By Andy Duncan
Truckers who pass through Nevada on I-80 or I-15 face an unusual option that truck stops and rest stops don’t offer: the chance to pay big bucks for sex with a state-regulated prostitute.
The state has about three dozen legal brothels, with names such as the Chicken Ranch, the Cherry Patch and the Pussycat Saloon. They are open 24-7, and many are along the major trucking routes.
The women who staff the brothels refer to themselves as “girls” and identify themselves only by their professional names. They also claim to offer something rare in 21st-century America: disease-free sex.
“We see very little STD among the working girls in these brothels,” says Dr. Randall Todd, who as state epidemiologist is in charge of tracking sexually transmitted diseases. “Brothel sex is extremely low-risk, probably a lower risk than to pick up someone in a bar whom you don’t know.”
Counting on that low risk are the truckers who make up 90 percent of the business at Donna’s in Battle Mountain, which offers them meals, showers and overnight parking, all for free. Door prizes especially for truckers range from T-shirts and mud flaps with the Donna’s logo to “a hot-tub party with the girl of your choice,” says Phoenix, who works there.
Twenty-four hours a day, the women of Donna’s broadcast in one-hour shifts to truckers on CB Channel 19. The law doesn’t allow them to solicit sex on the air, so instead they advertise “friendly conversation with no obligation, pretty ladies and Nevada-style hospitality,” in Phoenix’s words.
Usually, she says, the truckers sharing the airwaves are friendly in return. “Sometimes you get Bible-thumpers coming through, or people who are just nasty and mean, but the other truckers, even the ones who aren’t our clients, take up for us. They say, ‘She’s just doing her job, leave her alone.’”
Nevada brothel workers say there’s little comparison between what they do and the services of a truck-stop “lot lizard.” A brothel session – or “party,” as it’s known in the industry – has many advantages over a truck-stop tryst, says GiGi of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Carson City, where truckers make up about 20 percent of the clientele.
“The atmosphere at the Ranch is nicer than at a truck stop,” GiGi says. “We have beautiful, sexy girls who are able to give him – or her – a full-blown fantasy.”
“We have a whole room to ourselves for as long as we want, and it’s all legal, so you don’t have to worry about getting busted or interrupted,” Phoenix says.
“We can provide a good time in a safe environment,” GiGi says. “A trucker isn't going to get ripped off or get any horrible diseases at the Bunny Ranch.”
“We offer comfort, safety and cleanliness, as well as adventure,” says Tonya, also of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Just as truckers are required to keep their log books and licenses up to date, so brothel workers are required by Nevada law to get regular medical checkups – weekly for chlamydia and gonorrhea, monthly for syphilis and HIV – and to have a certificate from a doctor on hand at all times.
“At truck stops, many prostitutes go from truck to truck, a lot of them without showering in between,” Phoenix says. “They don’t make the drivers shower, either. At a brothel, everyone showers. The drivers are clean, we’re clean, and condoms are mandatory for everything, including oral sex.”
State regulation of the brothel industry – including standardized health requirements and mandatory condom use – came about only in the mid-1980s, as a response to HIV and AIDS, Todd says. Some brothel regulations still vary from county to county; some don’t allow CB solicitation, for example.
“Nevada’s attitude is: Prostitution is going to happen anyway,” Todd says. “Given that the best efforts to end it have failed, does it not make more sense from a public-health standpoint to regulate it and minimize, as much as possible, the health consequences?”
Since the state began testing brothel workers for HIV in the 1980s, Todd says, not one “working girl” has tested positive, though the pre-employment health screening has kept 26 HIV-positive women from brothel work during that time. By contrast, Todd says, HIV has turned up in hundreds of Las Vegas prostitutes, who work in one of the seven Nevada counties where prostitution is illegal – and beyond the reach of the health department.
“In an average year in the brothels, we might see, statewide, a dozen or two dozen cases of gonorrhea and chlamydia combined, and we have seen no syphilis cases at all in several years,” Todd says. “That’s not really very much, since each working girl can expect five or six parties a day – much more sex than the average female would be having, so her risk of exposure is much greater. Moreover, 99 percent of the time, a legal prostitute likely got the STD from a husband or boyfriend, through ‘extracurricular’ sex, outside the brothel.”
Todd points out that mental health can be compromised by a brothel visit, as guilt, fear, anger, and marital trouble can result. Occasionally a tearful trucker’s wife calls him on the phone, clutching a telltale receipt she found in her husband’s jeans and asking what she should do. “Get tested” is his reply.
Brothels sometimes adopt corporate names similar to the names of well-known hotel chains in hopes of eluding the attention of a spouse scanning the credit-card bill. Some have outside phone lines that show up on statements as originating from major U.S. cities, so that a trucker can pretend to be calling home from a terminal or truck stop far from the Nevada sex industry.
Like many brothels, Donna’s takes cash, checks and credit cards and has an ATM on the premises. Most truckers, Phoenix says, pay cash -- and the bill isn’t small. Just how expensive is hard to say, since brothel workers are prohibited by law from quoting prices off the premises. “Clients could spend anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars in a visit,” GiGi says. The well-stocked bars at most brothels help a customer run up a tab, as well as posing the potentially hazardous temptation for a trucker to drive away intoxicated.
“Truckers are looking for what most men seem to look for – a girl they can be attracted to and comfortable with,” says GiGi. Tonya says she finds most truckers “mellow, laid-back, more friendly and more gentlemanly” than most clients. “They’re looking for companionship, more than just sex. It comes from their being out on the road alone all the time.”
Phoenix agrees. “Some truckers don’t even necessarily book parties,” she says. “They just stop and take a break to talk to the girls and visit before moving on. It’s like a home away from home. Some truckers I haven’t seen in more than a year, but they still send me e-mail, and we keep in touch.”
She believes brothel workers and truckers have a lot in common. “Girls come to Nevada from all over the States to work, so, like truckers, we’re away from home for extended periods of time. The drivers are cooped up in their trucks, while the girls are cooped up in the houses. And the girls and the truckers are both sort of – well, I don’t want to say renegades or black sheep, but we’re just not the typical sort of people, you know? We’re not interested in working 9 to 5.”
Both professions also take an emotional toll as well as a physical one, Phoenix says. “In our jobs, the girls are constantly giving. Not just sex, but support and companionship and sympathy. We give, give, give.” This summer she took a “sabbatical” of several months off the job, just to make time for herself.
Needless to add, neither profession gets much respect from the mass media. A November 2001 Washington Post Magazine article, for example, called Battle Mountain “the armpit of America” and chided it for having “a brothel, but no ice cream parlor.”
But brothel workers, like truckers, have to be financially savvy, as they must pay all their own expenses – including room, board, travel and the cost of condoms and medical checkups – after splitting their fees with the brothel. “It’s also virtually impossible for these workers to get health insurance,” Todd says.
Brothel workers, Tonya says, are the owner-operators of the sex industry. “We’re both out there looking to promote our own business, set our own rates,” she says. “We’re both in charge of what we do.”
Not only are Nevada brothels legal, but they are backed up by law enforcement. Earlier this year, an Arizona trucker drove away from the Salt Wells Brothel near Fallon without paying a $1,152 tab. Sheriff’s deputies chased him down and charged him with defrauding a business establishment, a felony. The next day, he suffered a heart attack in custody.