AT HOME ON THE RANCH

BROTHEL: MUSTANG RANCH AND ITS WOMEN (Random House, 2001)Alexa Albert, M.D.

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 couldn't."

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 abandon.

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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 sexual sorority.

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 us."

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).

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