Stopping at a Red Light

Stopping at a Red Light


Nancy Chan is a postfeminist icon of sorts. The ultimate lady entrepreneur, Chan–the title character of the popular serial Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, catalogued on–has an enviable collection of Prada bags, a pricey pad on the Upper East Side and a little black book full of Wall Street power brokers. Nancy’s creator, Tracy Quan, is a former working girl herself, who describes her past life as a whirlwind of lucrative dates: “Here I was,” she writes breathlessly, “a New York call girl, routinely bedding CEOs, foreign nobles, and entertainment moguls in the city’s five-star hotels.”

What would antipornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who electrified a generation of women’s studies majors, think of Quan and her resourceful, business-minded creation? Addressing an audience at the University of Michigan law school in 1992, Dworkin admonished that society might want us to “feel a kinky little thrill every time you think of something being stuck in a woman. I want you to feel the delicate tissues in her body that are being misused.” All prostitution, she maintains, “whether the event took place in the Plaza Hotel or somewhere more inelegant,” is a violation of women’s bodies and their civil rights.

What’s missing from both sides of the theoretical divide is the “work” half of the sex worker’s job description (“sex worker” is a term preferred by many in the industry to the old-fashioned “prostitute” or the derogatory “hooker”). For women who make their living in strip clubs, brothels, massage parlors or in front of the pornographer’s camera, sex is part of the job description, and the work is often as dull and unstimulating as telemarketing or stitching sleeves in a garment factory.

Describing the monotony of her job, Miss Mary Ann, a peep-show dancer, complained in an essay, “Labor Organizing in the Skin Trade”:

The job has always been defined in MY mind by the repetitive manual labor it demands. Punch a time clock, spot an open window, make eye contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stilletto-clad foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke whatever pubic hair you haven’t shaven off, repeat these ten steps until the customer comes, then move on to the next window, repeat the process until your shift’s over, punch out.

Miss Mary Ann works at the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco, which was recently the site of a bitter–and ultimately successful–unionization campaign (chronicled in the critically acclaimed documentary Live Nude Girls UNITE!).

Of course, a good stripper can never let on that she is thinking about collective bargaining and the picket line while she’s working the stage. One of the requirements of the job is to pretend you’re having a great time–as Miss Mary Ann says, to pout, wink and swivel your hips. Until recently, writing about the sex industry followed suit. Tell-alls like Madam: Chronicles of a Nevada Cathouse and Confessions of a Part-Time Call Girl satisfy our curiosity with a liberal ratio of sex scenes to story line. As the study of sex work has crept into the academy, usually through the backdoor of cultural studies but on some campuses in unabashed porn studies classes, volumes like Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition are beginning to reconsider sex work in the context of the historically limited employment opportunities for women.

Brothel, Alexa Albert’s account of her four years spent observing life on and off at the Mustang Ranch, one of Nevada’s legal brothels (while she also attended Harvard Medical School), is a mix of these two genres. Part serious reflection on the realities of working in the sex industry, part fluffy exposé, what Albert has to say is worth noting, if you can disregard how she says it. Think feature story in Oprah’s O magazine, nestled somewhere between the life lessons and the daily goals calendar.

Albert’s aim is to convince her squeamish, middle-American audience that prostitution can be a legitimate job and brothels a valid workplace. Or, as she puts it in her cloying girl-chat: “Nevada’s legal brothels were far less repugnant than I had expected. They appeared to be clean, legitimate workplaces, and the women were not shackled hostages but self-aware professionals there of their own free will.” Of the working girls themselves, Albert waxes even more sappy, declaring that “their hopefulness in spite of what they know about human nature makes my heart ache. These women are just like the rest of us.”

It’s the right sentiment in exactly the wrong tone. When Albert says that sex workers are “just like the rest of us,” she means that even though they’re whores, they have feelings, hopes and dreams too. She could have added that the troubles they face at work–everything from long hours away from their families to lack of health benefits and overtime compensation–are just like the problems many low-skilled Americans experience on the job.

