The Biggest Pimp of All

The oldest profession predates history, and laws designed to subdue it have rarely proved effective. At worst, uneven justice—hitting prostitutes with criminal fines with one hand, tolerating or encouraging them with the other—makes the state "the biggest pimp of all," in the words of New York City's vice squad chief. After on-the-spot studies, the authors compare the prevailing approach to prostitution in American cities with decriminalization as practiced in several European cities and the legalization of brothels in rural Nevada.

Lyon County, Nevada. The sign reads "Kit Kat Ranch—Men Only." But it is hardly a ranch. Five trailers painted pink, linked by a corrugated metal roof, are surrounded by a six-foot fence topped with barbed wire. It is three o'clock in the afternoon and inside a dozen girls, young, mostly bikini-clad, lounge in the parlor or in their small rooms. A buzzer sounds. The maid in a white uniform calls "Company!" The girls assemble for the "lineup" and the client makes his choice. The sheriff plays pinochle at the kitchen table with some of the girls who aren't working. The taxi driver who brought the last customer waits in the parlor to drive him back to Carson City, ten miles away.

Amsterdam, Holland. Zeedijk Street, flanking a small canal in the port district. At dusk the porno film theater flashes its lights, a child plays outside his house, a sex-shop window offers its display of magazines and erotic gadgets. It is an odd melange—an Indo-Chinese restaurant, a vending machine dispensing condoms, a bistro-like restaurant with an American Express card sign, an occasional police officer, and the windows ... Lit by a red bulb and framed with lace-edged curtains, each ground-floor window reveals a neat room—bed, sink, a chair, and a young woman. No more than a few inches from passersby, the women are reading, knitting, brushing their hair, or just looking. When a customer comes in, the clean, starched curtains are pulled.

Paris, France. Saturday, payday, around nine o'clock in the evening. There is still daylight because it is June, and on the small streets off the Boulevard Barbès the men line up outside the doorways. Almost all are Algerians, neatly dressed. One holds a bouquet. They stand quietly, orderly, except when the door opens and they strain to see the half-dressed woman who lets a customer out. The police station is a few yards away, but the officers on patrol show no interest in the line of customers. It is like other poor neighborhoods in Paris—drab houses, small shops, and cafés—but something is different. After a few moments, the observer realizes there are no women in the streets. They have been left behind in Algeria while their husbands earn a living at the lowest-paying jobs in Paris.

Far apart both geographically and culturally, these three scenes have one significant common ingredient: sex is bought and sold with, if not the approval, at least the tolerance of both the police and the community.

The picture in most American cities is very different. The prevailing policy toward prostitution is "get rid of it." No one, including the state legislatures which mandate this policy, believes this is possible. But the consensus that official recognition of sex as a business would be immoral prevents thinking about prostitution in any other way.

The burden of enforcing the policy, of course, falls on the police. And they are attacked from all sides. Required by law to be enemies of the prostitutes, the police are also harassed by the public they are trying to protect. If the crime rate goes up in a city, the police are criticized for using scarce resources to chase whores. If, in order to make an arrest, a cop disguises himself as a customer, civil libertarians charge "entrapment."

Lawmakers bold enough to propose licensing prostitution or zoning for it make few friends. Neighborhood groups and business associations say, "Sure, an entertainment zone is a great idea, but not here." Feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women oppose licensing and support decriminalization of prostitution, insisting that women have a right to do what they want with their bodies. They also argue that it is unfair to arrest the prostitutes and not their customers.

In 1971, the Nevada legislature authorized any county with less than 200,000 inhabitants (thus excluding the counties in which Reno and Las Vegas are located) to license brothels. No state has legalized prostitution. So far four Nevada counties have exercised this local option. Almost all of the licensed houses were in operation before the law passed, but now each house pays the county a business tax of $1000 per month ($500 if there are less than seven prostitutes at work in a house).

Lyon County received $42,000 in taxes last year from its four brothels. It is not an important source of county revenue compared with taxes from Anaconda Copper, which has its largest open-pit mining operation there. On the other hand, neighboring Storey County, which ekes out just a little tax money from the tourist business at Virginia City, gets its largest revenue from Joe Conforte's Mustang Ranch, the biggest and best-known of Nevada's brothels.

Bob Griffin, a retired garlic grower and chairman of the Board of Lyon County Commissioners, led the campaign to license the county's brothels. Griffin sat in his comfortable, newly built farmhouse and explained:

If I was to vote again tomorrow, I'd do the same thing. Morally prostitution may be wrong, but how can you legislate morals? The whorehouses have always been here and the people want them. You know, the strongest support came from mothers—they'd rather have their sons go there than get some local girl in trouble. The only opposition was from one of our ministers.

It's a way of life out here, going all the way back. Remember what Mark Twain wrote—"The miner came in '49, the whore in '51. They rolled upon the barroom floor, then came the native son."

