The world's oldest profession has been legal in parts of Nevada since 1971, but is unambiguously illegal everywhere else. I had arranged a non-participatory visit to see how this oasis of vice works, and Sheri's Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada's Nye County (NSFW), sent a black Town Car to pick me up from my hotel in Las Vegas.
Anyone wanting to legally exchange money for sex has to get out of Las Vegas to do so. Sheri's Ranch is in Pahrump, Nev., a rural desert community an hour outside Vegas where prostitution is legal, alive, and well. (Incidentally it's also where forgotten Apple co-founder Ron Wayne currently calls home.)
The drive from downtown Vegas to Pahrump is an exploration of big empty space, armadillos, and dead cell zones. My driver, Fabio, is a full-time employee of Sheri's Ranch. He makes the two-hour drive from Vegas to Pahrump back to Vegas a few times a day, discreetly getting customers from their downtown hotel suites to Sheri's front door and back. A placard on the seat in front of me reads "The ride is completely complimentary but a gratuity is greatly appreciated."
Were we in his other car, Fabio tells me, he has a DVD player for customers to watch short ads for each girl at the Ranch, something akin to movie trailers before the main attraction. If people start asking him questions about specific girls, he puts it on for them to watch. He's happy to answer customers' general questions, but he's not supposed to comment on specific women in case he were to recommend some over others.
Getting acquainted with Sheri's Ranch
With the exception of one sign on the front reading "Girls Girls Girls," Sheri's Ranch may as well be a sports bar. In fact it is a sports bar. There are literally two separate entrances to the building — door No.1 for beer and wings, door No.2 for more sensual pleasures. I started with door No.1.
The sports bar side has a low-light atmosphere for drinking, eating, socializing, and — my New York City eyes couldn't believe it – smoking indoors! It is homey, low-key, and immediately comfortable. I grab a booth and a gin and tonic to sit and talk with Dena, the madam of Sheri's Ranch.
Dena lives in Pahrump and likes to knit when she's not at work. As madam of the Ranch, she fills something of a motherly role for the girls who work here, seeing to their needs and making sure that the day-to-day operations of the Ranch are running smoothly. She facilitates the relationship between employer and employee.
Dena showed me around the grounds. There's the main building that houses the restaurant and the girls, but behind it is plenty more. A pool and some palm trees. Themed bungalows for some extra privacy from the main house. A "fantasy playland" for acting out more elaborate sexual encounters — a locker room, a reception area, and so on. You get the gist.
The same way that there are plenty of people who come to the sports bar just to have a meal, there are people who come just to stay in the Ranch's hotel. A full-fledged hotel sits on the property a fair distance behind the main house, and it's there for anyone needing a place to stay, whether you're just visiting Pahrump or making an extended go of things at Sheri's.
Behind the bungalows is the rest of the Ranch's 310 acres — dry, undeveloped desert that butts right up against the Nevada-California state line. On this side of the line, Sheri's Ranch operates without issue. Move just a couple miles west and it'd be a different story.
How to get a job as a prostitute
There seem to be as many stories of breaking into the prostitution business as there are women working here. Dena told me that very rarely is this business a woman's plan.
Women seeking work at Sheri's need to be licensed independent contractors for the state of Nevada and complete an application process with the Ranch. You can see the application page here (NSFW). They request nothing more than a few photos of your face and body, but it's difficult to stand out on that alone.
That's why there's a comments section of the application as well. Prospective employees are advised to demonstrate some personality. Once you get the go-ahead to come work a tour, they'll even pick you up from the airport in a limousine.
Aaron, the brothel's marketing director, told me that "there's never been a problem filling slots at Sheri's. It's only ever been a matter of who to say yes to."
I met three of the prostitutes who got a yes.
The women of Sheri's Ranch
"The No. 1 misconception about places like this is that the girls are here against their will. But that's just not true," Dena tells me.
The word "whorehouse" often inspires seedy images of broken women, scored with a Tom Waits song. At Sheri's, that's all just movie nonsense. The women here seem to do quite well for themselves, operating as independent contractors who set their own prices. They got a little evasive when I asked specific questions about money, but I left with the impression that you can expect to spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars on the basic side of things to thousands of dollars and more at the other end of the spectrum. Obviously this depends on your tastes and the girl's prices.
Amber Lynn trades time between Florida and Pahrump – two weeks on at Sheri's Ranch, two weeks at home with her boyfriend.
Erin is new here, a former marine who started escorting independently in Louisiana before coming to Sheri's so that she could continue the work without worry of legal repercussions.
Destini is a family woman, married with a child. She disclosed that she'd had some run-ins with the law while working as an escort elsewhere, but as an employee of Sheri's Ranch there's no worry of that happening. Even though she's wearing a distracting robe and lingerie, there's a maternal glow in her face when she talks about her child, and it totally steals the scene.
