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‘We Are Essential’: The Trial for the Future of Legal Pandemic Sex Work

A conversation with Alice Little, the Moonlite BunnyRanch’s top earner, who is suing Nevada’s governor to let her get back in bed

Throughout the pandemic, people across the country have protested COVID-19 lockdowns, deeming them an assault on their constitutional rights. Following a Fox News report on such protests in April, President Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!,” two states whose governors had imposed strict social-distancing restrictions. Meanwhile, conservative radio personality Mark Levin went a step further, reminding his audience that “if you protest the lockdown, you are a patriot!” 

It’s unclear if this support extends to the latest dissenter.

Alice Little, a 30-year-old legal sex worker at the Moonlite BunnyRanch in Lyon County, Nevada, is suing Governor Steve Sisolak over his refusal to reopen legal bordellos amid the pandemic. Since the mid-1800s, brothels have been allowed to operate in Nevada, the only state in the U.S. with legal prostitution. Oversight, however, is strict, which is a major reason why, as of 2017, there hadn’t been any cases of HIV reported in Nevada’s brothel prostitutes since mandatory testing began in 1985. Like every brothel in the state, the BunnyRanch, which opened in 1955, requires weekly health checks of all its sex workers, as mandated by law. 

Little

Named the 2019 “Bunny of the Year,” Little hypes herself as the “highest-earning sex worker in the U.S.,” having booked $1.2 million in 2019, a number she was on pace to surpass in 2020 before coronavirus took hold of the country. She doesn’t contest that the state is justified in taking precautions to minimize the impact of the pandemic, but argues that Sisolak has reopened virtually every other business category in Nevada — salons, nightclubs, spas, massage parlors — but not legal sex work, claiming it’s simply “not on his radar.” To that end, Little says the governor is using the pandemic to specifically shut down Nevada’s 21 brothels, thereby violating her constitutional rights under the Silver State’s equal protection, due process and right of association laws. 

A court date has been set for December 30th. In the meantime, I had the chance to recently speak to Little about why she thinks sex work should be deemed essential, how sex is no less COVID-safe than getting a tattoo and why she anticipates BDSM and mutual masturbation may be the only items available on the BunnyRanch menu for the foreseeable future. 

You’re very confident you’ll prevail in this lawsuit. Why? 

We believe we have an extremely strong case — and a historic one. This is the first time a sex worker has ever challenged a Nevada governor on anything. State laws around permitting sex work have been [largely] unchanged and unquestioned since the 1970s. I defended the legality of brothels in 2018 during the Lyon County Freedom Movement, talking to folks at a series of town halls throughout the county. People resoundingly voted to keep legalized sex work, because it’s good for the community. Brothels annually contribute more than $500,000 in fees to the county, which pays for police cars and ambulances, so we’re very much essential. I’m looking forward to seeing what the governor brings to the table.

In fairness, we are in the middle of a pandemic. Is skin-on-skin sexual contact among strangers really safe? 

Yes. First off, COVID-19 isn’t sexually transmitted. Plus, you can have your teeth whitened, you can get piercings, you can get tattoos. Are those essential? There’s no emotional benefit to getting a tattoo, but there’s absolutely an emotional benefit to seeing a sex worker. Brothels are open all around the world — in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands — where they’re successfully utilizing temperature checks, additional sanitization and COVID questionnaires to keep people safe. We could easily add COVID-19 testing to our daily routine. We’re working with private labs who can process rapid COVID tests to meet our needs and get results back right away. We shut down our lounge, so there’s no congregation happening around the bar like it did previously. Guests will set up appointments in advance with a lady they’re interested in, meet her directly, get a tour of the location and head right back to her room. The entire experience would occur between two masked adults. 

Not to mention, online dating still very much exists, and strangers are going on casual dates all over the country. How is that any different from choosing to see a sex worker? Paying money doesn’t make a difference in terms of risk profile, it simply disables me and many others from having a livelihood. This is about harm reduction. Sex work is still obviously occurring outside of legal brothels, which means no testing, safety or a variety of other COVID measures we’d implement to protect everyone. Permitting legal sex work to resume would be a lot safer than what the governor is causing with this continued shutdown. 