George Allen has worked for Lyon County for twenty-seven years, almost ten of them as sheriff. It is his job to enforce the prostitution statute. For three dollars each prostitute is issued a work permit. In the sheriff's office, the women are finger-printed, photographed, questioned about their age (they must be at least eighteen) and any past criminal record. "If she's been arrested twice or convicted once of a drug charge, she's gone," Allen says, "or else the madam watches her carefully." Thus, in spite of formal rules, actual practice is quite casual. And there is not much red tape. The day we visited the sheriff's office, three young women who were getting their licenses at 11:00 A.M. were at work at the Kit Kat Ranch by mid-afternoon.

The Nevada law requires weekly venereal disease examinations, so a doctor visits each brothel once a week. Advocates of official supervision of prostitution, like the officials of Lyon County, usually raise venereal disease protection as a major plus for licensing. But public health officials estimate that only 5 percent of venereal disease in the United States can be attributed to prostitutes. (High school students contract VD more than any other age group, but only a small fraction of prostitutes' customers are teen-age boys.)

As Sheriff Allen drove us through sixty miles of sagebrush between Yerington, the Lyon County seat, and the Kit Kat Ranch, in the corner of the county closest to Carson City, Reno, and South Tahoe, he talked about the four licensed houses he supervises:

It's a good system. The girls get steak a couple times a week. Pimps? We've eliminated them. State law says a girl can't arrive at the house with anyone. They come in their own cars or a cab. Of course they have boyfriends. When a girl's off, she wants to travel, she's making good money. So the boyfriend quits his job and she supports him. Housewives work there too, weekends only, usually. She and her old man have a fight so she decides to make some easy money. I once arrested a man bringing his wife over. He got two years at Carson, over at the state prison.

We have no prostitutes working in the county outside the few houses, but there's plenty across the county line in South Tahoe and Reno. Business here isn't as good when the police aren't enforcing over there.

The owners are good citizens. They contribute to the United Fund and the fire department. Some of the mothers around here would be surprised to learn who's paying for their sons to play Little League.

The sheriff turned down a dirt road marked by a large sign, "Central Valley Steel Pipe Co." Underneath was a small square sign which said "Kit Kat Ranch—1/2 mile." (The law forbids any larger signs or lighted displays, but the sheriff permits Moonlight Ranch, one of Kit Kat's competitors, to use a large flashing arrow visible from the road because without it prospective customers had often knocked on the doors of nearby homes.)

At the Kit Kat Ranch, Sheriff Allen exchanged friendly greetings with the young women who were sitting around in the main parlor or drinking coffee in the kitchen. Some of them looked younger than the law's eighteen-year-old minimum. A few of the prostitutes were black, but, the sheriff said, none of Lyon County's brothels accept black customers, a source of unpleasantness between county officials and the commander and black men of a nearby military base. Only Mustang Ranch in the next county has let down the color bar, but even there blacks use a separate entrance and parlor.

Big spenders at the Kit Kat Ranch can ask for its special lounge with purple walls, mirrors on the ceiling, and a leopard spread on the double bed. Other special luxuries or services carry an extra fee. But the standard rate is about a dollar a minute, fifteen minutes minimum. Says the sheriff, "By the time the customer decides on the particular program he wants, he's likely to be paying a lot more than fifteen dollars."

The sheriff introduced Marie, madam and owner of the Kit Kat Ranch. She is about sixty, a grandmother and still very good-looking. As she talked in a small sitting room, flashing pictures of naked women appeared on the top of a jukebox.

"I hate to see a girl start," she said, but quickly added that she thought legalized houses did not, as some argue, encourage more girls to enter the profession. Before prostitution was legalized the police rarely interfered with the Ranch, but Marie feels the change is clearly for the better. "You have a legitimate business, you keep your books, you're not hot and on the run. The girls prefer it too. They're not going to get hurt. When they're sick or have their period they have a place to stay. If they manage their money, they can retire and have a good life." College students do stints at the Ranch in the summer, and a student at a nearby medical school used to work during weekends.

"I still hear from her," Marie said. "When they decide to leave, I tell them to forget where they've been and make a new life, but some of them say, 'It's a part of my life,' and they don't lie about it." Girls who want to work seldom call ahead; they arrive at the Ranch and ask for work. To Marie, women who make a man feel at ease are successful: "It's not the looks that count."

Streetwalkers who disparage life in a brothel claim the prostitutes at the Ranch are confined there. Marie denies the charge, and says they may come and go as they please except when they are working a shift. Most houses permit women to leave for a week once every three or four weeks.

The four houses in Lyon County are clustered along the highway several miles from any town, and perhaps their isolation accounts for why the Kit Kat's women are free to go where they want. But in other counties local authorities have established restrictive regulations, including hours that the women can be in towns, and buildings in which they are permitted, specifically excluding bars, gaming houses, and residential areas. The town of Winnemucca, for example, does not allow prostitutes to have friends within the town, including pimps, boyfriends, or husbands.

If hostility toward the prostitutes exists in Lyon County, we did not find it. District Attorney Ronald Banta and Sheriff Allen both spoke warmly of the Kit Kat Ranch's annual Christmas party, which they and other county officials attend with their wives. It was a fine party last year, with lots of food and liquor, Banta told us; "We all danced with the girls while our wives watched."

Presented by

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In