Not long ago, I became obsessed with sex work. I spent hours poring over the autobiographies of peep-show workers. I grilled my friends who dabbled in fetish work about their jobs, and I spent more time that I’d like to admit in strip clubs and all-nude revues. The tantalizing intimacy of the performance was only part of the thrill; the real allure, the draw that sent me to club after club in San Francisco, Miami, New York, Amsterdam, and London, was the desire to understand what it is like to take off your clothes in front of strangers for money.
I got a revealing peek into this world on a recent Friday, at an event for Nevada Rose: Inside the American Brothel, a book about that illicit alternate reality. Marc McAndrews, a photographer from Reading, Pennsylvania, spent five years in the desert documenting the secret—albeit, legal—world of the American brothel. He visited more thirty brothels in Nevada, often spending a week or more at each establishment, including the infamous Moonlite Bunny Ranch featured in the HBO documentary Cathouse, as well as smaller brothels scattered throughout the region, sporting names like Angel’s Ladies and Sue’s Fantasy Club.
At the event, held in the basement of the Museum of Sex in Chelsea, the space reverberated with a nervous curiosity recognizable to anyone who has spent time in a strip club or a sex club—the uneasy air of a group that doesn’t know quite what to expect and is reluctant to appear unaccustomed to the rites and rituals in the world of sex work. Liquor helped even out the mood, as attendees ordered drinks with titillating names like My Bloody Valentine and Hot Sex in the City, and bartenders handed out free shots of spiced rum.
“I had this whole idea about what I’d find,” began McAndrews, “but I was surprised at what I did.”
“Did you know,” he continued, “that the food is amazing?” Or that a “dirty hustle” refers to any act of dishonesty in the ranches, like trying to poach a customer from another woman? Or that some houses have specific protocols, like waiting a set period of time before approaching visitors, so that they don’t feel rushed? With each tidbit of information, the crowd tittered, relaxed, happy to be more confidante than clientele.
The people portrayed in the book—the women who work in the brothels, the men who arrive to pay for their company, and the husband-and-wife or mother-and-son teams that operate them—make for fascinating subjects. But the photographs also humanize the people and places they portray. So, too, did the event.
Bunny Love and Mika Tan, two of the woman featured in the book, chatted with the audience during a Q & A about how they balance their lives beyond the brothel.
“It’s paying my bills and I enjoy it,” said Love. “I’m Bunny Love and I’m also Sarah. I have a roommate and a boyfriend, I work half the year and snowboard the rest of the time.”
In Love’s photograph, she leans against a sliding door, wearing white heels, a blue bra and neon yellow bikini bottoms, the sun warming her face and figure. Onstage, she made jokes about her job, slinging one-liners while dressed in a black-and-blue checkered zip-up hoodie, distressed jeans, and white Vans.
“I worked retail before this, so I’m used to getting treated like shit,” she cracked before turning serious.
“People come for more than sex,” said Love, who gave her age as twenty-six. They come to talk, for certain fetish acts, to watch movies with someone, even for informal grief counseling.
In fact, the most captivating thing about the hundreds of photographs featured inside the book isn’t the suggestion of sex that seeps out of every crevice, the promise of pleasure that lurks behind each half-open doorway; it’s not the vast expanses of exposed cleavage and thigh, nor the resplendent rooms, draped in gold curtains and leopard sheets; it’s not even the gazes of the women—steady, coy, tired, beckoning, defiant.
It’s the minutiae. It’s the photographs of yellowed time cards waiting to be punched, the shelves of chipped coffee mugs, rows of nail polish in a makeshift beauty salon, a pair of discarded Lucite stilettos. Bureaucracy is everywhere in the pictures. There are stacks of paperwork to be filed, piles of egg timers used to measure out the minutes of each customer’s visit. There are intercoms, telephones, and panic buttons in all the rooms. It is finally not the illictness but the banality of it all that is most riveting: automatic cash machines, heaps of freshly laundered towels, canisters of baby wipes on an end table, shift schedules scrawled in dry-erase marker on a white board. These images make the viewer understand that behind the facade of a world where pleasure and fantasy are distilled to a commodity, there are still the unmistakable trappings of domesticity, of office work: the mundane reality of a job, like any other.
Jenna Wortham is a GIF maker and news breaker for The New York Times.