The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily BeastFor the previous 14 months, Madam Dena has sat on a sprawling, deserted ranch exterior Las Vegas, overseeing an empty empire of themed bungalows, resort rooms, and tennis courts. Usually tasked with managing almost 100 staffers and contractors, the madam has been virtually solely alone, save for a skeleton crew of staff and a few lone males who sidle as much as the locked entrance gates and pound on the entrance door, demanding to know if they’re open for enterprise.The reply, after all, isn’t any. Nevada’s brothels—the solely authorized locations to purchase intercourse in the United States—shut their doorways in March 2020, when Gov. Steve Sisolak shuttered all nonessential companies attributable to the coronavirus pandemic. And they’ve remained closed since, whilst different close-contact companies have opened up round them.But beginning May 1, Nevada’s brothels are again in enterprise—and it’s going to be a wild experience.“When we made the announcement that we were opening on May 1, I could not believe it,” Madam Dena, the supervisor of Sheri’s Ranch in Pahrump, instructed The Daily Beast this week. “The phones started ringing off the hook; emails coming through for reservations.”“I was like, ‘Whoa—it is virtually like everyone 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 different, smaller difficulties with re-entering the intercourse commerce after a 12 months of social distancing: re-registering enterprise licenses, getting up-to-date STD checks, shaking off the cobwebs on previous expertise. (“It’s been a 12 months!” Madam Dena exclaimed. “Do I remember how to process a transaction? I don’t know!”) There have additionally been surprising hurdles: Madam Dena mentioned a number of women selected to not return to work fairly than submit themselves to vaccinations or weekly COVID checks.But each intercourse employee who spoke to The Daily Beast mentioned they have been thrilled about getting again to work. Several have been already again in Nevada prematurely of the reopening, dusting off their social media feeds and reserving appointments with prospects they hadn’t seen in over a 12 months. The causes for his or her pleasure ranged from a need to reunite with prospects and coworkers to a craving—and in some circumstances, a deep-felt want—for the further earnings. (Asked what she had missed most about her job throughout the pandemic, Mustang Ranch courtesan Nola Blue mentioned merely, “The money!”)Even Little says she is worked up to get again to work. She has switched from her brothel in Lyon County to the Chicken Ranch in Pahrump, the place she says administration has been extra supportive. And she is worked up to get again to her prospects, who she is aware of have been struggling as effectively.“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 mentioned. “Because this year has been extremely stressful on everyone, to say the least.”Read extra at The Daily Beast.Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast hereGet our prime tales in your inbox day-after-day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the tales that matter to you. Learn extra.