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Dennis Hof: 'Selling Sex is Like Selling Burgers'

Julie Bindel photo
Julie BindelLondon
Dennis Hof: 'Selling Sex is Like Selling Burgers'
Julie Bindel's 2011 piece on Dennis Hof and Nevada brothels and her postscript for Byline

Nevada, famous for its casinos, Mafia and the Sin City of Las Vegas is the only state in the US where brothels are legal. Since the days when the place was populated by gold miners, prostitution has been accepted as another service industry.

In September 2011 I visited four of them as part of a BBC radio documentary on the age-old debate about whether legalising prostitution makes it safer for the women involved. On this journey I met the pimps who ran them, the women who worked in them, and the punters who pay for sex.

Outside my Las Vegas hotel men line the streets wearing T Shirts advertising, “A girl to your room in 20 minutes”. I look through the phone directory and find over 200 pages of advertisements for various prostitution services, packaged as ‘massage’ and ‘female company’. Unsurprisingly, the majority of people visiting Vegas, according to one survey, think prostitution is legal. The legal scene, which is widely publicised and promoted by the brothel owners by way of TV debates and ‘docuporn’ TV shows such as HBO’s Cathouse allows the illegal scene to flourish.  As one pimp I met said, “Tourism (to Vegas) is our bread and butter. Stag parties are very lucrative. 

There are around 30 legal brothels in business in Nevada, operating mostly in the sparsely populated northern region. Allowed only in counties with populations of fewer than 400,000, the trailer-type compounds are in the middle of nowhere 

Approximately 500 women work legally at any time in the entire state. There are 8 to 10 large brothels, housing 15 to 50 women each, positioned within an hour’s drive from Las Vegas and Reno. The smallest legal brothels house from 1 to 5 women, and these tend to be much further away from major resort centres. The medium sized brothels are just outside of the smaller towns of Wells, Ely, Winnemucca, Carlin, and Elko, with between 5 to 12 women in each. Brothels are legal in only 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties.

However, the legal brothel scene punches well above its weight. The huge amount of international publicity, in the main positive, or at least uncritical, helps to pull in a significant number of male sex tourists to the state. Most will stay in one of the Las Vegas casino hotels and take trips out to the brothels. Some, however, will stay in one of the many budget motels near the brothels in order to take as many benefits as possible from their trip. 

The women working in legal prostitution in Nevada often live in prison-like conditions, locked in or forbidden to leave. Those who work there are considered to be ‘private contractors’, and are required to register themselves as prostitutes at the Sherriff’s office. The women are also legally required to be tested once a week for sexually transmitted diseases. Customers are not required to be tested. The women must present their medical clearance to the police station and be fingerprinted. 

Dennis Hof is a world famous pimp. Owner of the Love Ranch in Nye County and the famous Moonlight Bunny Ranch a few miles outside Carson City in Reno. Hof is the star of HBO TV series Cathouse, screened in the US and UK, which follows the lives of the women working in the brothel. We meet in Trump Tower, Las Vegas. Hof, in his mid sixties brings with him Camie, a woman in her early 20s who works in his brothels.  Camie tells me she is hoping to marry Hof one day soon. “I saw Daddy on TV and thought he sounded really fine.” 

“The legal environment is like the world’s greatest single’s bar,” says Hof when I ask him why he thinks legalisation is the best approach. “There is no trafficking, no rape, no HIV, no illegal activity. It’s safe here.”

Psychologist and academic Melissa Farley, who spent two years researching legal brothels in Nevada for her book, “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections” says she, "has rarely seen people as harmed" psychologically and physically as the women who work in legal brothels in Nevada. 

A pimp, according to Hof, is somebody who operates in the illegal world. “I am a businessman. I have a license to do this.”

Brothel owners typically pocket half of the women's earnings. Additionally, the women must pay tips and other fees to the staff of the brothel, as well as finders' fees to the cab drivers that bring the customers. They are also expected to pay for their own condoms, wet wipes, sheets and towels.

Meanwhile, illegal brothels are on the increase in Nevada, as they are in other parts of the world where brothels are legalised. Nevada's illegal prostitution industry, according to research by the US government, is already nine times greater than the state's legal brothels. 

Dennis Hof

“I’m selling sex like McDonalds is selling burgers. Not, ‘Can I have a quarter pounder and fries?” but, “Can I have a blow job and a missionary?’” 

We go to dinner with Hof and his lawyer, a sharply dressed Italian-American who looks like he just stepped out of Goodfella’s. “I’m selling sex like McDonalds is selling burgers. Not, ‘Can I have a quarter pounder and fries?” but, “Can I have a blow job and a missionary?’” 

