Chapter I: The Opening
The postmark read "Reno Nevada, 24 Dec 1992." I stared at the envelope for a long moment before opening it. Reno? My mind was blank. Then it came to me: the brothel. For three and a half years, off and on, I had tried to convince a man named George Flint, executive director of the Nevada Brothel Association, to grant me permission to conduct a research study inside Nevada's legal brothels, the only licensed houses of prostitution in America. My letters and telephone calls had been for naught; Flint stood firm that the brothel industry wasn't available for a researcher's examination. "Brothel people are very private people," he had told me. "They don't like people nosing around."
It had become a ritual to send him a card every year reminding him of my project. I had long ago stopped entertaining any serious hope that he would agree, so I was in a slight daze when I tore open the envelope and read: "Your holiday card arrived earlier today. There may come a time that we can do something substantive together. Call me sometime and we will talk. George Flint."
I first began to think seriously about Nevada's legal brothels in 1989. I was an undergraduate and fascinated by public health issues; the AIDS crisis had exploded into mainstream public consciousness; and prostitution was the focus of national attention as public health officials hotly contested the role of sex workers in the transmission of HIV. In the context of that debate, I had learned that certain areas of Nevada licensed brothel prostitution, with specific ordinances established to safeguard the health and safety of the public. These controls were said to greatly reduce the dangers typically associated with street prostitution--violent crime, drug use, and disease transmission. Latex condoms were required for all brothel sexual activity, and women were tested regularly for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Since HIV testing began in 1986, no brothel worker had tested positive, I was told, and the incidence of other STDs was negligible.
Before I could reckon with the public health implications of this information, I had to get over my astonishment that one of our culture's great taboos was legally sanctioned by one (and only one) American state. Why was this fact never made a national issue? What about the women? Prostitution carries with it a grave stigma; did being licensed and legal diminish that? Did legality assure these women legitimacy, even a sense of professionalism? The more I considered the human questions, the more they came to haunt me, and I found growing within me a desire to get inside this world and understand it. That the brothels were strictly off-limits to non "working" women only goaded me further.
That summer, I took an internship in family planning and human sexuality at Emory University that required me to develop a public health study. After a lot of thought and much grief from my family and husband, I submitted a proposal to investigate brothel prostitutes' condom-use practices. Hard data on the efficacy of condom use in preventing HIV infection was scarce, and the issue was complicated by the very real problem of condom slippage and breakage. That hundreds of women in Nevada should be having multiple sexual partners every day without any reported HIV transmission was almost too good to be true. If I could verify it, and learn exactly what the women were doing right, I had a chance, I felt, to accomplish something important. I thought the brothels would surely cooperate with the project: it offered society valuable public health information, and it gave them validation as safe and responsible businesses.
My naïveté was rubbed in my face when George Flint point-blank refused me entry. At least I wasn't the only one; after doing a little more research, I realized how few outsiders had ever been permitted to investigate the brothel industry in any real depth. Prostitutes were kept on the premises behind locked electric gates, and visitors were surveilled before being buzzed in. Media coverage was very controlled; the brothels had been featured a few times on television programs like Donahue, Geraldo, and Jerry Springer, but the audience was shown only the most superficial aspects of the business.
Excerpted from Brothel by Alexa Albert Copyright 2001 by Alexa Albert. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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