Among the many photographs on the Sheri’s Ranch website, there is one in particular that stands out to me. It is a photograph of an Asian woman straddling a massage table, as a blue silk kimono hangs from her arms, exposing her breasts. Red chopsticks tie her hair into a bun. A soft light brightens her face and chest. She lowers her eyes and reveals a modest smile.
As I look at the photograph, I feel that I can see her chest rise and fall. There is something in her expression that makes her both shy and self-assured, maternal and almost menacing, real and unreal, all at the same time.
Charina Lee is not her real name. It is the alias she uses working as an “independent contractor,” for Sheri’s Ranch, a legal brothel in Pahrump, Nevada. “I’m Charina when I’m here,” she tells me during an interview. “My real name over there is, you know, a Filipino name.” She is a Filipina and proud of it. On her Sheri’s Ranch web page, she advertises: “I was born in the Philippines, and I moved to U.S.A. when I was sixteen.” She said she makes adobo and lumpia for the other ladies during their free time, which they have a lot of, as they stay on the ranch for days at a time without leaving, waiting for their customers to arrive.
During my interview with her, Charina tells me that she grew up with her grandmother in the small city of Santiago, near Isabela, several miles north of metro Manila. Her parents worked at the Clark Air Base, until it was shut down in 1996. When she was sixteen, she and her family moved from the Philippines to Albany, New York. She got a job working in restaurants and eventually became a chef at a Holiday Inn Hotel. She married an Italian American man and had kids. Then, the recession hit. Losing her job couldn’t have come at a worse time. Her husband was a police officer on disability, awaiting a knee operation, and her kids needed funds for college.
Looking for work, she temporarily left her family in Albany and moved to Las Vegas, where she thought she’d be able to continue pursuing a career in restaurants. She tells me that she roomed with a friend of hers, who happened to be the famous Filipino American pornstar Mimi Miyagi. Mimi encouraged Charina to leave her restaurant dreams behind and start stripping. At first, Charina was resistant, but during a visit to Spearmint Rhino, one of the busiest strip clubs in Las Vegas, when she thought she was applying for a cocktail waitressing job, Mimi encouraged Charina to get on stage and audition. “Mimi said, ‘You are going to go audition right now.’ So, I said, ‘Okay, give me a tequila shot.’ So, I took the tequila shot. I’ve never ever, ever, ever been so humiliated my whole life,” Charina says.
But despite her nerves, the customers seemed to like her, and she was immediately hired. She worked in several different strip clubs after that. One in particular was Seamless, owned by Chuck Lee, who is also the owner of Sheri’s Ranch. In those years, the clubs were still busy, full of tourists looking for the best Las Vegas lap dance. So, in 2007, her hard work allowed her to put a down payment on her house. But by 2008, the economic downturn had a negative effect on the clubs and casinos, and Seamless closed a few years after. She worked in other clubs here and there for nearly a year until she came to Sheri’s Ranch. Charina tells us: “Even while I was new at Sheri’s Ranch, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay here, but then I saw Dina [the madam at the brothel], and how she treats all of us here, and the way we are safe, tested, and condoms are mandatory.”
Dina the madam tells me, as a legal brothel, Sheri’s Ranch has strict rules and regulations. For example, once independent contractors book in, they have to stay for a week at a minimum. Every Monday, they are seen by a doctor and tested. After they are tested, they are not allowed to leave the ranch. Friends and family members are not allowed to visit. “Work is work, home is home,” Dina tells us. “Most of the ladies want that separation.”
They are strongly prohibited from bringing any drugs or alcohol to the ranch. “Being intoxicated is not allowed on property,” Dina explains. “Zero tolerance to drugs. That’s just the way we operate because we want everybody -- our independent contractors, as well as our customers -- to walk away with a good experience. That’s why my girls stay with me for so long.” Independent contractors are permitted one drink per hour, and six drinks in a period of twenty-four hours, and each time they have a drink, they have to initial it, so the bartenders can keep track.