But how can you ensure safety protocols will be followed? 

Everything we do with guests is discussed and pre-negotiated, so there’s an understanding of what type of experience we’re going to have and what’s going to occur. Boundaries and limits are always a part of that conversation. One of my guests lost his leg in Iraq and has severe nerve damage down the remaining section of his leg. He explained how he’s triggered by having somebody touch across his lower hip. He made me aware of that and I avoided it. Communication is the most important part of our industry, especially for those who have suffered from sexual trauma. Being clear on mask-wearing and other COVID requirements will just be another part of this conversation. 

Are there any sex acts or situations you agree should be suspended, at least for now? 

Anything without wearing masks is risky, so we’d require face coverings at all times, just like any other business. That said, I don’t see why any service in particular would need to be off limits. We just want a chance to survive, though, so we’d accept any restrictions. There are plenty of options, and we’re very much willing to work with whatever framework is presented to us. If we’re limited to BDSM and mutual masturbation, so be it. 

But given how out of control the virus is, arguably nothing should be open. Can’t you pressure the governor to pay you to stay home? Do two wrongs really make a right? 

As long as other industries are open, legal sex work should be as well. This is about equal treatment under the law, and nothing else. The state can’t single out one industry to be closed. If you can get a massage from a massage therapist, you can get a massage from a sex worker. If you can go on a date with an escort, you should be able to go on a date with a sex worker. You can smoke and gamble indoors at a casino to your heart’s delight, but two adults can’t have sex? That’s ridiculous. Not to mention, risk for sex workers has increased since the demand is still there but without any of the safety measures

What have been the consequences for your coworkers? 

They’re being forced to make choices they otherwise wouldn’t have to make. They’ve always worked in this industry legally, and now they have to act outside the scope of the law out of sheer financial necessity to keep a roof over their kids’ heads. And unfortunately, the sex-work stigma is so strong in this country that those who have tried to apply for other jobs have had an incredibly difficult time getting any sort of employment. Keep in mind, too, the ranch has 100-odd employees in addition to the ladies, all of whom are on unemployment and experiencing real financial hardship. I’m blessed and privileged to not be in that position, which is why it’s even more important for me to stand up and protect those who are at the end of their rope. 

What was your reaction, then, to Governor Sisolak saying that reopening brothels was “not on his radar”?

I was hurt, first and foremost. With a flip of his hand, he said that sex workers like me don’t matter to him. That’s just not good enough, governor. We’re one of many industries, along with gambling, gun rights and marijuana, that makes Nevada, Nevada. All of those industries have been allowed to reopen, so why haven’t we? If the governor has a problem with sex work, why’d he choose to lead this state? He seems to have absolute disregard for us. 

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The governor’s reasoning seems to rely heavily on a previous court ruling that found the relationship between escorts and their clients isn’t constitutionally protected because there “is not sufficient time to develop deep attachments or commitments.”

That’s complete nonsense. First of all, the encounters aren’t brief. I’ve had guests spend an entire weekend with me! As for “emotionless,” that couldn’t be further from the truth! The most popular service that my co-workers and I offer is called “The Girlfriend Experience,” which occurs offsite and is designed to open the relationship to deeper, more emotionally intimate levels. It’s all about emotionality. I have a couple of guests who are trans men, and the words we use to refer to their body are incredibly important to them. So I discuss that with them from a place of compassion. To call these interactions “emotionless” is deeply insulting.

How have your clients reacted? 

They’re upset, angry, frustrated and saddened because they rely on us. I have guests who have experienced the loss of a loved one and are widowers trying to navigate through this new existence of having sex for the first time with someone who isn’t the person they were married to. I have guests on the autism spectrum for whom it’s very difficult to connect and relate, so the support they receive from me and my co-workers makes an incredible difference in the quality of their lives. Many of my guests suffer from depression and anxiety, which has worsened as a result of not being able to have their intimate needs met. Their mental health is really being tested now. As is mine. 

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