A night’s work
New looks at the world’s oldest profession
Almost 20 miles east of Reno, past the canyon communities of Lockwood and Patrick, and abutting the low hills south of the Truckee River, is Mustang Ranch—one of only 21 legal brothels in the nation. It sits within a few hundred yards of Washoe County’s border with Storey County, where prostitution is legal, and from the outside, it’s pretty unmistakable what’s being advertised. The two resort-style buildings are adorned with erotic pictures of women in movie-poster frames and flashing red lights symbolic of the sex trade.
But last week, the staff of Mustang Ranch held a kind of open house—a push for transparency—to screen a short video called “The Power of Human Touch.” In it, courtesans at the ranch shared stories of the emotional work they perform for their clients—something that’s integral to their jobs, they said, and is often missing from their political or Hollywood portrayals.
“It was emotional, but it was also empowering at the same time,” said Jennifer Barnes, who, with Tara Adkins, is one of the ranch’s two madams. “You know, to be able to speak out and talk about what we do.”
In the video, Barnes and other courtesans recounted stories of helping clients with special needs—those who have experienced physical or emotional trauma impacting their ability to have sex, for example—or are otherwise unable to find companionship.
“Recently, a couple came up here and the husband had cancer,” Adkins said. “The wife had three heart attacks. Her third heart attack, the doctor said, ’If you have sex again, it’ll kill you.’ She had a heart attack in the middle of having sex—they’re in their 70s. I think for their 60th or 50th wedding anniversary, she looked up the Mustang Ranch. She gave him a certain amount of money to spend, and he came out here and told me this whole story. So, then I got to know him really well, and I’m like, ’You’ve got to bring your wife out here now. I’ve got to meet your wife.’ A month later, here comes his wife and she started bawling, gave me the biggest hug and she’s like, ’you saved our marriage, 100 percent.’”
Adkins also mentioned a mother of an autistic man who brought him from New York to Reno for an appointment, and a regular who started coming to the ranch after an accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. Many of these clients aren’t looking for sex, the madams said, and those who are regard the ranch as a judgment-free space.
“Couples that have been married for years, and they kind of lose that ’umph,’ they come here and say, ’Can you teach us how to do a great blow job?’ or ’Can you teach me how to go down on my wife again? I lost that.’ Absolutely, let’s get a lineup going.”
Adkins and Barnes have worked at Mustang Ranch for almost 20 years, and believe courtesans offer services that go beyond just the act of selling sex—a misconception that drives the stigma sex workers and clientele still face from the public.
“They’ve never set foot in a brothel,” said Adkins. “They haven’t had the opportunity to come in and learn what we’re all about. … And so that’s why we take time to invite anybody and everybody out here to get to know us. And that’s why this is really important right now.”
Nevada is the only state that allows legal sex work, and it remains a link to our frontier heritage. But the brothels have had an uneasy relationship with the legislature in recent years. Practices like advertising and permitting are strictly regulated, and several attempts have been made over the years to ban brothels outright—the most recent was in 2018. Accusations of sex trafficking, spurred by community action groups like No Little Girl, led to a ballot initiative on outlawing brothels that eventually failed.
To the madams, illegal prostitution is less likely to happen in brothels, as all women who apply to work at Mustang Ranch must undergo an FBI background check, a medical consultation and register with the Storey County Sheriff to get what’s called a “work card.” Part of a madam’s job, they agreed, was to watch out for the signs of trafficking specifically, and every room is equipped with a silent alarm that will alert in-house security if a woman feels unsafe.
“In, you know, mid-2018 when the brothel ban initiative came out, Mustang Ranch said, ’Hey, we want to make sure that people know exactly what a legal, regulated brothel looks like, why it’s a benefit to the community in so many ways and why it is a safe place for women to work,’” said Molly Ellery, a representative of Mustang Ranch. “So that’s a major campaign that’s been in effect for going on two years.”
Part of that campaign has been pushing back on the idea that legal sex work is simply a survival strategy for vulnerable women. The video was originally meant to highlight the economic freedoms enjoyed by women who work at the ranch—akin to small business owners, or “independent contractors” as they are officially called, as they are not actual employees.
“We realized day of filming, the deeper message was about compassion and the power of intimacy, and the power of touch and conversation,” Ellery said. “We realized that was the heart of the message we needed to help tell.”
However, to advocates for victims of sexual trafficking, any depictions that might “glamorize” the legal sex trade are counterproductive.
“The idea that they are providing some sort of a therapeutic service like a massage or something, it’s just that PR firm trying to put, you know, lipstick on a pig, essentially,” said Jason Guinasso, a lawyer who works on behalf of the faith-based AWAKEN anti-sex trafficking non-profit, and who helped write the anti-brothel initiative in 2018. “I’ve been arguing for several years now that the correlation between the legal sex industry in our state and illegal sex trafficking are inextricably linked.”
