The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily BeastFor the past 14 months, Madam Dena has sat on a sprawling, abandoned ranch outside Las Vegas, overseeing an empty empire of themed bungalows, hotel rooms, and tennis courts. Usually tasked with managing nearly 100 staffers and contractors, the madam has been almost entirely alone, save for a skeleton crew of employees and a few lone men who sidle up to the locked front gates and pound on the front door, demanding to know if they are open for business.The answer, of course, is no. Nevada’s brothels—the only legal places to buy sex in the United States—shut their doors in March 2020, when Gov. Steve Sisolak shuttered all nonessential businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic. And they have remained closed since, even as other close-contact businesses have opened up around them.But starting May 1, Nevada’s brothels are back in business—and it’s going to be a wild ride.“When we made the announcement that we were opening on May 1, I could not believe it,” Madam Dena, the manager of Sheri’s Ranch in Pahrump, told The Daily Beast this week. “The phones started ringing off the hook; emails coming through for reservations.”“I was like, ‘Whoa—it’s almost like everybody was holding their breath.”“Oh yeah, we’re booked out,” added Jennifer Barnes, a madam at the Mustang Ranch in Storey County, about the month of May. “Everybody’s been locked up. It’s gonna be fun.” Sheri’s Ranch is ready to open on May 1. Satori Son/Wikimedia Commons Nevada was one of the first states to begin reopening last May, even as infection rates were climbing nationwide. Since then, it has reopened most nonessential businesses at a limited capacity—casinos, tattoo parlors, even strip clubs. Brothels, however, never made the cut. “We’re going to have to look at getting kids back into schools before we look at getting folks back into brothels,” Sisolak said at the Nevada Independent’s conference in October.But the arrival of widespread vaccination programs and a declining case rate has opened the doors for the oldest profession to get back to business. Last week, Sisolak announced the state would fully reopen June 1 and gave back full control of social distancing policies to the counties starting May 1. Several counties quickly voted to reopen all businesses, brothels included.While some county politicians are charging full speed ahead (commissioners in Nye County are already attempting to override the statewide mask mandates,) brothel owners are proceeding with caution. Most are operating at a reduced capacity and heavily encouraging masks in common areas—”putting one foot in,” as Madam Dena put it. There will be the familiar trappings of pandemic life—temperature checks upon arrival, and questions about symptoms and recent travel—along with a few notable changes: Customers at the Mustang Ranch in Storey County will not be allowed to congregate at the bar, but will instead enter and meet up with their courtesans one at a time.Still, brothels say the increased safety measures haven’t put a damper on demand. All of the madams who spoke to The Daily Beast said they were nearly booked up for the month of May.“I’m not gonna lie, I was surprised,” Madam Dena said of the response from customers. “It’s like ‘Heck yeah, here we go!’”Inside the Risky Race to Reopen Nevada’s BrothelsAnd it’s not just the customers who have been holding their breath: The pandemic year has been nothing short of devastating for the state’s sex workers.With the only legal place to conduct their work indefinitely shuttered, women accustomed to making six figures in a year were suddenly without a source of income. Applying for a “square job” was nearly impossible—five years at the Bunny Ranch isn’t exactly ideal resume fodder—and many found themselves locked out of the kind of government benefits provided for other service workers affected by the pandemic. It took months for lawmakers to extend unemployment benefits to independent contractors, and some pandemic-related grants and loan programs excluded sex workers completely.Katrina, a courtesan at the Chicken Ranch for more than 13 years, estimated she lost more than 30 percent of her income due to the pandemic.“It seems like anywhere I tried to go for help I was not getting it,” she said. “I’m in a legit business like everyone else, I pay my taxes. I applied for the [Small Business Administration loans] and I was denied because of what I do, and I think that is so unfair.”Katrina was one of the lucky ones: She earned her masters in computer science during the pandemic and was able to supplement her income by designing websites for friends. But others were not as fortunate. Barbara G. Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and expert on the sex industry, said about a third of Nevada’s legal sex workers previously moonlighted in illegal markets. Post-pandemic, she said, that number is likely much higher.“Obviously sex workers are always resourceful and used to adjusting to the markets,” she said. “But given Nevada’s legal brothel system, one of these adjustments undoubtedly has for many sex workers been to move to a much more dangerous, illegal market.”The trend speaks to a larger problem among sex workers during the pandemic in general. Fearful of coming in close contact with other people, and facing markedly decreased demand, sex workers in both legal and illegal markets were forced to move their work online or suspend it completely. (The number of users on OnlyFans, a site where users can charge for explicit photos and videos, grew nine times between December of 2019 and December 2020.) And according to Brents, even online markets were only profitable for those who already had sizable followings or the resources to build them. “For the most marginalized, the impact has just been devastating,” she said.The pandemic’s effect on sex workers has driven calls for decriminalization, or the removal of criminal penalties for sex workers and their clients. It has also shone a light on some of the flaws in Nevada’s 50-year-old, fully legalized system.Alice Little, often described as one of the country’s highest-paid legal sex workers, sued the governor last November after being locked out of work for almost eight months. She claimed the order barring brothels from reopening was “blatant discrimination against Nevada’s legal sex workers,” and interfered with their freedom of association and right to earn a living. But a Lyon County district court judge ruled against her, claiming she could not represent the interests of the brothel owners as an independent contractor.“Had one brothel owner from Lyon County signed onto my lawsuit, it would have been successful,” Little told the Daily Beast this week. But not a single one did. In fact, none even bothered to attend the court hearings—something the judge said indicated that “owners may not desire to operate during the pandemic.” Alice Little sued the governor last November after being locked out of work for almost eight months. Courtesy Alice Little Little eventually dropped her lawsuit after incurring a six-figure bill and raising less than a quarter of her GoFundMe target.“I think that’s the most upsetting part of this: I paid $100,000 to be told that, as a sex worker, I have zero rights,” she said. “But a brothel owner would have had the rights? That’s not OK.”“We need to fix the brothel system and center the sex workers and prioritize our rights, our ability to stand up for ourselves,” she added. “And until that happens, it’s a desperately flawed industry.”There are other, smaller difficulties with re-entering the sex trade after a year of social distancing: re-registering business licenses, getting up-to-date STD checks, shaking off the cobwebs on old skills. (“It’s been a year!” Madam Dena exclaimed. “Do I remember how to process a transaction? I don’t know!”) There have also been unexpected hurdles: Madam Dena said several ladies chose not to return to work rather than submit themselves to vaccinations or weekly COVID tests.But every sex worker who spoke to The Daily Beast said they were thrilled about getting back to work. Several were already back in Nevada in advance of the reopening, dusting off their social media feeds and booking appointments with customers they hadn’t seen in over a year. The reasons for their excitement ranged from a desire to reunite with customers and coworkers to a yearning—and in some cases, a deep-felt need—for the extra income. (Asked what she had missed most about her job during the pandemic, Mustang Ranch courtesan Nola Blue said simply, “The money!”)Even Little says she is excited to get back to work. She has switched from her brothel in Lyon County to the Chicken Ranch in Pahrump, where she says management has been more supportive. And she is excited to get back to her customers, who she knows have been struggling as well.“I keep joking with everyone that it’s like I’m going to see folks again and pretty much burst into tears upon being able to hold them and hug them and see them,” she said. “Because this year has been extremely stressful on everyone, to say the least.”Read more at The Daily Beast.Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast hereGet our top stories in your inbox every day. 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