For instance, management at the Mustang Ranch considers its seventy-five-odd women to be independent contractors, which means that for all legal purposes they aren’t employees but freelancers working on temporary assignment. By claiming that they only provide a venue for paid sexual encounters to occur, the brothel’s owners can avoid paying employee-related taxes and giving their “girls” health insurance, sick leave and workers’ compensation. Such nonstandard and, in a way, deceitful working arrangements are by no means unique to the sex industry but are widespread in construction, manufacturing and the service sector as well. Subcontracting–by which employers avoid paying benefits–and an increased reliance on part-time work are posing a serious threat to job security and have come under fire recently by living-wage activists at Harvard University and workers at Boeing and UPS.

Just by bringing up taxes and health insurance–two highly unsexy topics–Albert goes a long way to redirect our image of sex work away from both the sanitized rags-to-riches fable of Pretty Woman and the sordid morality tale à la Hard Copy. Neither of these Hollywood types rings true to Albert; she writes, sounding a little like Al Gore during the populist phase of his presidential campaign, that the women she met possessed “a profound sense of personal responsibility and an unwavering commitment to their families that ultimately drove them to do this ‘immoral’ work.” Over one-third of the women Albert met at the ranch have children, and because the brothel’s residence policy requires sex workers to remain on the premises while working (often for weeks at a time), they cannot spend much time raising them. The concerns of women like Donna, who brings home hundreds of dollars in presents on her weeks off, echo the worries of all working parents: Should I take that second job and sacrifice the time I could be spending at home with my kids? Can quality time or piles of presents make up for my long hours at the office?

The difficulty of separating personal life from work, a common gripe in an age of cell phones and telecommuting, is particularly hard for the sex workers Albert got to know. Every woman has her own method of emotionally differentiating between her professional sex-kitten persona and her private sexual self. An older, seasoned prostitute, Linda, declared that a true working girl never enjoys sex with her clients. “I think about the money,” she says honestly. “The calculator is always cha-ching-ing while the guy’s fucking me.” Baby, a wilder, free-spirit type, disagreed, saying just as sincerely that “if you’re gonna have sex with strangers, your best bet is to try to make the most of the situation.”

Sex workers often find–surprise, surprise–that work can get in the way of building stable romantic relationships. Straitlaced Brittany is married to Jon, who found himself bothered by the nature of her job (though he is one of her former clients). To silence his misgivings, Brittany told him that she is able to emotionally detach from her work. “She sees blackness and nothingness where the man’s face should be,” Jon told Albert, and then he wondered, “what am I, a wimp, because I can’t block it out and she can?” Equally troubling for their relationship is Brittany’s sexual timidity on her weeks off; she associates initiating sex with work, and she confided that as soon as he starts becoming sexual, “I become almost frigid.”

The need to negotiate the often blurry boundary between one’s professional and personal selves is not a problem unique to sex work. Nannies and home healthcare workers often experience an emotional attachment to their clients that can leave them feeling estranged from their own family. Professors, counselors and therapists must take care to distinguish their professional rapport with younger students and patients from inappropriate attention.

But comparing the stresses of sex work to the problems faced in other service jobs is not to underestimate the particularities of prostitution. Irene, the tough den mother at the ranch, warns new recruits that “this job is tough. Some of these guys are fat, some are ugly, and some have BO,” but if you want to make money, you can’t be choosy. When the bell rings, signaling that a customer is at the door, you have to join the lineup, smile coyly and “spread your legs.” To soothe the irritation of frequent intercourse–a form of repetitive stress–women insert vitamin E capsules into their vaginas and coat their tampons with mentholatum. Sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, are another unique occupational hazard, though Albert notes that since mandatory AIDS testing began in 1986, none of Nevada’s sex workers have tested positive. Regulated brothels like the Mustang Ranch require condom use for all forms of sexual contact.

For all their hard work, the women of Nevada’s legal brothels are treated as a class of untouchables, prohibited by management from leaving the grounds while on duty. Five days into her first visit to the ranch, Albert realized that she hadn’t been outside. “It had struck me that the brothel residents actually lived like animals in a zoo,” she writes. “Whereas the non-‘working’ staff and the customers are at liberty to come and go, the working girls were…let out for fresh-air breaks only in the enclosed front- and backyards.” Women are required to rent a room–which doubles as an office and a place to sleep–from the brothel and to pay staff runners to do their errands in town. Though the women are supposedly independent contractors, their every move is carefully monitored: They are not allowed to sit out a lineup during their shift, and a floor manager listens to their private negotiations with clients over a secret intercom system to discourage the women from withholding part of management’s cut or trading sex for drugs.

