Needless to say, my astonishment was total when Flint wrote me three and a half years later to invite me to Nevada to conduct my research project on condom-use practices. Certainly, the project was still valid, and at this point in my life I was in the process of applying to medical school. I was put on guard, though, by something he said when we spoke by phone: "Anything positive that comes from a prestigious place like Emory helps to support our cause." Was that what my study was doing? Was he in dire straits suddenly and desperate for PR? If so, did I want to help? Did I want to support brothel owners and promote the expansion of legalized prostitution in America? While I was curious to see whether legalized brothels actually provided prostitutes with more protection than illegal prostitution, I fundamentally believed prostitution was a dehumanizing, objectifying business that did women real damage. Was I being roped into being its booster?
Flint went on to say, "It's not going to be like breezing in and counting tomatoes or comparing prices in a grocery store. The working ladies are very private people. They don't trust outsiders. You're in for a real education, honey." Suddenly, the study I'd written off was a reality, and my mind began to race. Absent any more information, nightmare scenarios multiplied. Who were these women who allowed themselves to be locked behind gates? Were they all drug addicts and survivors of heinous sexual abuse, like so many street prostitutes? Were they chained to beds, as prostitutes allegedly were in Thailand? Would they even agree to speak with me? Above all, did I have it in me to do this? Yes, I decided. I bought a plane ticket.
My family didn't help. They were even more uncomfortable than I was. As long as I wasn't allowed inside, my interest in the project had been entertaining. But now I was headed to Nevada, and suddenly my parents wondered why I was so interested in an underworld teeming with criminals and degenerates. My husband's parents were even more confused. Let us get this straight: You're choosing to leave our son for an entire month to conduct research in a brothel? Do you secretly desire to become a prostitute? What are we going to tell our friends? Andy, my husband, had his own worries, my physical safety not the least among them.
In the end, apprehension and all, I made that flight to Reno. Awaiting me at the Reno airport was a man named Marty who had been sent to pick me up and deliver me to Flint at a place called Chapel of the Bells. Flint was not only executive director of the Nevada Brothel Association, I learned, but a (retired) ordained minister as well. In fact, he owned one of Reno's twelve wedding chapel businesses--and arguably the nicest, or at least the only freestanding one. (The others were storefronts.) With its whitewashed façade, faux stained-glass windows, and prominent cupola, Flint's Chapel of the Bells looked more like Disney's version of the gingerbread house in "Hansel and Gretel" than a wedding chapel.
In the lobby, white lace-print paper lined the walls and a pattern of miniature flowers decorated the ceiling moldings like frosting on a wedding cake. An assortment of bridal bouquets, boutonnières, garter belts, and champagne flutes was showcased for newlyweds who wanted such traditional wedding frills. On the walls hung sobering certificates and plaques that authenticated George Flint's maternal ancestors, the Treats, as descendants of the founders of New Jersey and Connecticut. Flint would later tell me that he could trace his family's lineage all the way back to Charlemagne.
While I waited for my audience with Flint, I watched a live feed on a closed-circuit television of a wedding in progress. A female minister was presiding over the marriage of a middle-aged Frenchman to a diminutive and considerably younger-looking Vietnamese bride who clearly spoke much less English than he did, which is to say, almost none.
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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