Last days of the Mustang Ranch

Author’s project started out as a study on the use of condoms in brothels

What began as a curiosity as to why no prostitutes in Nevada’s legal brothels had ever tested positive for HIV turned into a larger look at Nevada’s Mustang Ranch for author Alexa Albert. The resulting book, Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women, is engrossing.

Now a pediatric resident in Seattle, Albert began lobbying lobbyist George Flint, executive director of the Nevada Brothel Association, for a chance to spend some time inside the renowned Mustang Ranch back in 1989. He acknowledged her request a few years later. Over the course of six years, Albert spent a total of seven months living inside the Ranch, and her public health study led to a wonderful sociological study of the oldest profession.

From her first visit to the Ranch—"I tried to glance nonchalantly around the room, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary for me to be in a brothel"—to finally “marching out with the remaining 17 brothel workers” on August 9, 1999, Mustang’s final day of business before federal agents closed its doors, Albert observed, recorded and gave grave consideration to the reality and ambiguities of legal prostitution.

Albert’s awe at this business of women selling sex and men buying it—legally—and her wonderful open-mindedness make her the perfect voice and collective storyteller for these women. Albert’s recount of her experiences grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me square in the eyes and said, “You’ve got to hear this!”

This nonfiction book is very well put together; Albert starts by telling how she tried to get the women to open up to her. The more older, more professional women were “distant, cautious, self-protective,” while the newer women spoke more readily.

Overwhelmingly, Albert says, the women had “a sense of provider responsibility, usually for a family.”

Brothel is in no way a tell-all of the private lives of working girls; rather, it is the stories of the women—the female human beings—who for some reason or another have chosen prostitution as their profession. Albert expertly weaves together the chapters—"Pride in One’s Work,” “Sisterhood” and “Legalized, Not Legitimized,"to name a few—pulling together the reality and history with humanity.

One chapter, “Entanglements,” explores the aspect of men falling in love with their favorite prostitutes.

During a recent interview after her book was released in paperback, Albert says that before her experience at Mustang Ranch, she tended to believe that the men who visited the Ranch saw the prostitutes purely as a commodity. Soon she began to see that wasn’t always the case.

“The quintessential customer is just a regular guy, like all people, trying to have a connection.” But she thinks it’s sad that they have to pay for it.

“To be a customer must be an amazing experience,” she says. “They have these sexual secrets in their heads that they worry about asking someone to do. [With a prostitute], for a moment, they forget they’re customers.”

I asked Albert if there was anything she was still curious about, and she replied: "I still don’t get it. I still am in awe that they do what they do."