The next morning we visit the Love Ranch brothel in Crystal Springs, Nye County, just over an hour’s drive from Vegas.  We pass a sign “School Bus Ahead, and a car boot sale on the roadside selling baby clothes and old children’s toys. The Choice Hills Baptist Church sits next door to a dentist surgery. Two hairy bikers, possibly security for the brothel, nod at us as we pass. A dead crow lies on the floor, beak pointing to the brilliant blue sky. It is bleak, and the inside is no better. It has the feel of an institution, and the barbed wire surrounding it adds to that effect.

I meet Dallas, one of the women working in the brothel. She has a copy of the book, ‘Water for Elephants’ by her bed, but that is the only visible personal item.  “I move all my things before a customer enters. I don’t want him touching a picture of my daughter with his spermy hands.” 

Like the other women, Dallas lives in the brothel for weeks or months at a time, often not seeing a customer for days. 

Those I interviewed all had the same thing to say about their work – they enjoy it; it pays well; they are treated with respect by the brothel owners and punters. I ask Dallas why the women call Hof “Daddy”. “He likes to be called Daddy. If I’ve been a good girl he spoils us rotten. We are his girls.”

I walk past the in-house ATM with Hof. “Take a hundred dollar girl and put her in an $80 room and you make $100. Put her in a $10,000 and you make more. 

I ask Hof if any of the women who had worked for him had made a complaint? Camie answers, “Yes. When I first came here they said this and that, but I knew it was just because they were in love with him.”

“Denis is so lovely,” Camie continues, “he even lets us go outside. The door isn’t locked.” 

The following day, on the way to meet the District Attorney and Sheriff I hear on the radio that Nevada has the highest rates of domestic violence related homicide in the US, and that rape and sexual assault are rife. 

Brian Kunzi is District Attorney for Nye County.  He seems happy with legalisation. “In Vegas we have large numbers of Johns being robbed and a huge spend on Vice squads. In this county there is zero criminal activity coming out of the [brothels]. In Nevada it is a thing people have come to accept,” he says. “You are not having the girls beaten up. They are taken care of.  The girls are the asset. You are going to take care of those assets.” 

I ask Anthony De Meo, Nye County Sheriff, if legalisation works. “It’s a business. It’s protected by law, and it isn’t that different to McDonalds.”

The next day we head up to Reno and Hof’s Moonlight Bunny Ranch, his showcase brothel and star of Cathouse. 

The Bunny Ranch is tucked behind an industrial park off a small highway in northern Nevada.  As with the other brothels, it looks like a compound from the outside. The inside is dark, plush and teeming with women in underwear and men in cowboy hats and boots. Madonna blasts out of the sound system and the bell rings constantly, summoning the women to the line-up to meet each punter who walks through the door. 

The women are required to join the lineup within 60 seconds or face a fine. They run to the reception, pulling clothes off or on. In Hof’s brothels the women are not allowed to smile, flick their hair or appear to be doing a ‘hard sell’ in any way, lest it be ‘unfair’ to the competition.

The punters are ordinary looking men, of all ages, and in the main presentable enough to be able to pick up a woman in a regular bar.

Madame Suzette, who, I heard from a number of sources, can be cold and ruthless, runs the Bunny Ranch. Rumour has it that she once made one of her ‘girls’ get back to work only minutes after she discovered that her mother had died. 

I talk to Felicia Fox, who has been doing shifts at the Bunny Ranch since 2005.  At 56 she is one of the older women at the brothel and, like the others, sleeps and works in the same room.  

“I decided to come here to get licensed, tagged and tested,” Felicia tells me, explaining that she was left unsupported with two children, both of whom she is now putting through college. As I spoke to her I felt very sad.  Felicia said there was an emotional cost to prostitution. “I don’t let people judge me,” she said, whilst admitting that they constantly do. 

We say goodbye to Hof and Camie and head to the Mustang Ranch, a compound set on 30 acres with a sentry at the front. The Mustang Ranch and the Wild Horse opposite share a compound with a large parking lot inside a high security fence with an electric gate. Truck drivers are a steady source of business.

Modelled on a penitentiary, the women used to be called inmates.  Lance Gilman, a multi-millionaire property dealer who met Austin when she was working as a prostitute and he was a punter, owns both brothels.

Austin proudly shows us around the Ranch.  Women of all ages and ethnicities walk around in their underwear. The large reception room is full of stuffed deer and moose heads. “Men who hunt have a higher level of testosterone. Men who hunt in Africa have a lot more money. 

