Last call for Nevada’s brothels?

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Inside the Bunny ranch

There have been brothels in Nevada since the days of the Gold Rush, but in one of the state's 16 counties that could be about to change. Voters in Lyon County have a chance to put an end to legal prostitution in November, in a ballot coinciding with the country's mid-term elections. Lucy Ash met a veteran Nevada sex worker and heard the arguments for and against.

Air Force Amy totters around the kidney-shaped swimming pool in her high heels to show me the gym where women can work out between clients. She points out the barbecue patio and the Jacuzzi before flinging open a garage door to reveal some dusty quad bikes.

"We've got everything we need right here, even ponies in the stable out the back," she says. "I don't ride them because it's too risky - I need my body to work," she adds with a throaty laugh.

We escape the blinding desert sun for the dimly lit parlour where a pink neon Bunny Ranch sign flickers over the bar. A few girls in lingerie or skimpy dresses are sitting on the crushed velvet sofas hunched over laptops and phones.

This is the most famous of the 21 legal brothels scattered across rural Nevada. Behind the bar there's a corridor, which leads to dozens of bedrooms, each occupied by a sex worker in return for a daily rent.

The Bunny Ranch is set in a scrubby landscape punctuated by gas stations, casinos and gun shops. It lies just inside the Lyon County line. Prostitution is outlawed in nearby Carson City, Nevada's state capital, and other urban areas.

Road signs on the driveway show copulating rabbits and warn that the speed limit is 69mph - just kidding, it says underneath.

Image source, Alamy

When a customer rings the buzzer on the gate, an internal bell summons the sex workers into the parlour for a "line-up". Once he has chosen a woman, she takes him to her room to negotiate a price. The overwhelming majority of clients are men although occasionally couples make an appearance.

Air Force Amy is still, at 53, one of the top earners at the ranch and she says she is pulling in about half a million dollars a year. Airbrushed photos of her in her youth decorate the walls.

With her platinum blonde hair, hourglass figure and bright red nails she looks like the star of a 1980s TV soap. But her breezy talk also reminds me of the 1930s Hollywood sex symbol, Mae West.

"If sex was a sport I'd have a heap of gold medals," she says. "I was born with this crazy talent and I love my job. I see all these guys - we have a good time, they give me money and they take their dirty laundry home with them!"

She admits that she doesn't have much of a home life herself. "Why get married and make one man miserable when I can make thousands of men happy?" she laughs.

Her lack of enthusiasm for family life is understandable. Brought up in rural Ohio, Amy describes herself as a "wild child" who left home aged 13. She used to allow boys at school to pull down her knickers in exchange for their lunch money. She says she can now spot a "john" who is drunk or dangerous because as a teenage runaway, she learned the hard way - selling sex on the roadside to survive.

Image caption,
"If sex was a sport I'd have a heap of gold medals," says Air Force Amy

And yet Amy ended up getting a good job with the US Air Force. By the late 1980s, she was in the Philippines teaching servicemen how to defend a runway in the jungle.

"Some guys didn't like a slick-sleeved, low-rank female telling them what to do," she recalls. "But I was only trying to stop them from getting killed."

Amy says she had some distressing experiences in Asia which left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a drinking problem.

After her return to the US, she left the Air Force and began working in lockdown brothels - known to some as "pussy prisons" - where women are forbidden from leaving the premises for the duration of a three-week shift.

Eventually Amy ran into Dennis Hof, owner of the Bunny Ranch, who invited her to come and work for him. He says women in his establishments are free to come and go and he doesn't refer to them as employees - he prefers to call them ICs or "independent contractors".

Brash, bald and blue-eyed, Hof owns a third of all Nevada's legal brothels, and four of those in Lyon County. As he sees it, women like Amy are the successful face of a vibrant, modern industry.

Image source, BBC
Image caption,
"This is a dirty, disgusting, drug-ridden business - until you legalise it," says brothel owner Dennis Hof

"The girls are businesswomen - we're partners," he says, sitting in the parlour with his arm around another sex worker's waist. This one, known to punters as Honey, is in her 20s, around the age Amy was when she started nearly three decades ago.

"We work together," he adds. "This is a dirty, disgusting, drug-ridden business - until you legalise it."

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Nevada's legal brothels have been in business since 1971. Once low-key, homely affairs catering to travelling salesmen and lonely truckers, Hof has brought the industry into the 21st Century with a touch of Hollywood glamour and shrewd marketing.

At weekly pep talks known as "tea parties", Hof dispenses his commercial wisdom to his workforce. As in an office or car dealership, the names of the employees of the month are displayed on an electronic ticker tape attached to the wall. Some are praised and given gifts, from toiletries to electronic gadgets, for securing the highest number of bookings.

The atmosphere is part sales conference, part New Age commune. The women, all clutching note pads, have to come up with positive statements such as, "Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud."

Hof constantly urges them to use social media to get more clients through the door. "The girls that post, make the most, it's a fact," he tells them, sucking on his cigar. Whatever the women earn, half goes to the house. And as he boasts in his autobiography, The Art of the Pimp, Hof has profited handsomely.

However, he argues that legal brothels benefit everyone.

"People need to understand that if I owned four McDonald's restaurants in this county, I would pay $1,200 a year in taxes," he says. "I own four brothels, I pay a half a million dollars a year in taxes. That's a lot of money for a small county."

He goes on to claim that his businesses contribute another $10m a year to the local economy by employing chambermaids, bar tenders, cooks, drivers, doctors, hairdressers and others, and says the sex industry boosts tourism across the whole state.