I find myself especially intrigued with her story. She's a happily married mom and working prostitute. Does she ever worry about having a healthy relationship with sex?
"All it takes to have a healthy relationship with sex is to enjoy it. And I enjoy it! A lot of the guys that come through here are shy, or disabled, or just haven't had good experiences with women. I get to make them feel loved," Destini says. Her smile is so big as she speaks that I know she means it. The other girls nod in agreement.
The longer I talk to them, the more it feels like I'm talking to employees of a conventional business, a resort or hotel, maybe. I guess you could say they're in the ultimate customer service industry.
Dena asks Destini the question I would ask were I less afraid of offending her: "What's it like in the bedroom when you get home from the job?"
Destini laughs at the ceiling. "I rape my husband when I get home! I say 'Come here, baby! I missed you!'"
Screenshot The unsexy logistics of it all
The unsexy logistics of it all
Girls at the Ranch work one "tour" at a time, a contractual stay at the Ranch that can last five days on the short end and up to two weeks or longer. When they're on the clock, the girls work 12-hour shifts, either 5 AM to 5 PM or vice versa. While on her tour, a woman isn't allowed to approach the Ranch's hotel area or talk to its guests — to do so would be solicitation.
The womens' rooms are situated down a long hallway. The layout is reminiscent of a college dorm, and the women live and work in their rooms full-time. Considering they each pay $46 a day in rent and sleep in the rooms nightly, they decorate to suit their tastes and personalities. Apart from the room rent, the only other financial arrangement between the brothel and the women working there is that the brothel takes 50% of what they make.
Condom use: mandatory. Placards placed throughout every room serve as a perpetual reminder to be safe and sanitary. A physician comes by once a week to give all the girls a health screening, and before any sexual activity takes place behind closed doors, males go through a quick visual screening, called a "DC," or "dick check."
Everyone I asked maintains that there's yet to be an instance of sexually transmitted disease tied to legalized prostitution since the industry kicked off in Nevada 42 years ago.
How to legally solicit a hooker
Make an appointment ahead of time or just drop by at your convenience — Sheri's is open 24/7/365, so you're never going to catch them unprepared to receive you.
When you walk through the "Girls Girls Girls" door, you are treated to the "lineup," in which the girls who are on the clock come to meet you, tell you their names, vamp a little bit, and wait for you to pick one of them. (You can conduct an impromptu lineup of your own over the Internet by seeing who's currently at the Ranch [NSFW]). The two of you will go to her room, chat it up, and make arrangements on what you'd like to do and how much you'd like to spend. After reaching an agreement, you pay, you partake, and you're on your way. Maybe get a burger on the way out.
Sheri's Ranch How to start a legal brothel
How to start a legal brothel
That all-important business cliché applies to prostitution as well: Location, location, location. If you're opening up in the U.S., you can only be located in certain counties in Nevada. Your operation, just like prostitution in any form, is illegal everywhere else in the country.
Chuck Lee is the owner and operator (NSFW) of Sheri's Ranch. He's a Nevada native and former homicide detective who earned a nice windfall for himself when he sold his share of an especially successful Oldsmobile dealership. He used the money to get Sheri's Ranch off the ground, and it took quite a bit of doing.
Before he could so much as put that "Girls Girls Girls" sign on the door, Chuck had to pass a background check to satisfy area officials that he was an upstanding citizen. Then he wrote several fat checks to local government and turned the crank of bureaucracy to get all the required permits to serve food, beer, liquor, and well, sex.
Chuck estimates it cost $20 million over the years to get Sheri's Ranch to where it is today. By setting the bar this high, both financially and bureaucratically, Nevada makes it very difficult for unsavory characters to get into the business. Nevada's legal brothels have to meet all the usual regulations of a local business, and then they have to adhere to stricter prostitution laws on top of that.
Rounding it up
Sheri's Ranch is a compelling demonstration that legalized and well-regulated prostitution can be safe, functional, and profitable. There are 18 other legal brothels operating throughout Nevada today.
There's an ineffable welcoming quality to Sheri's Ranch. There is no shame, no fear, no judgment to be found anywhere near the place. There's no illusion to maintain — you've arrived, hat in hand, to pay for sex. Not only do the ladies know this, but they're glad you're here. Where America's sexual culture seems far more repressed than that of other countries, Sheri's turns this paradigm on its ear and welcomes you to indulge in (mostly) whatever it is you want. Their business depends on it.
While you'll have to leave Las Vegas to get here, the slogan still applies: What happens in Pahrump stays in Pahrump, but it's because cell service is too spotty to tell anyone anything.
Because some will likely wonder, the answer is no, I did not have sex with a prostitute for this story.
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