By the pool in the outdoor area an electric blue thong lays abandoned by an empty beer bottle and a half-eaten burger.

“As soon as you legalise it turns the predators loose,” says Gilman. “You have to regulate. We have a stable of 1,000. If Susan didn’t run this place with an iron fist it would get out of control. You need to run this place with tough love.”

As with most other legal brothels the women are not allowed out unless the manager gives them permission and are accompanied by an assistant pimp. Many are not allowed their own cars, and are required to work 14-hour shifts, 15 days in a row.

Outside, the beer and hot dog tents are being set up in preparation for the bikers. “It’s a big weekend for us,” says Austin.  “The ladies are gonna have sore coochies, and they will be tired of smiling, and tired of the roar of motorcycles, and I just told them, keep smiling, ‘cos that means money.”

We walk past Sindy, a very young looking woman wearing little and looking vacant. Austin draws us in conspiratorially.

“She’s actually a nine year old in an adult body. She will never be anything else,” she whispers.  “She’s been in foster home after foster home. Her boyfriend is in jail for child pornography. She’s been with him for ten years: she just turned 22. “

Austin tells the story as though she is running a home for abused children as opposed to a brothel. She tells us that the man who sold Sindy to the brothel is her boyfriend’s father, that Austin refused to send the cheques to him, and is managing Sindy’s money for her. 

“I called the girls to a meeting and told them, we’re raising a child but she’ll never grow up. When she parties, one of the girls will go and sit in the bathroom, to make sure the man doesn’t take advantage of her when he realises what he has. 

I ask why, if Sindy is learning disabled and vulnerable, Austin has put her on the game.  She does not like my question.

“She’s been having sex since she was really tiny,” she says. “She loves sex.  But she’ll be nothing more than just a sexual little girl. It’s very sad. I can’t let her go cos she’d be on the streets in Florida, so I’m stuck.  I’ve got this little girl who’s a woman. So we’ve all made this pact that we’ll take care of her. 

During her field research, one Nevada pimp operating a legal brothel told Melissa Farley, in what she described to me as a matter-of-fact manner, that many of the women working for him had histories of sexual abuse and mental ill-health. "Most," he said, "have been sexually abused as kids. Some are bipolar, some are schizophrenic." 

Whilst the PR surrounding legal prostitution in Nevada would have us believe that this is free-range organic prostitution, it is actually closer to battery farming. My conclusion, after spending a week observing state-sanctioned and protected pimping, is that in many ways legal brothel owners are given a license to take in the most disenfranchised women in society and institutionalise them into an industry that will cause them further harm.

Whilst the PR surrounding legal prostitution in Nevada would have us believe that this is free-range organic prostitution, it is actually closer to battery farming. My conclusion, after spending a week observing state-sanctioned and protected pimping, is that in many ways legal brothel owners are given a license to take in the most disenfranchised women in society and institutionalise them into an industry that will cause them further harm.

As we say goodbye to Austin before heading for the airport, I hear a tiny voice behind me, asking, “Mamma Susan, can I go out please? I’ve done my 15 days.” It is Sindy. 

Austin tells her ‘no’. The bikers are on their way and it is lock down at the Mustang Ranch.

(Some names have been changed).

Postscript: 

Since my visit to Nevada, I met Dennis Hof once again, this time on UK soil. In May 2012 I debated the motion, ‘This house would legalise prostitution’ with Hof and others. Our side, opposing the motion, won resoundingly. In fact, Hof appeared to be so offensive in his attitudes to women as commodities, and his role as a rich, relentless pimp, that the spokesperson from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) physically stepped over to the other side of the debate in order to make clear her disgust at Hof’s approach. 

In March this year I very nearly met with Hof again, but it did not quite work out. I was invited to debate him, on the same terms as at Oxford, but this time at the Sorbonne in Paris. The debate would be chaired by my colleague and friend Liz Green, the radio presenter with whom I had travelled to Nevada. I accepted the invitation, mainly to see Liz, and to have an opportunity to test the climate around the issue of legalisation in France. Students, especially the highly privileged, are often a good litmus test for opinion that may one day in the near future become policy and law. 

Dennis Hof at the Oxford Union.Photograph: Paul McClean

I did not get to Paris in the end. When I asked the organisers, two weeks prior to the debate, who would book my Eurostar and hotel, I was told they had expected me to fund the trip myself. I withdrew, and put out a plea to other abolitionist feminists within Europe for someone to take my place (I am a freelance journalist and therefore can never expect to be funded via my employers), but of those who could potentially have taken my place, none were prepared to debate a pimp. 

