Christina Parreira has done several different kinds of sex work, from stripping to camming to porn; she’s also an activist and is currently working on her PhD in sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. When she started working at a Nevada brothel I asked if she’d write about her impressions for me; since most of the sex workers who post frequently here dislike brothel work, I thought it important to present a different view.
As someone who has worked in different sectors of the sex industry for years, I have met and befriended many sex workers in various parts of the industry, both legal and illegal. But until January, I had never worked in a brothel, and like many sex workers only knew the stereotypes. Although some sex worker publications have written about the brothels, they are missing the one thing that should be essential to any article about the experiences of a marginalized group: the voice of the workers. I have only worked in one brothel for four 7-12 day stays, so I do not profess to be an expert; that being said, I am happy to share some of my observations about brothel life, and I thank Maggie for giving me a platform to do so!
I will NEVER forget my first day moving into the brothel! I was absolutely terrified and had no idea what to expect in terms of income, relations with other workers, and client interactions. I was no stranger to sex work, but had never been required to live on premises. The fear of confinement was anxiety-provoking, and having to obtain a sheriff’s card to legally work as a prostitute was no picnic either. Despite the hassles of regulation, I pushed my reservations aside and instead focused on my aspirations to conduct brothel research as a worker.
First, a lengthy disclaimer: I am not advocating brothel work, nor saying it is any better or worse than other types of sex work. I cannot and will not speak for others, but I can certainly speak for myself. Despite the flack that I caught from activists who labeled me as a “traitor” for working in the legal system, I enjoy working in the brothel. I know myself well enough to know that I am not cut out for independent work: the advertising, the screening, the (unfortunate) fear of arrest. The brothel provides the comfort of structure and safety without the worries that accompany work in a criminalized system. I believe that decriminalization (or rather, full legalization, the more accurate way to describe it) is the ONLY acceptable answer to the problems created and perpetuated by criminalization; however, I would still choose to work in a brothel rather than independently given the choice, a choice that ALL workers should have. No one should be confined to working in a legal system that requires licensing and testing regulations, just as no one should be confined to working independently if there are other options available. No one should be shamed for their decision to participate in the legal brothel system, regardless of whether or not anyone else believes that the brothel system is exploitative. That’s the funny thing about rights; they should apply to everyone regardless of personal preference. The whorearchy is still alive and well, but more on that later.
Life in the brothel is dictated by sound; something as simple as a doorbell could cause a spring to action or a sigh of relief. The entrance is locked, just as any door to a home would be locked. The manager on duty is referred to as “House Mom” by workers, which I believe helps to add to the “homey” feel of the brothel. First and foremost it is a business, but it is also a home that houses sex workers of all ages, ethnicities, body types, and backgrounds. The feminist assertions that brothels only employ “hegemonically beautiful” young, thin women is simply not true. I will repeat: the radical feminist assertion that all brothel workers are tall/thin/large breasted/blonde/young/blah blah blah is simply not true; I see women of all shapes, sizes, races, ethnicities, and ages.
The majority of my time in the brothel is spent in bed writing, chatting with other workers in the parlor, and relaxing in the outdoor hot tub. Sometimes I work out on the pole in the parlor or treat myself to a trip to the tanning bed. There are no shifts, and workers are encouraged to spend time interacting with clients on the message boards during slow days. I show up to line-up as frequently as I can, depending on my state of mind and how many clients I have seen (or turned down) that day. As an independent contractor, I set my own prices. These vary by amount of time, activity, and of course on the client’s disposition (yes, the “asshole tax” does exist!) Negotiations between workers and clients take place in the worker’s bedroom behind a closed door – the only place where it is legal to discuss the exchange of money for sexual services. Once a service is agreed upon, the house mom takes care of payment and keeps track of time. After that, the client and worker disappear into her room until the house mom gently knocks on her door to let them both know that time is almost up. Sometimes I go days without booking a single client, and turn many away (YES, we are allowed to turn down clients!) Some days are quite profitable, but I have never seen more than three clients in one day. Note that I use the word “client” rather than “man”; yes, women DO come to the brothel and pay for sexual services from other women. Is it the majority? Is this representative of all brothel patrons? No, but does it need to be?
So, what about the line-up? It all begins with the doorbell; one ring means a client, and two rings means a worker, friend, partner, or anyone else who knows better than to ring the bell once. One ring means the potential for money! House Mom answers the door, welcomes the visitors and asks if they would like a line-up. Some visitors are tourists who want a tour and a free ogle, and thankfully others are patrons who are interested in our services. At this point, we hear yet another bell; one that calls us to the parlor to line up for our visitors. Unlike some other establishments, this brothel does not require workers to come to line-up, but to miss line-up could mean missing out on income. Regardless, this is the worker’s choice, and thank goodness for that! Some women choose to “sleep pretty” (usually in make-up and sexy nightwear) in order to always be ready for the bell, but I need my sleep. Brothel workers have much more autonomy than most realize, but again, this really depends on the brothel; I can only speak for the uniquely decorated pink house that sits alone in the middle of the desert.
As with all forms of employment, there are pros and cons to working in the brothel, and one of the major cons is the stigma…from other sex workers, mostly independent escorts who accuse me of pushing a legalization agenda by conducting academic research while working in the brothel. The irony is that these are the very same people who spend their lives advocating for their rights to work in the ways that they deem appropriate, the same people whom I’ve respected for years. If you believe that working legally offers many more protections than working in an “unregulated” system, then I suggest you remove your blinders; if, on the other hand, you believe that working independently makes you more of a target (or more of a “real activist”) than those who choose to work in the legal system, you’re just as misguided.
Some days the hypocrisy seems unbearable. However, the whorearchy extends far beyond prostitution; whores in various sectors of the industry think that they are superior to one another. Back in December, a porn performer had the audacity to publicly blame the “unregulated US escorting industry” for the few porn performers who tested HIV positive. Her logic (or lack thereof) is problematic for several reasons. First, ANY sex off camera presents a risk, whether the sex be with clients, lovers, life partners, or pool boys. Second, anyone who has her own escort ad online should probably refrain from casting the first stone, but I will leave it at that.
I spoke to Belle Knox, Duke University student who was thrown into the spotlight after being outed as a porn performer, about her thoughts on whorearchy. After being outed, Knox was taunted by classmates and perhaps more surprisingly by her own peers in the porn industry. When I asked about her experiences with stigma within her own industry and from other sex workers, Knox said this:
I have been called a hoe by a stripper; others have sneered at me and taunted me by saying some variant of “at least I don’t suck dick for a living”. Within my own industry, I have been marginalized for my participation in a rough sex scene early in my career. In a world where sex workers face discrimination, stigma, and bigotry ubiquitously, it deeply saddens me that I cannot find solace among the very men and women who I work alongside.
It saddens me too; as Dr. Barb Brents pointed out in “Why Decriminalizing Sex Work is Good for All Women”, whore stigma affects ALL of us. First, they came for the whores…