TO BE HONEST, six days after getting engaged was not the time I would have picked for my first trip to a brothel. But a relationship has to be built on trust, and my fiancée had to trust what I’d promised her: “I swear to god, I will not touch a single. fucking. thing.” And this is a promise I kept, unless you count those two seconds I unwittingly leaned against the forced masturbation chair.
I was in southern Nevada on a press trip with Travel Nevada to research “the ultimate bachelor party.” Most of the itinerary was just doing baller, awesome stuff like firing a machine gun or racing a Porsche or taking a helicopter over the Grand Canyon, but one item on the itinerary was an hour-long tour of Sheri’s Ranch, one of Nevada’s 19 legal brothels. When I told my fiancee’s parents about the trip, I left this item off.
The reason — other than I don’t want them to think their future son-in-law is a sleazeball — is that I have mixed feelings about legalized brothels. As far as I can tell, there were four voices simultaneously arguing in my head on the drive there: the prude, the teenage boy, the feminist in favor of legalizing prostitution, and the feminist against legalizing prostitution. Here’s a snippet of the conversation:
- Feminist in favor: “Shouldn’t they be allowed to do what they want with their bodies? And doesn’t this provide a safe venue for them? Isn’t it a form of empowerment?”
- Feminist against: “If you think there’s no abuse happening just because it’s legal, you’re deluded. Also, what does it say about our society that all we value about women is their bodies?”
- Prude: “Guys, what if everything is covered in syphilis? Also, how does syphilis work?”
- Teenage Boy: “OH MY GOD, WHAT IF I SEE BOOBS?”
Nevada: The “Pay to Play” State
Brothels in Nevada have been legal for over 100 years. Counties still get to choose whether to allow them or not, and they’re not legal in Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City, and a few other places. All prostitution has to take place within these legalized, regulated brothels. The women who work at Sheri’s Ranch told me they’re kind of like contractors — they pay a fee to the brothel to stay there and use the premises, they pay for a sheriff’s card (which is basically a work permit that’s renewed quarterly or whenever they change brothels), they pay for the weekly STD testing, and they pay taxes. As contractors, they don’t get benefits.
The ten largest cities in the state are all in counties that don’t allow brothels, so they tend to be out in the middle of nowhere, and there are differing levels of pay at each — the ladies negotiate their rates themselves based on the amount of time and what you want to do — but the most expensive brothels are the ones closest to Vegas. Sheri’s Ranch and another brothel called Chicken Ranch are in a small town about an hour and a half outside of Vegas, right near the California border, called Pahrump, which the teenage voice in my head thought sounded like a hilariously onomatopoetic sex noise. They are generally the most expensive in the state.
Sex dungeons, corporate sponsors, and lineups
When you first walk into Sheri’s Ranch, you’re probably walking into the bar. The bar looks like any other dive bar in the country. It has autographed footballs and jerseys by the likes of Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Walter Payton, and Larry Johnson in a display case above the taps. TVs play ESPN in the background. And a few customers will look very disturbed to see a flock of 14 journalists coming through the door.
We’re met by Cassie and Arianna, two ladies who work at Sheri’s. Both tend to favor the term “ladies” when they speak of themselves or their coworkers. When one of our group asks what they prefer to be called — prostitutes, whores, escorts — Cassie says she doesn’t care, and Arianna says she prefers to be called an entertainer. Or Arianna. Cassie, the blonde in a skin-tight black dress with a number of tattoos, does most of the talking, while Arianna, in a tight leopard-print dress, hangs back and answers occasional questions. Offhand, Cassie says the two of them are getting married at the end of the summer.
As we’re about to start the tour, an older woman who says she’s the Madam walks up to one of our Travel Nevada guides. “Still just a tour, right?” she says.
AHHHHHHHHHHH! the teenage boy screams in my head.
“Yeah,” our guide says. “We gotta go in about an hour.”
“Okay, the Madam says. “You guys are free to hang around for drinks, though.” And she leads us out of the bar.
A set of velvet drapes separate the neon-lit bar from the bright, marble lobby. There’s a couch, and then sliding glass doors looking out to a grassy courtyard and a pool where “bottoms are required.” This, the Madam tells us, is the lineup room. If they ring a bell, the ladies have to be ready in a few minutes, and come line up for the customer. The customer picks one or more ladies, and then they negotiate the price, he or she pays, and then the lady fulfills her end of the bargain.
“Different ladies will do different things,” Cassie says. Most of what they discuss is themed. There’s a room decorated like a classroom, they tell us, and also like an office. A sign offers a “geisha” experience. We don’t see those — some are “in use.” Instead, they take us to the harem bungalow, then to the African bungalow, then to the Landshark Room with the hot tub and the Landshark surfboard on the wall. Oh yeah: Sheri’s Ranch is, according to the Madam, the only corporate-sponsored brothel in the country. Thanks, Bud Light!
The last room we visit is the S&M room. “A second lady is always required to be in this room with the customer,” Cassie says. I enter the room last, and lean against a chair in the corner, assuming it’s where the chaperone sits. Cassie starts pointing to contraptions in the room and telling us their names, but I honestly don’t remember any of them, because then she pointed at me and said, “And that’s the forced masturbation chair.”
PURELL! PURELL! the prude shouts. I clear my throat and shift away.
The Sex Menu: “Different, but so good”
Every room has a sign that says “CONDOMS ARE MANDATORY,” and different rooms have different features and fees. Depending on what you want to do with how many ladies, the cost will run you anywhere from $1,000 an hour to $20,000 an hour and up.
What they’ll do? Well, it’s all on the Sex Menu, of course, which you can read on their website, with descriptions. (That link is like crazy NSFW, by the way.) Some of the options include a Half and Half, which is a blowjob and sex (“in a warm, silky glide!”), a Cold Blowjob (“different, but so good ice cold blowjob experience!”), a Hot and Cold Blowjob (“you will not know whether you are going or cumming!”), and a Tongue Body Licking Massage (“Erotic Sex Tongue Pleasure!”).
Blowjobs, like all other sex at Sheri’s and anywhere in Nevada, are becondomed blowjobs. “There is no transfer of bodily fluids. Period,” the Madam says. If you’re tuckered out after your time with the ladies, you can stay in the adjacent hotel, and in the morning, you can grab breakfast in the dining room, stop in the gift shop for a souvenir, and then head home.
The loudest voice in my head
The place, it has to be admitted, leaves a good impression. It seems relatively safe for the ladies, compared to, I would imagine, working for a pimp, and the premises seemed hygienic for a brothel. But it’s a brothel, and maybe this was the work of the teenager or the prude in me, but I just couldn’t fight off the psychic feeling that there was a film of something desperate and sleazy on all of the walls.
When I got home, of course, some research proved that feeling right. As nice as Sheri’s Ranch makes legalized prostitution seem, it’s still a risky business: There are still a ton of reports of abuse, and many of those in favor of legalized prostitution don’t want the system currently in place in Nevada, which benefits the brothel owners and the customers more than the prostitutes themselves. And sex trafficking (and thus slavery) is still a thing in Nevada.
So I’m not for this type of legalized prostitution. There’s probably a system that could work, but Nevada’s isn’t it. The problem with getting into discussions about sex policy, though, is that it’s hard to talk reasonably when the loudest voice in most people’s heads is the teenage one: giggling hysterically at words like “Pahrump” and imagining the wallpapers are made of syphilis.