Updated Dec. 30, 2019
A book about sex workers in Nevada’s legal brothels has a powerful title: “Sex and Stigma: Stories of Everyday Life in Nevada’s Legal Brothels.”
Sarah Blithe, a communication studies professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, co-authored the book along with Anna Wolfe, a professor at Texas A&M University, and Breanna Mohr, a UNR masters student and sex worker in a Nevada brothel.
Blithe decided to study brothels and their communication structure after attending the camel races in Virginia City. One of the races was sponsored by a local brothel, and coincidentally, an academic journal had just put a call out for research papers on hidden communication systems.
Those two things combined for the project.
Mohr was a student of Blithe's. She came on board during a hiatus in her sex worker activities. Blithe said she gave insight into the industry they didn't have before.
Blithe said one of the most interesting insights that Mohr brought was the current job she was working at when she started working on the project.
Like most college students or recent graduates, Mohr was working at an entry-level job. However, she had much more business experience than she could let her boss know about. She had learned many business skills while working at a brothel, but she didn't want to tell her boss.
Blithe said that kind of secrecy is common in women who work in brothels; however, just as common are women who are open about their profession.
“We found there was quite a range in how women deal with secrecy and privacy,” she said.
She said the reason for the secrecy is the stigma that is attached to sex work, not just legal prostitution but the range of sex workers, including escorts, sugar babies, cam girls, illegal prostitutes and women in pornography.
Blithe said some women feel like themselves when working at brothels others feel like they're putting on a performance for their clients. Either way, they're managing their identities for a reason.
“I’ve seen a lot of different ways that women are managing their identities but what is that they have to deal with the stigma and they have to engage in some kind of identity management because of the stigma placed on this particular occupational identity,” she said.
That stigma can have real consequences to point of oppression, not just bias, Blithe said.
“There are organizations, such as banks, that will not always give loans when they find out where their income is coming from, despite the fact that it is a legal occupation in the state of Nevada,” she said.
She said some women struggle to find a place to rent because landlords don't want to rent to a sex worker. They can't find someone to do their taxes because accountants don't want to be involved.
Even Blithe herself ran into some stigma when she told people that she was working on a project about brothels.
"A couple of times I've heard comments from other people in my neighborhood who ask what I do and they say, 'I don't understand. I thought you were teaching public speaking and now I hear you studying brothels,'" she said.
Another misconception about legal prostitutes is they are miserable and want a way out. Blithe said that is not the case for most workers.
“Overwhelmingly the women that we spoke with were happy with their jobs. Where they found the struggle was dealing with society’s stigma,” she said.
Blithe found the women liked the work they were doing and liked the flexibility it provided. Most women in the brothels are independent contractors, which means they can decide when they work, what acts they will perform and how much to charge.
She said 70 percent of the work that women do is engaging sexual activities and 30 percent is what Blithe terms "emotional labor," which is connecting and talking to the clients about their lives.
Blithe believes more can be done to make the working conditions better and more fair for legal prostitutes. Most importantly, she thinks the misconceptions of the industry need to be addressed head on.
(Editor's note: This interview originally aired in January 2019)
Sarah Jane Blithe, professor of communication studies, University of Nevada, Reno; author, "Sex and Stigma: Stories of Everyday Life in Nevada's Legal Brothels
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