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A brothel, or bordello, is a management tool used to coordinate the presentation of sexually associated and closely related commercial goods and services between consumer and provider. Although a brothel's nature will reflect its particular environment, it will always involve provider and consumer in a traditional "exchange of value for value" relationship.

The perceived appropriateness, or inappropriateness, of a brothel varies with class, religious belief, point in the life course, political setting, economic circumstances, racial dynamic, and related features. Nonetheless, the essential mechanics of bordellos or brothels—houses of ill repute—remain the same across time and over geographic space, even while the perception of the bordello's social place and function varies greatly.

Western Emergence

In the Greco-Roman world, viewed by many as the roots of Western civilization, the vision of appropriate sexuality among the elite (the only class for which records exist) was based on a triad: wife, concubine, and courtesan. But by the Great Age of Exploration, roughly in the time frame of the Italian renaissance, Western values, now colored both by commercial vigor and nascent capitalism and by a Paulist, repressive view of human sexuality, were generally exported and widely distributed. Paulist doctrine included teaching that sexual passion was by its nature damning (only slightly ameliorated by holy matrimony), and that capitalism was a mechanism for the accumulation of wealth. Passion could safely be focused into the accumulation of wealth without censure, especially if one was a patron of the Church. Great feats of commerce and great acts of art were accomplished.

Brothels are always similar: once the basic model of provision of human sexuality via exchange of value was developed centuries ago, local area provision is mere variation. There are a number of ways to describe bordello environments. For example, the United States may be said to have three styles: the fully "Europeanized" houses that eventually grew on each coast as cities developed and all urban infrastructure matured; the "boomtown" echelon of commercial sex worker setting, which was a typically rapid response to a spike in local area wealth; and the "provincial" or "frontier" brothels that existed as an immediate answer to demographic dynamics.

Commercial Sexuality: Commodification of Adult Leisure

Various social or religious belief systems attempt to explain, and by extension, control, human behavior. Thus some interpret human sexuality as a dangerous power. From this perspective, simple participation, including mere watching, as in the case of pornographic renderings, has a debilitating moral effect on men and women. Because of this belief, leaders have often sought to control or regulate sexual participation, especially commercialization of human sexuality. In the early 2000s, most North American towns and cities forbade or strongly regulated both bordellos and nonsexual but sexually-related activity, such as striptease dancing or pornography.

The Enlightenment allowed both method and opportunity for a great increase of information. As a result, the United States was emerging at a historic moment marked by inquiry into the role of brothels in society. Brothels, depending on socially constructed view, can be seen as specialized businesses designed to provide a useful and desired service, offered by willing employees, to a motivated audience. Or, contrarily, bordellos may be seen as predatory sites of labor exploitation, flourishing in various forms, essentially wherever conditions allowed.

Bordellos and Sex Slavery

Claiming that technology and globalization have created new opportunities for organized crime, the United Nations, and other activist organizations, have responded to continued claims of sex slavery by consistently renouncing it as fait acompli. The UN has over time signed several treaties intended to fight this real or imagined vast activity in international sex slavery. The claims, notoriously difficult to corroborate and within a setting weak on critical distance, involve estimations of trafficking in human beings for sexual purposes near those of trafficking in human beings for other cheap or forced labor. Criminal gangs are alleged to organize and participate in this sexual slavery, said to be second only to running drugs in profitability, moving many thousands of human beings about the globe for the purpose. "Women and children destined for (usually unpaid) work in brothels constitute the second main category of human cargo," one report said. Social services are often overwhelmed. And little infrastructure and funding exist to intervene in the trafficking of human beings if such practice exists in large scale.

However, the uncontested figures are often generated solely by self-proclaimed and unregulated "human rights" activists who may claim, for example, that "some 75,000 women from Brazil, a leading exporter of sex slaves, work in European brothels against their will." Indeed, a UN conference in Thailand in March 2000 estimated that thousands of children were forced to work in Asia's flourishing sex industry, although no mechanism exists to carry out such a survey. Nonetheless, seventy-two nations signed a second protocol against trafficking in persons for the sex trade, while sixty-nine countries have signed a treaty against the smuggling of migrants, taking a very reasonable "better safe than sorry" approach. Because activists have virtually usurped the role of disinterested investigators entirely, it is impossible to determine any of the dimensions or magnitudes of the real or imagined social problem of international trafficking in sex slaves.

