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The invisible hand roams a little freer in Nevada than in the rest of the U.S., but it still gets its knuckles rapped when it reaches into the boudoir. The state’s legal brothels, a legacy of the Gold Rush, have spent the last 120 years dodging bans and religious campaigns and even the wrath of the newly wholesome casinos. The men who built the brothels are seen as romantic, rugged outlaw types; most of the stigma falls on the women who turn the profits.

One of the wildest cowboy-pimps is Joe Conforte, who rode into Nevada in 1955. He built his first whorehouse in Storey County, right next to Washoe County, where Reno sits. That pissed off Washoe District Attorney William Raggio, and he and Conforte engaged in a fabulously dirty feud for years. Conforte set Raggio up to have sex—and get caught—with a 17-year-old; Raggio got the fire department to burn down one of Conforte’s brothels. After the fire, Conforte moved his “girls” into a trailer, which he drove into a different county whenever local authorities threatened. Conforte eventually got brothel-licensing laws passed in Storey County by renting trailers cheap in exchange for votes. Other Nevada counties followed, cashing in by setting licensing fees as high as $100,000.

Conforte’s Mustang Ranch was the biggest and most lucrative brothel until 1999, when a federal jury found him guilty of racketeering. (Conforte was on the lam in South America but running the brothel through a shell organization.) Up until 1999, an average of 75 women at a time worked out of the two buildings flanked by wrought-iron gates and a lookout tower. In the early ’90s, Mustang Ranch had revenues of about $25 million a year.

Harvard medical student Alexa Albert first went to Mustang Ranch in 1992 to study condom use, intrigued by reports that no brothel prostitute had tested positive for HIV since 1986. Over the next six years, Albert interviewed prostitutes and stayed in the brothel for weeks at a time. Her fascination with life inside the gates extended beyond public health, and her study grew into Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women, a sympathetic survey with chapter titles such as “Pride in One’s Work,” “Entanglements,” “Sisterhood,” and “Legalized, Not Legitimized.”

From her bedroom in the Mustang, Albert could hear working moans and grunts. She attended two sessions, the prostitutes and johns weaving her presence into their scenes. With the “girls” goading her on, Albert bought a peignoir from a traveling salesman who provides slutwear to all the Nevada brothels. But Albert didn’t go native; despite her affection for the women, she kept her reporter/researcher’s distance. And she earns the reader’s trust by placing all her discoveries in the context of her initial assumption that prostitution is creepy and exploitative.

Albert is an earnest, sometimes clunky writer. She announces that her goal “is to awaken readers to [prostitutes’] humanity and bring this issue out of the realm of caricature and into that of serious debate.” But Brothel seduces nonetheless, because Albert asked the women all the questions a layperson (which seems the exact wrong term here) ponders. Among them: What got you started? Do you ever enjoy the sex? How does it affect your personal life? How do you handle society’s disgust? Albert also interviewed johns, brothel management, and county officials for a complete and fascinating overview.

Working at Mustang Ranch was safer than streetwalking, but the brothel arrangement shared elements with the military, pre-union coal mines, and prison. Although they were independent contractors and received no benefits, the women split their earnings 50/50 with the house. They also paid an additional $31 a day to be split among the maids, cooks, managers, and other support staff. Ranch women averaged six customers and between $300 and $1,500 a day and worked 12-hour shifts for as long as three weeks in a row. They could not leave the premises during those weeks, because the owners didn’t want them turning tricks on their own. Exercise and “fresh air breaks” were allowed only in the enclosed yard.

The women spent most of their time in the dark, smoke-filled lounge waiting for customers. When the doorbell sounded, they jumped into the “lineup.” As the john comparison-shopped down the line, each woman stated her working name but couldn’t do more. (Exposing a nipple, for example, was forbidden.) To turn a customer down, a prostitute needed a solid excuse, such as the john’s refusal to wear a condom. The bedrooms were all miked so the owners could listen in on the money negotiations. Customers could pay with a credit card, and Mustang appeared on their invoices as “Nevada Novelties, Inc.”

Albert accompanied newcomer “Eva” as she got herself set up and licensed to be an “entertainer.” Eva was tested for HIV and other STDs, and the lab faxed the results to the brothel physician and the state health department. All brothel prostitutes undergo weekly physical exams and monthly blood work. Then the sheriff’s office photographs and fingerprints them and searches for outstanding warrants. Nobody convicted of a felony or any of a long list of misdemeanors can be licensed to work in a Nevada brothel.

The Mustang Ranch manager gave Eva this shopping list: “water-based lubricant; condoms; Betadine and baby wipes to clean the customers; mouthwash; vitamin E capsules to insert in her vagina to soothe the irritation of frequent intercourse; Mentholatum to spread on tampons, also to help relieve vaginal soreness; a bathrobe; and a disinfectant to wipe down the toilet seat and bidet after each client.” More than anything else in the book, this list drives home the physical grind of fucking six strangers a day.

Less evocative are Albert’s chapters on the women’s sexual and romantic lives, partly because their attitudes varied too widely to justify any conclusions. The only common denominator Albert found was financial need: Most of the women were supporting a husband, children, or both. About half the women Albert spoke to said they had been sexually abused as children; Albert deems this figure “not much higher than the 20 percent of all American women” who were abused. Some women had orgasms with clients and some didn’t: Ten-year veteran Linda considered it tacky to enjoy the work. “I think women who enjoy sex with customers are fooling themselves, looking for love in the wrong place,” she told Albert. A few Mustang Ranchers married clients and quit the life, and most of those husbands at some point threw their wives’ old job back in their faces.

In an 1853 letter, Flaubert wrote, “There is, in this idea of prostitution, a point of intersections so complex—lust, bitterness, the void of human relations, the frenzy of muscles and the sound of gold—that looking deeply into it makes you dizzy; and you learn of so many things!” Some 150 years later, those intersections are more bustling and more public than ever. We’re more open about sex and less clear about what can or should transcend money. You could say that fin de siècle America—the age of Darva Conger and Temptation Island, “indie” musicians who sell straight to advertisers, and a government based on corporate patronage—is a meretriciousocracy.

But, whereas Flaubert may have gotten inspired lying with harlots, prostitution as a subject tends to remain stubbornly and prosaically about itself. Hence Albert’s details about brothel HMOs and inserting vitamin E capsules are more vivid than those about husbands and boyfriends. It is, after all, sex work. Writers a lot better than Albert have been unable to wring higher meaning from it, partly because women’s emotional experience is so varied and partly because paid-for sex is a predictable, closed system. Sex isn’t as interesting without uncertainty about what it means or where it fits into a relationship.

Albert’s book—well-reported and humane as it is—doesn’t transcend those limitations. Reading her book, like reading any account of prostitution, is like a trip to Vegas or Reno: The neon shines on such extremes of greed and hope and despair that you always expect some human truth to be revealed, but the only there there is the lurid details. But once you put aside the expectation that prostitution can unlock the secrets of capitalism, power, love, sex, and men and women, those lurid details are plenty. CP