BROTHEL: MUSTANG RANCH AND ITS WOMEN (Random House, 2001)Alexa
When Alexa Albert first arrived at Mustang Ranch, then Nevada's
largest, most-famous and most-profitable brothel, she believed that
prostitution "degraded all women." As she tried to sleep that first night
behind her locked door, she couldn't help overhearing sounds from a
neighboring room where one of the "working girls" was entertaining a
client. "I tried to imagine being forced to act pleasured by some man I
didn't know making guttural animal sounds," she writes, "and I
Albert, who would later earn her M.D. at Harvard University, went
to the now-defunct Mustang Ranch to study condom use by "experts." The
idea came to her when, as an undergraduate at Brown University, she read
an article in Psychology Today ("Coming of Age on the Streets," January
1988) about prostitution and the spread of AIDS. But while Albert went to
the brothel for research, she ended up staying--I think, because the cozy
atmosphere she found in this sensual oasis was too delicious to
Although she never "went native," Albert managed to earn the trust
of management and sex workers alike and stayed connected to Mustang Ranch
for six years. Ultimately the Mustang women revealed their private lives
and professional secrets, and granted her honorary membership in their
Sex was, of course, Mustang Ranch's raison d'etre, the thing that
brought all the participants together. The symbiosis among sex workers,
support staff and "johns" is a major topic of the book. But it is not sex
that makes Mustang Ranch--and Albert's book--so fascinating; it is the
sense of community, especially the feeling of sisterhood, among the women
who make their living in this peculiar way.
Albert does a fairly good job providing us with a detailed look at
this community. She describes the physical settings, the women and their
customers, the transactions between them, and the gossip, infighting and
other miscellanea that make up daily life in a brothel. What she doesn't
reveal much about is her subjects' psychology. We want to know how these
women cope with the unique challenges of their work. One woman, for
example, repeatedly and tenderly serviced an 80-year-old drunk. How could
she do that without being repulsed? Albert doesn't tell us.
Perhaps this failing stems from Albert's commitment to the
community. She might have disguised the prostitutes of Mustang Ranch so
that outsiders would not recognize them, but they would surely have
recognized themselves and one another. I think Albert may have felt that
to disclose their personal quirks and flaws in a public forum would have
been a personal betrayal, and she refused to do it.
My speculation is supported by an event that occurred in the final
days of Mustang Ranch. When federal agents closed the brothel (because of
income tax evasion and other charges against its founder), the entire
staff left the building as one body under the scrutinizing gaze of
tourists, loyal johns, townspeople and media. Albert, who could have
avoided the scene entirely, walked out with the others, an unmistakable
act of loyalty and affection.
Clearly, Albert does not share the contempt for these women that is
common in our society, even among some of their clients. Nor does she
pity the women. Rather, she writes that they are "just like the rest of
As for her thoughts on prostitution, Albert has done an about-face.
She now believes that licensed prostitution is a reasonable--or at least
tolerable--occupation and, ultimately, a social good. She shows us that
the public's health is safe because of brothel management policies and
the women's desire to maintain their livelihood. And while she glamorizes
neither prostitution nor prostitutes, it is clear that she thinks the
brothel was a good economic choice and a psychologically rewarding
profession for most of its members.
Albert admits that she wrote her book partly to encourage
discussion about legalized prostitution. Is America ready to debate this
issue? Probably not. But maybe we should be.
Reviewed by Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D.
Edited by Paul Chance, PH.D.
Pepper Schwartz is a professor of sociology at the University of
Washington and the author of Everything You Know About Love and Sex is
Wrong (Penguin Putnam, 2001).