Friday, September 26, 2008

Driving the Barrens

We recently made the drive between Las Vegas and Reno for the first time. The desert we drove through was high and dry, punctuated here and there with small towns like Mina and Goldfield..towns that were mostly empty or populated by the type of people who collect racially inappropriate memorabilia and plumbing components. Here, traditional diners do business next to mini-casinos, and those structures built into the side of the mountain could be Indian ruins or military bunkers. It is a strange world of extremity--those looking for ultimate freedom from most laws living with those operating under...and enforcing...the strictest of laws.

Both extremes coexist in the unlikeliest of roadside attractions: the legal brothels. Here, it is legal to buy and sell sex, and the normally scandalous, from drug use to kink, are either ignored or embraced. But the prostitutes are highly regulated and the johns are closely watched, as described in Brothel, by Alexa Albert. This piece of non-fiction is part scholarly research, part memoir of her time spent interviewing workers at Mustang Ranch, a now-defunct brothel. The book is fascinating, both for Albert's nonjudgmental scope of all players in the legalized prostitution game, as well as her honesty regarding her own experience. Something like sex work is a hard subject for a woman to write about without falling into the realm of proseletyzing or politicizing, but Albert walks that edge with care.

Her experience, while centralized at one brothel, could have occured anywhere in the barrens of Nevada. Even the names of the facilities we passed--Chicken Ranch, Wildcat Ranch, etc.--were interchangable. But one can't lump the brothels' employees into a stereotype; each woman has her own reason for going into the business, and each woman's experience is different. This I learned from Albert, and I am willing to keep an open mind...admittedly much easier in an environment with such big skies and vast deserts. The Nevada desert is truly individual in its location, its Wild West mentality, and its inhabitants. It offers us all the possibilty to be our true selves...or to transform into someone new.

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