Guinasso has worked in anti-trafficking advocacy for most of the last decade and believes that Nevada’s legal sex industry creates a “supply” component for an illegal market—one that thrives on buyers’ ignorance or indifference—to which counties or establishments allow for prostitution.
“There’s a reason why Nevada has the highest incidence of sex trafficking from all the other states except New York,” said Guinasso.
Last year, a woman who claimed she was trafficked in two unnamed Nevada brothels brought a federal suit against the state, asserting that the online presence of the brothels violates the Mann Act, a federal law criminalizing encouraging people to cross state lines for prostitution. Guinasso represented the plaintiff in that case, but the suit was dismissed in October. Guinasso said similar victims of trafficking contact him every week, and while he can’t say every woman working in a brothel is being trafficked, he believes there’s evidence of illegal sex work in the same regulations that are supposed to ensure the women’s safety.
“They have to go get health screenings every week, you know, to make sure that they don’t have STDs,” Guinasso said. “But here’s what happens if they test positive for having an STD, they can’t work, right? The women that work up there pay from their own pocket to deal with the STD. And if they can’t get a clean bill of health, they just get thrown away. And where do they go? They go back on the street.”
Guinasso also believes that, since more work cards are issued than there are open spaces available for courtesans at most brothels, coupled with a high turnover rate and cases that involved high numbers of foreign nationals working in certain brothels, that the legal industry contributes to illegal trafficking. His next step, he said, is to itemize all the work cards he’s collected for research to get a sense of the scale of how many women might be trafficked through brothels.
While the extent of Nevada’s illegal sex trade might be obscured, to Guinasso and other advocates, brothel owners have everything to gain by presenting their employees as empowered individuals.
“I’ve waited 20 years for someone to show these ladies the way we saw them tonight,” said Lance Gilman. He’s a realtor, Storey County commissioner and owner of the Mustang Ranch since 2006. He wiped tears from his eyes as the video played to media representatives and ranch staff. “I walked into this industry 20 years ago—it was on behalf of Storey County and to really help them financially. I knew nothing about brothels, and I had a lot of help. But as I got in here, I really became acquainted with a group of people that were really special. I had no idea.”
Gilman saved the ranch from bankruptcy in the early 2000s, after founder and original owner Joe Conforte was arrested for tax fraud and forfeited the property to the federal government in 1999. Gilman bought the original buildings and moved them to a site he already owned. The older of the two buildings now houses a bar, private quarters for the residents and several different “party rooms.” And the newest building contains a bar and restaurant that are licensed independently of the brothel, more rooms and the gift shop.
Gilman believes brothels are an easy target for anti-trafficking campaigns, but the real threats come from unlicensed establishments where the connection to the sex trade is already implied.
“I think because we’re the most visible, and the rest of the industry is behind the curtains,” Gilman said. “For example, it’s rampant in the massage industry, but there’s no oversight. There’s no work cards. … And the other thing that happens is so much of the trafficking takes place, like, for example, in Las Vegas and the hotels. The criminal element has found a way to make an incredible amount of off-tax money by operating at something that’s so much in demand.”
Gilman said that both legalization of sex work at large and banning it completely would have the same result: pushing women into the hands of predators. Plus, he said, Nevada already knows how to regulate industries that are typically thought of as vices.
“I am in favor of it, just like gaming,” Gilman said. “It should happen within four walls, with strong oversight and administration by the government, so that the right people get involved and the right controls are involved. … Nobody’s going to be hurt on our watch, if you know what I mean. That doesn’t happen in the outside world. They’re vulnerable.”
However, Guinasso disagrees.
“I think it would be catastrophic if those industries were regulated with the same lackadaisical and indifferent oversight that the brothel industry is regulated with,” he said. “The idea that they have to do a full-on FBI background check is a misnomer. The sheriff’s departments aren’t putting that much time and energy into it. They’re doing the basic background check and then giving the card. But as you see from the brothel cards I have, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just not followed through on.”
At the end of the night, Gilman stood up to thank those in attendance and to announce the creation of the Mustang Foundation, a non-profit that he said is dedicated to helping victims of trafficking. He later admitted that the foundation was still in the planning stages as far as its direct purpose, but that he’d like to see the money used locally in a method similar to groups like Operation Underground Railroad.
“They’ve had a couple of functions here and I’ve put a ton of money in there,” he said. “They set up stings in China, in Taiwan, in Australia. … They have their lives at stake infiltrating these goddamn groups so they could do something with them. And it’s too prevalent in our own community in the areas that I just told you. We need to watch and manage those areas where things happen behind the door with no visibility and no licensing and no health checks.”