Jo Doezema, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK at the International Studies Convention in Washington, D.C. in 1999, pointed out that a common misconception exists that development policies in the 1980s lead to trafficking in women. These sex industry workers, assumed to be under forced transport, may be called "sex slaves." Because women are often thought of as bearing the brunt of economic change, by extension they are seen as prey for illegal activity. Development policy or change is often blamed for the impoverishment of women, which in turn provides cause for selling children into prostitution. A third suggested feature claims that economic growth is tied to "sex tourism." In this theory, bordellos are filled, as are red light districts, with sex professionals who are essentially forced to offer themselves to wealthy, western, male tourists who develop a taste for the exotic.

The popular notion that sex slavery is widespread is contested by significant research. The mythical nature of this paradigm—that economic refugees or economic opportunists are necessarily acting under coercion—has been demonstrated by historians. Indeed, the stereotypical idea of women as victim seems contrary to indications of women migrating for work in the sex industry. Policy based on fear or concern for "white slavery" or sexual slavery and depredation is based on a misconception involving innocent women which are unwilling victims. As is often the case, prostitutes working in bordellos or independently become doubly jeopardized, caught between the jaws of regulatory punishment and underworld, illegal privation.

When the Industrial Revolution also revolutionized the brothel, so-called "moralists" set about on a program of social "improvement." Management of prostitutes moved from craft to industrial in model form. Because little observable damage flows from recreational human sexuality, in order to regulate brothels in a law-based environment, the brothel was necessarily viewed as a unique public health danger. Although human sexuality varies little, bordellos lost community support and gained censure over time.

In the meantime, as the warrens of factory workers expanded during the Industrial Revolution, the myth of a "white slave trade" proved useful to both the yellow press and to activists, especially those associated with the so-called "muscular Christianity" movement. Proponents of muscular Christianity proselytized sport participation as a way to avoid what is now seen as normal human sexual desire. Because the Industrial Revolution also stimulated the phenomena of economic migration (or labor market opportunism), it was convenient to claim movement of women toward fruitful roles in successful bordellos was slavery. Because it is the ease of access, and the immediate cash income that was attractive to many sex professionals, appropriate narratives were invented and promulgated. In reality, cash often lets women in traditional settings resist and reject their repressive, imposed roles. Thus, as a rule, sex work was not viewed as legitimate labor.

Brothels in a Day-to-Day Setting

Brothels were part of the urban fabric of city life in the 1800s. One example was Washington, D.C., with its unusually high population of soldiers, government workers, and other nonresidents. Generally, prostitution was not officially a crime or, if an infraction, it was very selectively prosecuted. Thus, houses of prostitution, while perhaps regulated, were not typically suppressed. Records suggest that during the Civil War, there were about 500 registered brothel houses and perhaps more than 5,000 prostitutes in the nation's capital. Following the Civil War, brothels continued to operate on a smaller scale until 1914, when, after steady lobbying by special interest groups, and a mania based on tales of "white slavery," Congress passed legislation banning them.

Archaeological investigation of a Washington, D.C., site allowed a careful comparison of the material from Mary Ann Hall's brothel with Civil War–era brothels associated with General Hooker's Union Army Division. This work revealed a number of differences within the constraints of providing similar services. The household goods, including ceramics, of Hall's brothel were generally more upscale than those used in the other brothels. On the other hand, consumables from Hooker's Division brothels (designed to help control soldier's behavior) may have been as good, or even better. And the employees may have donated "hooker" to the language as a colloquial for prostitute. Interestingly, this comparison did not reveal what was called "a simple artifact signature of a brothel." Regardless of popular culture folklore about brothels or whorehouses, evidence here uncovered no coercion or restraint. Both the archaeological record and historical documents indicate these examples were meaningfully different from the households of their working-class comparisons, especially that the food was better. Indeed, according to the report ordered by the Smithsonian Institution, Hall's house was a big, well-appointed one, a prosperous household offering material comforts to both inmates and guests. Hall was made a wealthy woman.

Social activists fired with religious zeal, following the mandates of their faith, felt compelled to control and regulate actions and activity of their fellow citizens. At the same time, the letter and the philosophy of the founding documents of the United States seem designed to shield, or appear as though they should have shielded, these people from such activist's repressive enthusiasm. The U.S. government was constituted in a way to guarantee maximum liberty, to support the pursuit of happiness, not to provide a "moral" atmosphere." The Mann Act was established in 1910 to fill a particular need in regulating illegal prostitution, but by 1986, any man who traveled with a woman other than his wife across the state line in America could be found guilty of a federal felony. The act, created in the hysteria of white slave trade propaganda, was to be a weapon against forced prostitution. However, the Supreme Court soon extended its coverage to include any man who crossed state lines with the intention to perform an "immoral act." The bizarre history of the Mann Act is instrumental as an illustration of the legislation of morality associated with bordellos and other sites of commercial sex in the industrialized West.