Sure enough, on our first morning at the Bunny Ranch, three men in biker gear ring the buzzer. They are holidaymakers from China's Sichuan Province, 7,000 miles away. "My friends heard about this place and they couldn't believe it was legal," says one. "We came to check it out."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The Moonlite Bunny Ranch legal brothel

Whether or not tourism of this kind is in Nevada's interests, though, is a moot point. Some argue that the brothels make all women living nearby more vulnerable to assault, increase the danger of sex trafficking, and deter respectable businesses from investing in the area.

So far the brothels don't seem to have stopped economic development in northern Nevada. Tesla's recently constructed $5bn lithium battery Gigafactory, is just a few miles from a legal brothel in neighbouring Storey County.

But the critics argue that more hi-tech industries would come if the brothels did not exist, and that this is where Nevada's future lies. They also have ethical objections.

Brenda Simpson, from the End Trafficking and Prostitution Political Action Committee, says it is time to stop looking the other way.

"You know, it used to be considered OK to bring slaves from Africa," she tells me in the park outside the state legislature in Carson City. "And finally, someone had the courage to say, 'No, we're not going to have slavery.' This is just a different kind of slavery. These women in the legal brothels are slaves."

Image source, BBC
Image caption,
Campaigner Brenda Simpson thinks working in brothels is "a kind of slavery"

Ultimately, campaigners like Simpson aim to end legal sex work across the whole state. Lyon County was the only one of the 16 counties where enough residents signed a petition to launch the ballot initiative on brothel closure this November, but if the vote is successful she says other counties are likely to follow suit.

Her group recently launched a campaign called "Close the Meat Market". Posters, leaflets and TV advertisements show women packaged in plastic-wrapped containers like cuts of chicken or lamb.

Melissa Holland, who runs a refuge for abused women in the nearby city of Reno, also doesn't buy the "happy hooker" image.

She says her organisation, Awaken, has helped many women across the state to leave prostitution and find other work.

She quotes a study of a Nevada's sex industry by a Californian academic which concludes that legalised prostitution improves conditions for pimps and brothel owners, rather than for the women who work there. It denounces an almost cult-like atmosphere in many legal brothels, which prevents employees from talking candidly about the dangers they face, including drugs and sexual assault.

Image caption,
Melissa Holland does not buy the "happy hooker" image

None of the women currently working at the Bunny Ranch have anything critical to tell me about their boss or their working conditions. Air Force Amy assures me that she doesn't feel exploited.

"I have made a lot of money out of him too. I couldn't have earned this much on the street and I feel much safer," she says.

In her room, decorated with sparkling silver cushions, she points out the panic button on the wall near the bed.

However, taking Melissa Holland's advice, I approach some former brothel employees.

For the past two years, Jennifer O'Kane has been telling anyone who will listen that she was raped by Hof. She alleges the assault took place in 2011 when she began working at his Love Ranch brothel in Nye County, a couple of hours' drive from Las Vegas.

"He grabbed me by the throat and said now you are mine... all I could do was cry and I beg him to stop," she tells me.

Jennifer says when she first went to the police, they didn't take a proper statement and no number was assigned to her case. Two years ago, she walked into a meeting of Nye County officials and attempted to raise her allegations against Hof, but was silenced.

She says that the district attorney's office told her that even if they investigated further, Hof could not be prosecuted because the four-year statute of limitations had expired.

On the phone, Hof flatly denies O'Kane's version of events. "This is a disgruntled employee that we fired. There's no truth in it," he says, calling her allegations "absurd". He then adds she was "not the demographic of girls that I sleep with anyway" before abruptly hanging up.

On Wednesday 5 September it was announced that the brothel baron is being investigated for alleged sexual assault by the Nevada Department of Public Safety's investigation division, though it's not clear whether this is related to O'Kane's claims or to accusations made by two other sex workers in 2005 and 2009, who also used to work in Hof's brothels.

Hof says those allegations, too are groundless - he believes he is under attack because he had "the nerve" to stand for office. He is running for election to the State Assembly in district 36 around a town called Pahrump, outside Las Vegas. After winning the Republican primary, he started calling himself "the Trump of Pahrump".

Image source, BBC

"This ballot initiative to shut my businesses down and phony allegations of 'sexual assault' are the work of my political opponents," he tells me. "What they thought was, 'If we go after him, try to take his business away from him, he'll quit.' Well it didn't work. It just made me get tougher. And the election in November is going to be a shoo-in for me."

Meanwhile, Amy is backing up her boss by tweeting about his brothel's open day for the community, "buffet spread provided".

Image caption,
Air Force Amy visits the ponies behind the ranch where she works

As she feeds apples to the ponies in their pen behind the Bunny Ranch, she is in a reflective mood. I tell her that I read an interview with her back in 2001 in which she said she was going to leave prostitution within a year, because it was taking such a toll on her body and her "joints ached like a football player's". There was a plan to save up and open a real estate agency. So what happened?

"I don't want a new career after this one," she says. "This is it. What I like is making people happy and breaking the barriers to their sexual problems - what is wrong with that?"

She jokes that these days she is "arm candy for 75-year-olds" but she is not ready to throw in the towel.

"I'll keep working here as long as I can still walk… And even if I can't! Maybe I'll be the first prostitute in a wheelchair? I guarantee they will build ramps around this place for me!"

But come November Amy may not have a choice. Her future depends on the people of Lyon County, and whether they vote in November to close the brothels, or to keep them open.

Image source, BBC

Listen to Assignment: Nevada's brothels face the axe on the BBC World Service

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