Sunday, April 13, 2008
PAHRUMP, Nev. - Nicki Amouri hands her camera to a friend, throws her arm over another and smiles wide as she leans in for a shot with the monument her class came to visit.
It's a typical field trip memento — except that Amouri is in a brothel. The monument is a fluffy, queen-sized bed in a Western-themed party room reserved for VIPs and big spenders.
Amouri was one of a dozen Randolph College students who toured the Chicken Ranch, a legal bordello in the desert 60 miles outside Las Vegas. Thursday's class trip, which included seminars from the working girls, capped a course on American consumption and "the ideas that consume us."
"I think it's fascinating, this is fun for me," said Amouri, a junior at the private liberal arts school in Lynchburg, Va., that until last year admitted only women. "Not many people get to do this."
Academic and media inquiries are daily occurrences at many of Nevada's 27 legal brothels. Some shy away from the scrutiny; others, like the Chicken Ranch, welcome the publicity.
"We're always open to trying to educate the public about legalized prostitution," said Chicken Ranch general manager Debbie Rivenburgh, who acknowledged this was the first class tour request she'd received in 21 years.
Don't just study America — live it'
The brothel tour was a natural fit for a class that tells students "don't just study America — live it," said Julio Rodriguez, the director of the college's American Culture Program.
Each semester the course examines a strain of American culture and ends with a class trip. Past destinations included post-Katrina New Orleans, Walt Disney World and the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala.
This year's focus on Nevada started with a professor's interest in water rights and conservation. It grew to include discussions of the wedding and entertainment industries and, inevitably, prostitution.
Nevada is the only state where prostitution is legal. Brothels are allowed in 10 Nevada counties, though not in Las Vegas.
As part of their research, students were assigned "The Beauty Myth," by feminist author Naomi Wolf; "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," by Hunter S. Thompson; and a "20/20" episode on prostitution with Diane Sawyer, among other research, professors said.
"We gave them all the option to either opt out or express reservations privately. No one did," said Rodriguez, adding that he received no objections from parents or administrators.
Prostitutes at the Chicken Ranch had plenty of reservations. Most don't jump at the chance to talk to strangers about what they do, Rivenburgh said. They worry about friends or family finding out. They know how others see them. It can be uncomfortable.
"Ninety-nine percent of the working girls will not participate. Each woman's got her reason and her limitations," Rivenburgh said. "I couldn't have done better with the two that said yes, though."
Flexibility and free time
Alexis, 38, and Alicia, "over 30," sat on white folding chairs in front the young, earnest women in the brothel's Victorian-styled parlor, usually the setting for the "lineup." They would not give their last names. The group took close notes as a handful of television cameras and reporters looked on.
A blonde in jeans and platform boots, Alexis talked about the job's flexibility and the free time it has allowed her to write a book about her life. Alicia wore a black-and-white gingham nighty and a tattoo on her left breast that read "Famous."
"I enjoy giving back what some people don't get in their lives, as far as companionship, time, just the touch of a woman," she said. The job allows her to take care of her mother and grandmother. She's also in real estate.
The introductions gave way to questions.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Alexis: "Most women in this business wear the pants in the family."
Is there a certain look most men prefer?
Alicia: Every man wants something different. "There's all different kinds of girls."
Why aren't there brothels with male prostitutes?
Rivenburgh: Former Hollywood Madame Heidi Fleiss is trying.
Do you still give a military discount?
What's the worst part?
Alicia: "Being confined, being cooped up. I have to be here 24 hours a day."
With a tour and time to mingle, the students packed up gift bags containing a menu of services, a Chicken Ranch key chain and a brochure. They had to get back to Las Vegas in time for a backstage tour of the risque revue "Jubilee." With any luck, they might get to interview the showgirls.
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