The drive to Pahrump, NV from Las Vegas is possibly one of the longest drives you will ever encounter. While it only takes an hour to get from Vegas to Pahrump, the monotony of endless desert makes the drive seem much longer. There are no gas stations, convenience stores, or any other highway amenity that you might expect to encounter. People who go to Pahrump don’t really care about that, though. Most people who visit this town are interested only in the thriving sex trade that occurs here; Pahrump boasts of having two world famous legal brothels – The Chicken Ranch and Sherri’s Brothel.
We decided to visit a brothel on a whim. Over lunch one day, Jewellan mentioned that she would like to visit a brothel (for educational purposes, of course) – I got very excited about this proposition and commenced to doing the necessary research that such an adventure would require. After reading some rather lurid Q and A’s I found out that single women were welcome visitors at most brothels and that free tours were also provided. In addition, both The Chicken Ranch and Sherri’s were equipped with a bar where we could sit and (hopefully) visit with the ladies. We didn’t really have a plan – we just knew that we felt compelled to go into these places and show love to the women who work there.
Early the next morning we got in our car and drove to The Chicken Ranch (there was no compelling reason as to why we chose to visit this brothel instead of Sherri’s – we just liked the name better.) As stated, the drive was long and boring, and as we made our pilgrimage to Pahrump, we reflected on the dedication of the men who travel from all corners of the world to visit these brothels. What type of person would be so hopelessly mired in hedonism that they would be willing to drive to the middle of the desert to pay for soulless sex with an empty-eyed stranger?
When we arrived at The Chicken Ranch, I was struck by how ordinary the place seemed. It was a plain ranch style building and never would have stood out among the small town, save for the neon signs advertising “The Best Little Whorehouse in the West.” We approached the door, rang the bell, and were hesitantly greeted by a woman who had seen better days. Her overweight body was clad in black (presumably to make her frame appear smaller), her thinning hair was teased, and her sagging face was made up to a point that would be unreasonable even at the height of the disco era. She eyed us cautiously and asked, “Can I help you ladies?”
We told her that we were very interested in the ranch and were wondering if it would be possible for us to have a tour. Despite the fact that it was eight thirty in the morning, we were informed that the ranch was very busy and that we wouldn’t be able to tour the brothel for at least two hours. We spent a few more minutes talking to the woman, who told us her name was Rhonda. After a few more minutes of conversation about the ranch, Rhonda changed her mind and agreed to give us a tour of the brothel, provided we were quiet and didn’t disturb the ladies.
Rhonda showed us the parlor where they do lineups for customers and explained that no matter what hour of day or night, customers can always ask to see a lineup of the available women. She also showed us the depressingly scant kitchen, the common areas, the patio, and the pool. Rhonda was trying to paint a picture of the community that these women enjoyed – close-knit, fun, open. Her evident misery made me question the validity of her statements though; clearly this life had not been kind to her. She proudly showed us pictures of girls who had worked there during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s – an illustrious family history of prostitutes.
Eventually we were led to a bar area. It was a workingman’s bar, littered with sports memorabilia, TV’s, and the obligatory stripper pole. The wall proudly displayed Chicken Ranch souvenirs – shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “I Just Got Laid!” A lone working girl stood near the entrance to the bar. She looked bored and tired. Jewellan, the leader of our party, went over to the girl and introduced herself; the rest of us followed her example. The girl’s name was Anna Lisa (or at least, that was the name she went by while at work.) She wore a simple black lace negligee which complemented her dark hair and natural appearance; she was really quite beautiful.
Anna Lisa was happy to talk to us about her work, her life, and her interests. I asked her how she had gotten started in this line of work, and she answered that years ago she had needed oral surgery and had gotten a job at a strip club to afford the surgery. Over time, one thing had led to another and she eventually ended up working for an escort company in Florida. After getting arrested for prostitution, she left the industry for a year (allegedly to take care of a sick family member.) Eventually she came back to the sex industry and got a job at the Chicken Ranch. She told us it was the only brothel she had ever worked at and the infinitely preferred brothel work to escort work because she claimed it was safer to work in a brothel.
The picture she painted of her working hours was a very happy one. She claimed that she was essentially a sex therapist and that she helped people. Anna Lisa regaled us with stories of helping virgins become better lovers, showing women how to orgasm, and improving marriages. She said she rarely slept with clients and that the majority of her work was conversation and erotic massage. As she was telling us these stories, it was difficult for me to reconcile the incongruities between the story Anna Lisa told us and the bedraggled brothel I was standing in. It seemed unlikely that such a happy, self-assured woman had ended up working in a place like this.