Brothels and Cultural Performance

Brothels have been important sites of socializing, especially allowing male bonding and participation of male-oriented pastimes—drinking, eating, gaming, smoking, and whoring. Thus, they were seen as potential sites of conflict with feminized domesticity. The factory system demanded reservoirs of workmen. But this volatile population tended to prefer recreation motifs common to their rural experience. Pacification of the workforce demanded positioning male behavior as a public "harm." The rowdiest of the pastimes were suppressed first, for example, folk football, blood sport, and brawling. As a result, bordellos have been especially vital tidal pools of creative activity, representing commercial settings that replicate informal social gatherings.

While it is always difficult to establish the roots of a hybridized product of cultural confluence, it seems likely that the origins of the tango dance were partly in the brothel or bordello. This now sophisticated performance form, which was originally a street dance, and a dance of the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires, emerged in the last third of the 1800s. African slaves in Argentina brought with them memories of the rhythmic patterns of the candombe; black Cubans added the habanera. With the addition of the polka and the mazurka, the dynamic dance became known as the milonga. Before long, European immigrants and Creoles were performing the new dance style. The tango then evolved. African elements admixed with European walks and turns within the framework of the characteristic close embrace, perhaps rooted in the brothel experience, and created the basic tango vocabulary. Tango immigrated to the United States and was immediately absorbed.

Jazz may also be seen as a brothel art form, although the association is again largely happenstance. Brothels were typical and normal social settings of the time, being only occasionally targets of citizen action. The music, which accepts New Orleans as its nominal birthplace, combines elements of African and Western European music. Black Creoles, many originally from the West Indies, lived under Spanish and French rule in Louisiana. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, these black Creole folk became citizens. Changing economic circumstances, especially the repression of black populations during the Jim Crow period, brought Creoles (with knowledge of the Western tradition) into contact with other African American and similar ethnic groups performing in New Orleans.

Preexisting music included simple melodies as well as complex cross rhythms. These qualities were mixed with verbal slurs, use of vibrato, and syncopated rhythms. It was also common to play so-called "blues notes." However, by the end of the century, segregation laws brought upper-class black Creoles into contact with other African Americans, traditionally living on New Olean's West Side. Cultures collided.

Brothels in the Early 2000s

There is no reason to imagine that human biology or emotion has altered since antiquity. Brothels probably exist in all American urban centers, though only Nevada allows legal ones to do business.

"It's sure been a wild ride," Douglas Cruickshank, with Salon, reported a former working girl saying in 1999 when federal authorities shut down America's most famous legal brothel. The move came after the brothel owners were convicted of fraud. "It's the end of the road for the Mustang Ranch," she sighed. The Mustang, the world-famous bordello, with more than 100 rooms, was established on a 440-acre spread near Reno, Nevada, by former cabdriver Joe Conforte in 1955. A decade and a half later, Conforte won a court case that paved the way for the legalization of prostitution in Nevada. A dozen of Nevada's seventeen counties now permit the operation of bordellos. Estimates are that about forty or so bordellos operated in Nevada in 2004. When the Mustang closed because of non-sex-related infractions, the Moonlight Bunny Ranch nearby announced plans to approximately double the staff of working girls, and to follow regulations absolutely faithfully.

In the past, such undertakings were either tolerated (with occasional repression) or ghettoized into a special area. The so-called Barbary Coast in San Francisco was one such informal setting, while Storyville, in New Orleans, established from 1898 until November 1917, roughly correlated with the entry of the United States into the war, is a fine example of a formal bordello or "red light" neighborhood. First, in the late 1800's, during the Recreation Reform Movement, the warrens of working class entertainments were ransacked. Many of the predominantly male pastimes began a process of "demonization" that continues, with the possible exception of football, to be in force in the early twenty-first century. Prostitution was increasingly criminalized, supported by a wealth of literature about white slavery and yellow, red, or black peril in the yellow journalism of the day. The red light neighborhoods were destroyed, the sex workers shunned and dispersed.

Individual prostitutes are often left with little or no protection under color of law. When predation predictably comes, it may come from activists zealous to prosecute their beliefs; it may come from management, understanding the worker has little recourse to remedy; it may come from client, comprehending that legal protection of person and commerce often fails to embrace the sex professional. Otherwise, law-abiding people are caught up in politically, socially, or strategically motivated "sweeps," or broad enforcement actions. In part as a response, the sex industry has often reconstituted the traditional bordello or brothel form into a telecommunications-based tool, still maintaining its organizational function. The brothel, as a management tool to coordinate the provision of desired goods and services, seems destined to survive.

See also: Las Vegas, "Muscular Christianity" and the YM(W)CA Movements, Prostitution, Regulation and Social Control of Leisure


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Jon Griffin Donlon