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Problems In Teaching: Sex Work And Sexuality In American History

April 14, 2008

Like any teacher, I hope, I’m always interested in new ways to “reach” my students. Of course reaching means different things on different days and with regard to the varieties of topics one covers in history.

With that, this Kathleen Hennessey piece, “College Students Tour Nevada Brothel,” caught my eye late last week. This is the version I saw in the Chicago Tribune. I’m unfamiliar with Hennessey’s writing, so I don’t know if this is a regular topic with her or a special report. But here are some excerpts interspersed with my commentary–including one or two obligatory attempts at humor (all bolds mine):

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 [Lynchburg, VA] 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.”

TL: Great theme. U.S. society does, at times, seem to be consumed with sex. It’s that favoritism for youth, I believe, that came to be a cultural value after World War I—part of what I call American Modernity. But is Chicken Ranch really a monument? I guess it’s not a traditional monument, but it is certainly symbolic. by the way, wasn’t Chicken Ranch the name given to the bordello in that silly movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?

“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.”

TL: You can say that again! But you could also insert “want” for “get” in the last sentence.

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.

TL: I just can’t believe that this was the first class tour request. Surely some ambitious sociology teacher somewhere in Nevada has arranged this before?

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.

TL: Hey Julio, don’t “live it” too much, if you know what I mean?!

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.

TL: This seems perfectly reasonable.

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.

TL: Hmm…This seems to have gotten a bit off-track (perhaps?) by focusing on a state rather than a theme. Or maybe this was the goal after all, based on the reading list? Perhaps the reading list was decided mid-course or after the fact.

“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.

TL: Uh, prior to this article—I’m sure the objections have come in since! And why would parents be in any authoritative place to object to the content of a college course offered to adults? I used to show the film Black Robe, in its entirety, in my pre-Civil War history surveys. Black Robe contained two explicit sex scenes. All I did in preparation (since no one ever told me about any restrictions on this) was warn them verbally in class before the film about the scenes.

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.”

TL: Hmm…If 99 percent opted out, I wonder if the instructor incorporated an ethics dimension to trip? I mean, if moral judgments are involved in legal prostitution, how are the competing elements balanced? I mean, only Nevada allows this (as far as I know), so what limits this business enterprise in a free market economy? Do those in favor of free markets advocate for their belief in this area of business? Why or why not?

Alexis, 38, and Alicia, “over 30,” sat on white folding chairs in front of the young, earnest women in the brothel’s Victorian-style 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.”

TL: Well, she’s certainly more “famous” now? 😉

“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?
—Rivenburgh: Yes.
—What’s the worst part?
—Alicia: “Being confined, being cooped up. I have to be here 24 hours a day.”

TL: Wait. Alexis talked about the job’s flexibility and free time. That doesn’t jive with Alicia’s answer. And, Alicia, how does your job that confines you and keeps you at Chicken Ranch for 24 hours a day allow you to “take care of [your] mother and grandmother”? The sad answer is the care must be only monetary.

——————–

This kind of a trip could work in an American Studies context, but I’m less sure of its prospects for success in a history course. It would have to be a class on the U.S. West, and you’d have to have a significant component (i.e. several class meetings) where at least one book on the subject was covered. But I doubt that current employees like Alicia and Alexis have much sense of the history of their situation with regard to Nevada and the American West? This is not to doubt their intelligence or intellectual ability, but only their motivations to know. Why would they bother? So what would history students get out of a field trip like this? – TL

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3 Comments
  1. I have no problem with exposing students to all sorts of things they won't otherwise see/hear/get a chance to examine. Of course this raises many questions… does one really need to travel to Nevada to find women (or men) who work in prostitution? And if one has a privileged enough student group to allow this kind of travel why not a comparative? Amsterdam and Berlin for example. Of course the article (as I read it in the NYT) does not go into much course detail. I could certainly see a great curriculum built around the economic opportunity limitations for single women, or around American morality, or around sexual identity, all of which might have included the tour as described (including the “show girls” backstage stop in Vegas). But I could also imagine it as a highly gratuitous, surface treatment.

    Way back in high school, in a less paranoid day in an alternative program (that thus no administrator cared about), a psych teacher sent us out in pairs in New York City from 10 pm to 6 am to interview the homeless. It was fascinating and incredibly valuable. Even remarkable valuable in the fright it generated. But much of the value was due to the frame constructed beforehand and to the deconstruction afterward. As it always is.

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  2. Ira,

    I wondered the same thing—on the trip to Nevada in particular. And your point about means and comparative analysis is a good one.

    Your h.s. NYC sociology experiment was clearly a good one.

    My problem with the Randolph trip, however, is how to make it work in history classroom setting. I mean, one of the reasons people study history is for the ~vicarious~ experience it affords. It rewards you without ~requiring~ travel—if the history is done well. Another reason people study history is to learn about change over time—what changes were necessary, what weren't, what was internally or externally motivated, etc. So the current situation (i.e. field trip) would be something you do to materialize the study, probably at either the very beginning or end of the term.

    – TL

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  3. I totally agree on the value of travel and how it fits in. You can, for example, take students to a historic place with no currently available connection to anything relevant (battlefield trips are often like this), or you can take them to a place where the ghosts still actively linger (the walls of Derry, for example, or parts of East Berlin) that might be profoundly deep introductions. Otherwise the trip is best left for “after” in my view. That allows for some advanced thinking (“this happened how?”).

    And yet the trip can never be any better than the prep. What are students looking for? what might surprise them? What evidence will they be able to catalogue? How will they classify observations? What might they ask or “dig” for among survivors, or artifacts, or the resources in a library?

    Trips without the right prep are called tourism, not education.

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