Next month, Lyon County voters will be posed with a ballot question: Should sex work be legal?
Ultimately, the county commissioners will have the final word. Critics say that legal sex work is unethical. They specifically mention what are called “lineups”--where the sex workers present themselves to prospective clients, calling the practice demeaning to women. Brothel owners disagree, saying it’s empowering. KUNR’s Bree Zender wanted to know how the sex workers themselves feel about it.
At the sound of a doorbell, all of the available women on shift at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, just outside of Carson City, line up in the parlor. The walls around them are covered with magazine pornography from the 1990s. Some of the sex workers are wearing lingerie, others are more casual and modest. Some are barely 18, others are a few decades older.
They stand up with their hands behind their backs, and say their stage names. In fact, that’s the only thing they’re allowed to say, unless the client picks them.
“Hello, I’m Mia,” said one.
“Hi, I’m, Stacey,” said another.
This process is called a lineup, basically an introduction to help clients decide who they want to ‘party’ or have an encounter with.
Critics of legal brothels say doing this reduces women to their looks. But for Randy Ryder, it’s simply a part of the job.
“I wouldn’t say it’s objectifying. It’s letting the client know what ladies are available and who is here in the house. It gives everyone a fair advantage and opportunity,” Ryder said. “It’s all about eye contact and smiling, and saying your name. Like, you can tell which girls want you to pick them over the girls that are like, ‘Oh, I’m tired.’ Like it just shows in your body and how you’re standing.”
Ryder said there are times that she’s been too tired to work. When she has multiple clients a day on her 12-hour shift, she said it’s difficult to continue. “We can jump in line and be a body. Or we can keep going,” Ryder said.
Madison Graham found it difficult to keep going. She’s a former legal sex worker who worked for several ranches in Mound House. At one point, she was also late brothel owner Dennis Hof’s personal assistant and publicist. Over time, she became disgusted by the lineup.
“You know, I felt like a trained poodle. Or like Pavlov’s dog, you know? You ring the bell and immediately just start running,” Graham said. “ And you know, you have to put your hands behind your back. And most of these men... I didn’t want them. I didn’t want them to pick me. Some of the men would come in, and they were just so degrading. And, they’d look us up and down.”
For Alice Little of the Bunny Ranch, it’s really not a big deal. “It’s kind of your opportunity to like, showcase yourself a little bit,” Little said. “ You just, say your name, ‘Hi, my name is Alice.’ And then, that’s it. It’s certainly not too intimidating as far as activities go.”
Little began doing sex work after traveling the country as an adult sex educator. She said she continues to do this because of the effect of her work.
“What really was the turning point is... when somebody told me what it mean to them, to have that encounter,” Little said. “ It was one of my first parties, very, very early on. And afterwards, the gentleman said, ‘You know, I just wanted to say thank you. I haven’t been able to feel like this since my wife died of cancer three years ago. I was thinking of killing myself. But you know, I don’t think I want to do that anymore. So thank you.’”
Lineups aren’t always as positive for every sex worker. For Ebony Blue, who used to work primarily at the Love Ranch in Nye County, they were complicated, made especially difficult because she is a woman of color. She told me most of the clients didn’t choose African-American women like her from the lineups.
“When there was two African-American girls, and there’s all mostly white or Asian or mixed, you knew you probably wasn’t going to get picked,” Blue said. “ I felt like I was worthless.”
Blue said being compared to others made her self-conscious.
“[The other girls had] fake boobs. Long hair. Pretty outfits. It’s kind of scary at the same time because you never know who that person is until you take them back there,” Blue said.
For the four women and many sex workers, the complexity and grayness of this issue is beyond the yes or no question that Lyon County voters need to answer. To some, it’s power, and for others, it’s power lost.