There are strict rules for clients as well. All the prices are negotiated based on agreed-upon activities. Clients are required to wear condoms. There can be no kissing, no possible transfer of bodily fluid. Clients have to sign a waiver for the use of sex toys. Showers are mandatory. All of these rules are to guarantee the safety of both client and independent contractor. “There has never been a reported STD in our brothel. And considering how much sex goes on here, that’s actually really good,” Dina tells me.
Sheri’s Ranch is in the business of fulfilling any possible fantasy. Dina and Charina give me a tour of their different rooms and bungalows. First, we explore the room dedicated to the nuru massage, a Japanese erotic massage in which the masseuse uses a slippery oil to rub her body against her clients. Another room called “the bubble bath room” has a bubble machine on its ceiling. They also tell me that they use this room to simplify the clean-up process for people who would like to experiment with food, people who would like to use “ice cream, chocolate syrup, spaghetti and meatballs” during foreplay. Moreover, there are different bungalows for a higher minimum price, one of which is Jungle-themed. “So, if you want to be a Tarzan, you can be a Tarzan, and I can be a Jane,” Charina laughs.
As we continue the tour, it is hard not to get the sense that Charina is passionate about her job. She seems excited to talk about the different rooms and bungalows. She describes her clients as if they were family or patients, people she cares for. The ladies at Sheri’s Ranch often have to cater to clients who are physically disabled, and they do their best to keep them comfortable and make them feel good about themselves. Furthermore, working at Sheri’s Ranch has affected Charina’s sex life with her husband for the better. “I am one of the fortunate women in this industry who has an open-minded husband, who really enjoys when I tell him my experiences.” She tells us that having a “regular job” -- working as a chef -- was much more stressful. As an independent contractor, she has her flexibility.
When she is not at the brothel, she is at home with her grandchildren. The day that we met with her, she had plans to decorate the Christmas tree with them. “I’m not a person who likes to go out when I’m home, or party with my friends. I’ve done that. I’m here. I party every night. I drink whenever I feel like it here. I am a homebody. I like to cook and spend time with my family. I’m a big family-oriented person. Most Filipinos like to enjoy their families.”
Like the rooms which cater to fetish and sexual fantasy, Charina is also capable of playing sundry roles. In fact, her main duty as an independent contractor at Sheri’s Ranch is to read her customers, see what they want, negotiate, and do her best to fulfill their desires. I asked her if she ever has to play up her Asian-ness with her clients. She told me: “I put chopsticks in my hair. I can put my make-up on in different ways. I can look like a Geisha girl, just plain old Asian girl, or plain Japanese, Chinese, whatever you want me to do.” Like a versatile actress, she does her best to fulfill these roles to appeal to her clients’ sexual fantasies.
As I have been writing and thinking about this article, the Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe offered an apology and a more than $8 million settlement for survivors of sexual slavery during wartime, which was met with protests in South Korea. Park Yu-ha, Japanese-studies professor in Seoul, was recently sued for defamation of comfort women in her 2013 book Comfort Women of the Empire. It is hard not to think that the photograph I saw of Charina Lee -- with the chopsticks in her hair, her kimono draped in her arms -- hearkens back to the image of Asian women sold into sex slavery, working in massage parlors during times of war, providing sex to not only Japanese but also American soldiers; it is difficult not to remember the image of the submissive bar-girl, the iconic Kim from Miss Saigon, and how Asian women have fought not only for reparations, but also against fetishization and stereotypes that consider us exotic, submissive, hypersexual, and interchangeable.
But, when I look at Charina in particular, I see a different picture. While Charina’s work encourages fetish and fantasy, she is certainly not a woman coerced into slavery, and she is not limited by sexual or racial stereotypes. She possesses agency, and her work allows her the freedom of living two different lives. For half the month, she is a homebody, for the other half, a party animal; for half the month, she is a mother and grandmother, for the other half, a lover and sex symbol for her clients. She is both Filipina and American; she is chef and sex worker. She can be whatever you want her to be as long as she agrees to your price and terms. And the legality of the service protects her and allows her to work willingly, in a safe, comfortable environment, which is something all people deserve.