To Dena’s employees, she’s many things: a mother, a mentoring friend, or simply a boss. With women from all walks of life – college students trying to pay their way through university; single moms employed one week a month to provide for their kids – working for her, Dena finds herself filling many different roles.
But at home, Dena is a mother of seven who likes to knit and cook – something she makes sure to keep separate from her job. She finds that hard divide a necessity, considering that she works as a madam for one of the few legalized brothels in the U.S.
In this week’s episode of Yahoo News’ Unfiltered, we get an inside look at the day-to-day business of a legal brothel in the only state where prostitution is not criminalized, through the eyes of a madam whose job it is to make sure a client is “with somebody who knows what they’re doing — who knows, let’s say, that there’s five different ways to give a hand job, plus.”
Located just an hour’s drive from Las Vegas in the small town of Pahrump, Nev., Sheri’s Ranch boasts a restaurant, tennis court, spa, outdoor swimming pool and, of course, a legal brothel for its visitors. “Sheri’s Ranch holds 25 girls a week,” says Dena, “so that’s a lot of juggling of ladies.” Nevada is the only state in the U.S. that allows some form of legal prostitution; just half of its counties have a total of 21 licensed brothels.
As a madam, Dena is responsible for a wide variety of things when it comes to the sex workers employed at the ranch. Her two main focuses, however, are to guide and mentor women who are looking to enter the sex industry, and to facilitate a good customer experience for clients. “Coming to a brothel, you’re having the full fantasy experience with somebody who knows what they’re doing,” she explains. “And in order to do that, they need to learn that there’s different ways of doing different things – and that’s what they do, is they learn their craft.”
To be employed as what Dena calls a “courtesan,” the women must be able to pass an STD test with a licensed state doctor, cannot have any felonies or arrest warrants, and must obtain a business license. They must also give Dena a goal. “A lot of times, they don’t even know how to do that,” she says, “You know, what is it that you want to do in five years? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be working here? Do you want to be going back to school? Do you want to own your own business?” For Dena, working in a legalized brothel gives an opportunity for a sex worker to feel affirmed by the women around them, and it’s important for those women to have a sense of empowerment. “That shows this young adult, this young female that, ‘Hey, I can go somewhere with this. I don’t have to be trapped in the stereotypical box. I can actually use this as a stepping stone to something greater and bigger.’”
In a legal brothel, all sexual acts are protected for the safety of both the sex worker and the customer. “Everything is done with a condom. Even oral. [There is] no transfer of bodily fluids,” Dena explains. Additionally, Dena also makes sure to hold sexual harassment classes with the staff – something she finds absolutely necessary, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged women to come forward about sexual abuse without having to suffer negative ramifications. She doesn’t budge on offenders, saying, “My ladies have boundaries that you don’t cross. And if you choose to cross it, you’re leaving.” Her hard stance has proven effective: “I can count on one hand how many experiences in 12 years we’ve had to get into a girl’s room and throw somebody out. To me, that’s huge. Huge, with the amount of customers that come through here.”
Dena chooses to keep her life as a madam separate from her life at home, not because of any personal shame but because of society. “I think that people absolutely have misconceptions as to what a madam is,” she says. “I don’t talk about what I do outside of here. I don’t talk about who I am. I don’t talk about what I do. I don’t want to subject my children to the misinformed people that are going to say disparaging things.”
But for the same people Dena says are misinformed, she has a few words: “Prostitution is not going anywhere. It’s always been around; it will always be around.” And judging from her experience as a madam at one of the most successful legal brothels in America, she believes others should be able to engage in sex work without being penalized. “Giving a legal option to sex workers and customers, to me … it makes better sense,” she says.