Sunday night’s “This Is Life” episode boldly went where many of gone before: to the legal brothels of Nevada. Namely, Dennis Hof’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch.
Nevada is often held up as a model in terms of “civilized” prostitution, despite the fact that reality tells us legal brothels are no better for women than illegal ones. “This Is Life” host, Lisa Ling, seems to have fallen for this image, promoted mainly by the brothel owners themselves, few questions asked.
Early in the episode, she meets London, who Ling explains is “starting a controversial new business venture,” adding that “there is only one place in America she can pursue it without committing a crime.” Immediately positioned as a kind of safe haven, Ling shows Hof’s brothels as establishments that provide protection from violence and STDs, as well as being potentially financially lucrative.
Ling explains that brothels are only allowed in certain counties in Nevada — in “isolated rural areas,” but notes that people come from all around the world just to “get laid.” Of all these “people,” though, she manages only to speak to one john — a man who goes by “Grizzly,” who is obsessed with one particular woman — Carissa — who works at the Bunny Ranch. Ling takes pity on the man, who suffers from mental health issues and says he was sexually abused as a child. Grizzly spends thousands of dollars to come visit Carissa for a couple of days, who is presented as a kind of saviour, as well as the only high earner in the brothel. The man implies he has been suicidal in the past and that, without Carissa, he might inflict harm on someone. He says he doesn’t trust himself, and told his mother, with regard to his choice to pay for sex, “I can do this legally, or you can visit me in jail for the rest of my life.” Despite the ominous implications of his words, Ling expresses pity for Grizzly. While this man clearly has struggled and suffered in life, the fact that this is the only john interviewed for the documentary is, frankly, weird. The sob story of the lonely john who just needs companionship, without which he would literally die, is something we hear all too often. In reality, most johns are just regular men — married, with families or girlfriends. They are fine — more than fine, in fact — and just enjoy to abuse their privilege in particularly misogynist ways.
The women Ling speaks to won’t trash the johns, naturally, though she fails to acknowledge the reasons for this: The women are there trying to make a living, not dissuade clients or potential clients. So once again we are left with the invisible john — just a shadow, whereas the prostituted women are front and center, in all their objectified glory, dressed in lingerie for most of the episode.
Hof takes full advantage of this promotional opportunity, using the rhetoric of “choice” to defend his exploitative practices, even with regard to a naive 20-year-old girl, who Hof brought on as his resident “virgin.”
Katherine contacted Hof after a fire on her family’s property, out of desperation, and is clearly frightened and nervous. “The first experience I had here was the scariest one,” she tells Ling. “It’s all very new.” Katherine has been at the Ranch for three months, but has only done “parties,” as they’re called, that are “very PG.” Her “virginity bid” is currently set at $400,000, but Katherine is still waiting for the “right” client — she says she wants the experience to be “special.” Hof explains, “It’s her choice.”
Hof, who is proudly sociopathic in his treatment of women, is presented exactly as he wishes: as a shrewd businessman. When asked, he admits that, “in the strictest sense,” he is a pimp, but points out that his situation is different because he has a license. Despite the fact that he takes 50 per cent of the “girls'” earnings, has them pay room and board, as well as for regular STD tests that cost $200 per week, Hof says they are “empowered” to make as much money as they want.
In reality, slow weeks mean many of the women don’t profit much at all, and with all the expenses, it’s clear Hof is the one making the big bucks in the long and short term.
The women are mostly poor and working class, with few other options. One of the women said she was working at the brothel because she had kidney disease and needed to buy a kidney. London explained that working in a brothel seemed a better option than stocking shelves at Walmart. And financially, maybe the Bunny Ranch is a better option than Walmart, if that’s your only option and you are behind on child support payments or need to buy a kidney. Nonetheless, Ling sees the situation in Nevada as ideal — the only downside being that women who sell sex in these brothels risk their reputations as well as possibly not making enough money. You can sense that Ling is eager to show these women respect, which is all fine and good, but without delving into the behaviour and attitudes of men like Hof as well as of the johns, her conclusion that legalized prostitution is risk-free, apart from stigma and potential loss of income, is lacking.
Ling concludes that prostitution “will always be controversial” but that Nevada’s legal brothels empower women. “As long as people want to buy sex,” Lin asks, “shouldn’t there be an alternative to the hazardous life of street work for those willing to sell it?”
But considering the women she met at Hof’s ranch and their reasons for being there, it’s depressing how low Ling has set the bar in terms of what she deems “willing” participants.
— Rachel Moran (@RachelRMoran) October 23, 2016