Dennis Hof passed away last week at his Love Ranch brothel after a night of celebrating his 72nd birthday and political campaign. The days following have been filled with an outpouring of discourse about his death, much of which is contentious as people reflect on the so-called legacy Hof left behind. Between his business empire and celebrity fame, Hof exposed the nation to regulated prostitution and Nevada’s brothels in a novel and undeniably impactful way. His celebrity existed within a paradox of tolerance—rural communities in Nevada were often against the brothels, which perhaps itself contributed to his ability to stay in the spotlight. “I’m always looking for a new angle and something funny to keep my name and the name of the Bunny Ranch in the national media,” Hof told the Reno Gazette Journal in 2005.
This quest for the limelight was achieved for some time through exposing legal full-service sex work. However, it recently took a political turn with Hof winning the Republican spring primary for a seat as an assemblyman. His name is to remain on the upcoming November ballot for the Nevada Assembly, and many are saying he is set to win, despite being dead. With him running on a Republican ticket, conservatives are still likely to vote for him so as to ensure a Republican gets appointed to the seat afterwards.
Much of the coverage of his death is fixated around one question that everyone seems to be asking: are his brothels continuing operation, and if so, under whom? Madam Suzette (Suzette Cole) is reported to be receiving Hof’s brothels but, even with the inheritance, the Nevada system has several requirements in place that will need to be met before she can run them legally. In fact, the Love Ranch brothel was shuttered shortly after his death. Hof’s executive assistant, Zack Hames, appears confident in moving forward with the operation of Hof’s brothels, commenting that “it’s business as usual.” Other coverage has focused more on the polarized reactions to his passing, illustrating how while some are celebrating it, others are deeply grieving his loss. This split is highly visible in the sex work community.
Every day was a holiday worth celebrating with Dennis.He wanted us to achieve our dreams, be the best we could be, and most of all, be happy. Our hearts are broken. They will never heal, the sadness will taper, but it always be there forever.We lost an extremely benevolent man. pic.twitter.com/H33MCqzKe8
— Air Force Amy™ (@airforceamy) October 18, 2018
Looking in from the outside, observers may think this polarization manifests as those who knew and worked for him versus everyone else. There are schisms that reflect the stigmatization of criminalized workers versus non-criminalized workers. Hof himself enthusiastically encouraged this divide with his rhetoric about the dirty whores who work outside his brothels.
But in reality, it is not this simple. Hof’s current and former employees do not have a universal consensus regarding their experiences working for him. Some of them claim he made them better workers, better business people. Those honoring his legacy praise the impact he had on the Nevada legal system and believe he revolutionized it for the better. At the same time, several people have attempted to speak out about the harm they incurred while they were under his employment. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported earlier this year on multiple accusations of sexual assault against Hof by former employees dating back to at least 2011. Hof denied the allegations, and all of the cases were dropped, but it forced many brothel advocates to grapple with Hof’s legacy and the effect that those allegations could have on public perceptions of legal sex work.
The division in sex workers’ reactions towards his death stems from a myriad of problems in and outside of the industry, but should not be used to discredit the many reasons women may prefer brothel work. Some people who choose to work in the brothels do so because they love the freedom that being an independent contractor has allowed them to have over their rates and appointments. Of course, not all the brothels hold the same rules, and levels of autonomy differ across these work spaces, but overall the regulation of the brothels has granted some workers a sense of comfort, safety, and ease in doing their jobs.
Prostitution is sexual exploitation, not a job.
— National Center on Sexual Exploitation (@ncose) October 16, 2018
It is safe to say that the celebration of his death by anti-trafficking groups is vastly different from that of certain sex workers. Hof’s passing is being framed as a political and moral win by those who dream of seeing an end to prostitution. Any critique of the brothel system, even if just targeted against an owner, runs the risk of being weaponized by anti-trafficking groups (i.e. sex work prohibitionists) as a justification for shutting the brothels down completely. Hof’s death and the debates around it are occurring during a high stakes time for Lyon County brothels. November’s upcoming ballot for Lyon County actually includes a question on whether or not voters want to see the brothels get shut down. While the Lyon County brothels will not immediately be shut down if the vote is yes, they’ll become a part of a phase out plan which would surely be used as justification for similar efforts in other Nevada counties where brothel operation is legal and similarly regulated. A coalition of evangelical Christians and anti-trafficking crusaders are behind the potential brothel ban. Groups such as Exodus Cry and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation have already jumped on the news of Hof’s death, claiming it as a positive step in eradicating “exploitation.”
With many of his current and former employees in mourning, it has been confusing to navigate how we in the sex work community are allowed to feel about him being gone, and in what ways we are allowed to express those feelings. Without taking away from or belittling the questions and concerns specific to Hof, the discourse surrounding his death is not new for people doing sex work. In fact, it is rare for sex workers to not connect and bond over the sheer number of misogynistic white men with histories of sexual assault who hold power in our industry and ultimately determine our working conditions. Doing sex work under a third party is not inevitably damning, but working for these men can be absolutely devastating. Sex work itself is often incredibly isolating, especially for sex workers who are members of marginalized groups even within the broader umbrella of sex work. It is that much more alienating when you experience exploitation and/or abuse by these powerful men and your grievances get ignored or disparaged, sometimes by fellow sex workers, sometimes by abolitionists looking to find any reason to “save” you.
We already exist within a society that devalues and shames both sex workers and survivors, so how the hell are sex working survivors supposed to live our truth? How are we able to address and improve our lives as workers when we cannot even speak of the ills in our work without our work being discredited altogether? How do we continue to build solidarity across these issues and empower people selling sex to have access to the work space they are most comfortable operating in, while not fueling the abolitionists’ fire? The debates about Dennis Hof and his legacy may or may not result in any justice for those who have come out with allegations against him, and it is hard to say what net impact he really had on the industry. What we can say for sure, though, is that our struggles against the systematic violence and exploitation we are subject to as sex workers, whether due to harsh criminalization or heavy regulation, are not going away anytime soon.