anyway. I’m trying to remember whether it was you or Mariko Passion who talked about the woman at Bella’s showing the pictures of bruised and bloodied prostitutes as proof of how dangerous it is to be an independent sex worker? I would not mind working at a brothel on occasion during slow periods, but my standards on such a brothel would have to make The Ritz look like a dump.

  2. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Miss Dior — Agreed.

    Aspasia — Hmm…it’s not in moderation (I don’t check the spam folder). I sometimes don’t know what happens on here. Glitches in WP or my database would be my guess.

    I think it was Mariko who got to see the photos. I merely got the tales.

    On thinking about the living arrangements of brothels, they’re basically like a prison of some sort (not a hotel), which means each person is responsible for keeping up their living quarters. Since most don’t care, it’s difficult to maintain to any decent standard. My guess is the high-end brothels like the ones in Sydney stay that way because they’re more like hotels: people leave when they’re done and professional staff clean up. I’m curious how the rooms of the Nevada northern brothels (shift brothels) compare to the rooms of the lockdown brothels. My guess would be: not as much wear and tear.

  3. Aspasia

    I remain baffled at the support the brothel system has in some feminist circles and some of our sex-positive allies. The former seems to think it’s brothel system (legalization) or nothing (the opinion after hearing a horror story about brothel experiences). As though indies don’t exist at all; or is it that they don’t trust us?

    Oh and who is Geoff Schumacher? Does he operate a brothel or what?

  4. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Aspasia — The only reason the support for brothels baffles me is because too many people still think commercial sex is somehow so radically different from free sex that the sex workers need to be CONTROLLED to an inch of their lives. That control is always directed solely at women and always requires invading our privacy (e.g. registration) and our bodies (the constant STI-testing). Controlling the client-base never enters the equation. Allowing us to regulate ourselves (as some industries have) is also out of the question.

    I doubt they trust indies. Independent-thinkers are never popular on any topic. By not believing us, they shut us up and that makes it easier to believe we don’t exist (in which case Eros, BP and a huge number of discussion boards would completely collapse). This invisibility is a good thing in the short term; bad in the long term effects on our lives.

    Schumacher? As far as a quick Google search revealed, he’s just an LV newspaper reporter, though I daresay he’s a bit of a mouthpiece for brothels as well. Anyone is welcome to shed more light on him.

  5. Pingback: The Week In Links: October 19

  6. Sequoia

    I haven’t worked in the brothel system in Reno but I have worked in the Australian system and kind of wonder why we don’t just use their system instead of the lockdown system?

  7. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Sequoia — To my knowledge, the northern NV brothels aren’t complete lockdown, some allow the workers to go home after their shifts. No one has ever given a concrete explanation for the lockdown rule in southern NV brothels. Though I think it’s something about the fear of women getting out, being wild and becoming diseased (or maybe making money on the side).

    America has Puritan roots, Australia has criminal roots. It explains a LOT. :)

  8. David

    Toby Keith – that does explain everything! Of course, running someone else’s life and then charging them for the opportunity fits with a Toby Keith fan:)

  9. Lee

    Amanda – One thing I’m really curious about in these places is how the food is handled. Who chooses what will be eaten, who cooks, who buys? Is there a regular cook? Maybe I’m off on the scale of the places. Do they serve the customers food to go with all the liquor? (Sex and liquor – some combination. Are they deliberately trying to encourage the customers from dehydrating and not getting or keeping it up? Or are half the customers on pills anyway? (probably)

    I found it ironic that the Korean places that get pelted with false human trafficking accusations generally have better, less adversarial working conditions and fairer monetary splits than what you’ve described here, which is legal. Are all NV brothels owned by egocentric wingnuts like Bella and Dennis Hof?

    The lady’s ignorance of sex work beyond her limited sphere is not surprising. I guess it should not be surprising either that she would fall back on silly, false clichés rather than put in the effort to educate herself, but talk about advertising your laziness as a writer.

    You’re last paragraph pretty much says it all (“I really wish they’d realize their working conditions could be easily modified to appeal to a much broader and better range of sex worker”). I kept getting off track trying to read the post because my head kept filling with ways to do this, but given how restrictive the regulations on brothel ownership are written, there isn’t much point in listing them (probably could be summed up with ‘common decency’).

  10. Amanda Brooks Post author

    Lee — Generally these places always offer food to bar customers (and some have actual restaurants). As for the workers…it’s hit or miss. I assume the places with commercial-quality kitchens prepare food for the workers there but that’s assuming a lot. Places without commercial kitchens, like Bella’s, operated more like a home, with people doing their own thing in the kitchen and general meals prepared by the housemom on duty. Meals were prepared as in: that’s what she wanted to cook that day and if you didn’t want to eat it you went hungry. Just like home!

    Serving liquor in a brothel is more along the lines of adult entertainment and relaxation than attempting to sabotage men’s abilities. Few women like dealing with a drunk man with whiskey dick. It’s not an aid to smooth or pleasant sex work.

    “Are all NV brothels owned by egocentric wingnuts like Bella and Dennis Hof?”
    My guess would be yes, the majority. But that’s supposition.

    The first step in brothels making their regulations more appealing to more workers would be to fix the legal working situation. Since they are legal then they should behave in a legal manner toward their workers: either the workers are employees or independent contractors. Once brothels figure out which side of the fence they and their workers fall, a whole lot of issues would smooth out in a hurry.

  11. PeachesnCream

    If you think her lack of emphathy was bad at Sherri’s Ranch, you should see her as the general manager of Best Western and Wulfy’s. She never says “job well done” or even good morning. If anything is left in the rooms by a guest, she keeps it for a period of time and then takes it to sell in her store as a ruse to earn money for her animal shelter. Her behavior as a manager is despicable!

  12. Amanda Brooks Post author

    PeachesnCream — Wow! Thank you for sharing.

    I bet she thinks all the housekeeping is stealing or hoarding drugs. She probably kept that attitude from the Ranch.

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