Eventually one member of our party asked Anna Lisa how she fed her spirit. A confused look crossed her face. Eventually she responded that she and several other prostitutes did Zumba every morning, that she enjoyed being out in nature, and that she enjoyed cooking and working on her chef skills. I asked her about her interests and hobbies and she shared that she enjoyed reading and much of her knowledge about the sex industry came from books. She even showed us her copy of the Escorting Handbook.
After forty-five minutes of conversation, we thanked Anna Lisa for her time and her openness to talk with us. As we were leaving she told us that if we were ever interested in working at The Chicken Ranch that we could apply online and that the brothel was always looking for fresh faces. I smiled to myself as Rhonda showed us to the door.
The next brothel – Sherri’s – was much larger. We entered the nearly empty bar area and waited for someone to acknowledge us. After several minutes, a tired looking bartender asked if she could help us. Her quizzical expression communicated that she was unused to seeing groups of women in her establishment. We told her that we were interested in a tour and she said it would be a few minutes before someone could show us around, but in the meantime we could sit down and they would be happy to serve us lunch (you can buy prostitutes and prime rib all under one roof.)
We sat down at a booth and waited. The bar was deserted except for the occasional prostitute or customer wandering through – it was too early in the day for business to be thriving. Eventually a blonde woman came up to our table and said she would be happy to show us around. Jewellan asked if she was a house mom, to which the woman replied, “No. I’m a prostitute.”
The woman introduced herself to us as Tatiana. Her face was tired and starting to show signs of age and the blue lace dress she wore only served to make her complexion look wanner. Tatiana led us through a curtain to a white parlor. White Victorian chairs and flower arrangements made a pretense of opulence, while a menu of sexual services hung from the wall. The room reeked – the smell of unwashed bodies and countless meaningless sexual encounters lingered in the air.
Tatiana told us that this parlor was where lineups occurred. When describing a typical lineup, her face contorted in disgust as she told us about feeling like a “piece of meat” while customers looked her over. One of us asked about the menu; Tatiana explained that it while there was a menu, its purpose was really to give customers an idea of what they might want. The idea still seemed awful – looking over a room of complete strangers and then selecting one to give you a “foot party” or selecting several to provide a “multiple girl party.” The whole thing just seemed empty.
The next room we were shown was the dining room. Tatiana told us that they served great food, but that the dining room was rarely used. Apparently, men who pay up to $20,000 dollars for sex aren’t interested in having dinner with their prostitutes. The rest of the brothel consisted of Jacuzzi rooms, a bubble room (apparently very popular with couples), and a very well stocked dungeon – complete with a cage, all manner of whips and chains, and any medieval torture device imaginable.
As our tour came to a close, Tatiana told us that she only came to the brothel for three weeks out of the year and that she actually was a marine biologist in Alaska. She said that coming to Sherri’s was her vacation and a great way to supplement her income. I had a difficult time believing this – her embittered attitude was not that of a woman who loved where she was at. For myself, I know that when I was stripping, I often told people that I was in law school. Tatiana’s story sounded much like mine used to.
In an attempt to make conversation, Tatiana asked us what we did. Jewellan told her that she was the program director at Refuge for Women and that we help women transition out of this industry when they are ready. Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone’s demeanor change so fast – Tatiana’s couldn’t get us out of there fast enough. She smiled at us (though it looked more like a grimace) and asked us if we had any questions. Before we even had time to respond, she showed us to the door and told us to have a great day.
As we were walking to the door, I couldn’t help but to think how grateful I was to not be in a place like that. I spent several years of my life in strip clubs, and brothels only seemed like a worse version of that hell. Despite the fact that I no longer work in that industry, I know that there is very little that separates me from the women in those brothels – but for the grace of God, I very easily could have been Tatiana or Anna Lisa. And that right there is why it is so necessary to show love to these women, because I know that had it not been for people in my life who loved me, I probably never would have encountered God’s grace.
Leaving Pahrump felt satisfying (ironic, considering that most of the people who leave Pahrump are caught in the unsatisfying cycle of addiction.) It felt satisfying to know that out of all the people who came to see Anna Lisa and Tatiana that four of those people had simply wanted to talk to them. Not wanting anything in return and not wanting a part of them – just wanting to love them.
Written by Kristen, A Refuge Graduate, June 2013