Brothel owners justify this near-captivity on a number of grounds, including the worry that their women will use their time off to expand their customer base on the side, cutting management out of the deal. Local governments are just as happy with this informal segregation of prostitutes. Ten of Nevada’s seventeen counties allow prostitution in licensed brothels (one of the exceptions is Las Vegas’s Clark County, which is prevented from doing so by a state law that applies only to counties with a population above 400,000). In 1998 local governments collected more than $500,000 from brothel licenses and associated fees. Yet, despite their financial interest in the legal sex industry, most counties tolerate prostitution only grudgingly and try to confine the unsavory business to the edges of town.

Nevada is not alone in this not-in-my-backyard approach. Even in Amsterdam, notorious for its thriving sex trade, it’s hard to tell whether the strings of red lights marking off the red-light district are intended to attract clients or to separate the working girls from the rest of the city. In most of Europe and parts of the Third World prostitution itself is illegal but profiting from the proceeds of sex work (by pimping or running a brothel) is not. The real criminals, the thinking goes, are not the prostitutes but their greedy and abusive managers. Spend time in a brothel, and you’ll be exposed not only to a lot of hard work but to a lot of sex. Despite all her insight into the “work” question, Albert quickly slips into the role of tawdry Dateline anchor in her accounts of brothel-style sexuality, offering her audience the vicarious thrill of exploring an underground world at a distance. Like a dutiful Jane Pauley, she joins the girls in trying on lingerie from a traveling salesman’s collection, confiding “I couldn’t help imagining myself in various risqué outfits.” She chooses a slinky red number to surprise her husband. Nervously, she consents when Baby, and then Brittany, two of her closest friends, invite her to watch them “party” (the euphemism favored for turning a trick) and then spends days wondering, “Did I even want to watch? Would I feel uncomfortable? Embarrassed? Sickened?”

Despite all her questions, Albert never admits feeling the slightest bit turned on–but I don’t believe her. At the very least, she is fascinated by the world of appearances and performance; at heart, she is a voyeur. “I spent hours on the parlor sofas watching the lineup,” she writes without a hint of irony, “entertaining myself by silently handicapping each woman, asking myself who was most eye-catching, or whose outfit was most shameless. Was it the wet-pink vinyl, lace-up cat suit, or the sheer, sapphire baby doll?”

With little awareness of her appropriating gaze, which renders the women she befriends and elsewhere writes of so humanely as so much sexual fodder, her language is straight out of Penthouse Forum:

Though very different in appearance, all were surprisingly attractive, I found myself thinking, from a buxom Native American with silky-smooth black hair to her waist and bloodred fingernails, to a bleached blonde with serpent tattoos spiraling up her calves…. Ashley, for instance, a statuesque working girl in her early twenties who wore a sheer black peignoir trimmed with lush marabou over a rhinestone-studded black bikini and matching black marabou slippers.

Compare this to Rebecca Mead’s description of Air Force Amy, one of the top bookers at another Nevada brothel, the Moonlite Bunnyranch, in an April 23 New Yorker article: “Amy has been a legal prostitute in Nevada for ten years; she has white-blond hair and blue-white teeth and wears a D cup; she is 35, though parts of her appear to be of more recent vintage.” For Amy, a D cup is just a uniform to be worn, along with bleached hair and capped teeth, makeup and a G-string, to improve job performance.

In a few well-chosen words, Mead picks up on an essential fact that Albert ignores: For sex workers, “sex” cannot be divorced from “work.” Dress, style, grooming and a well-timed moan are just tools of the trade, much like an artist’s portfolio or a writer’s clip file. The girl who presents herself in the lineup ready to party, a girl named Cherie or Desiree, is really a worker on duty, and when her shift is over, she punches out.

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