After the event I received an angry email from a feminist abolitionist who had attended the debate, demanding that I justify my absence to her.  I explained, and she responded with an apology, explaining that one of the organisers had told those who asked that I had dropped out at the ‘last minute’ due to ‘family business’. 

“This pimp was allowed to spread his propaganda without challenge,” the French abolitionist told me, “It's not acceptable to give such a "dignified" platform to a pimp without any real opponent to argue against him. Pimping in France constitutes an offence. It is against our laws, and he's given a platform in our most famous university to advertise his infraction! It's sheer madness!”

Hof’s book, The Art of the Pimp: One Man's Search for Love, Sex, and Money (Simon & Schuster, 2015) was published the same week as the Sorbonne debate.  Hof is currently looking at expanding his brothel business into four cities in Canada.

I am writing this during a break at a conference in Vienna entitled, ‘Troubling Prostitution: Exploring Intersections of Sex, Intimacy and Labour’. It is organised by Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance[1] (ProsPol), an EU funded organisation, consisting of academics engaged in research on the sex trade.

There are 185 delegates at this conference, but only four (including myself) would identify as feminist abolitionists[2]. As one of our gang of four said, ‘This conference should be renamed, ‘Justifying Prostitution’, or even ‘Celebrating Prostitution’. In what way have the delegates identified anything even vaguely ‘troubling’ about the sex trade. 

Dennis Hof featured in the very first plenary session, ‘Neoliberalism, prostitution, and the political economy of sex’, held by Barb Brents, professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. During the presentation, Brents examined how ‘sensible prostitution policies in the neoliberal age’ should be developed, and argued that, ‘the trafficking panic and immigration fears fuel an increasing criminalisation of prostitution’. 

Brents was full of praise for Hof’s marketing and business skills, and showed the delegates photographs of the inside and outside of a number of his brothels. In a later session, Christina Parreira, University of Nevada, spoke of her research on a number of the women working for Hof.  During her research, Parreria lived and sold sex in the brothel for 36 days. Parreria asked the 12 women in her study about sexual desire at ‘work’. 

The women I interviewed in Nevada brothels all spoke of using tactics to dissociate from their feelings during the actual sex of prostitution, in order to cope. One woman told me she repeated the mantra, during each encounter with a John, ‘I am not selling myself, but renting out my body for an hour’.

The women I interviewed in Nevada brothels all spoke of using tactics to dissociate from their feelings during the actual sex of prostitution, in order to cope. One woman told me she repeated the mantra, during each encounter with a John, ‘I am not selling myself, but renting out my body for an hour’.

Under neoliberalism, the same marketing tools used to promote Uber cabs, or Diet Coke, can be effectively used to prostitute humans. The logic runs that this new world order can provide a positive opportunity in which to increase rights for sex workers. So, despite the global problems caused by neoliberalism, it is still good for enabling women to market themselves and for men to buy them.

Neoliberalism is in and of itself objectification and extreme commodification.  A number of the speakers at the conference referred to prostitution as “reproductive labour” 

On the 18 April, The Washington Post ran a photograph of Hof and a number of the women working in his famous Moonlite Bunny Ranch, holding a banner reading "Hookers for Hillary”. I wonder whether Hillary Clinton, a self-identified feminist, would be happy about a pimp endorsing her election campaign? Might she consider the legal brothel industry of Nevada to be a good business model that brings in millions of tourist dollars?

Hof continues to make his millions off the backs of women, advertising them via pornography and reality TV. On the 18 April, The Washington Post ran a photograph of Hof and a number of the women working in his famous Moonlite Bunny Ranch, holding a banner reading "Hookers for Hillary”. I wonder whether Hillary Clinton, a self-identified feminist, would be happy about a pimp endorsing her election campaign? Might she consider the legal brothel industry of Nevada to be a good business model that brings in millions of tourist dollars?

In the meantime, male violence against women is chronic in Nevada. According to a recent report by ProgressNow Nevada and the Center for American Progress, Nevada ranks eighth-worst among states for the rate at which women are murdered with guns, with a rate that is 38 percent higher than the national average. The number of men in Nevada who die of gunshot wounds is below the national average. The men that kill women this way tend to be stalkers and domestic abusers. Can we deny that selling women like burgers for easy consumption is likely to give men the impression that women are disposable goods?


On Byline, Julie Bindel will be writing a full report on the Vienna conference in all its glory within the next few days, as well as the conference and research visit (April 20 - 23rd in Amsterdam.)

 

 

#prostitution, #dennis hof, #Nevada, #Las Vegas, #neo-liberalism

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