While the other tech bloggers were getting glassy-eyed visiting selfie-stick booths on the convention floor, I headed out to Pahrump for a visit. The ranch's on-staff private driver picked me up at the convention center, offered me a mini bottle of Courvoisier and pointed out the sun setting over Pahrump Peak as we drove for an hour through the desert. Not a building in sight.
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When I arrived at the ranch, which is set on 310 acres, I went in through the bar, where about 10 sex workers were laughing and smoking cigarettes. Some clients were there, eating dinner (burgers, onion rings). Dena, whom the brothel denizens call Den Mama, greeted me in a leopard-print silk top and loose black pants.
"We started tweeting hardcore about two years ago," she said. "And it's kind of addictive once you get into it. Marketing-wise, we can't do traditional advertising."
While it's legal for the women to work at Sheri's, it's illegal to advertise.
"We have to market ourselves through social media," Dena said. "And the girls actually really enjoy it."
Many area brothels have been resistant to social media, which involves letting go of some brand control as the sex workers cultivate personal voices independent of the house.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the brothels haven't kept up with the trend, so a lot of the littler brothels are no longer with us," Dena said, estimating that the brothel community has dropped from 30 to 20 houses in the last five years. "You can't control what the girls will say. We look at it as, 'Go out and use your voice. Build an audience.' It gets them thinking outside the box, and the potential for what they can do is huge."
This language was similar to much of what I heard people saying on the convention center floor.
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Dena said the brothel leads up to 30 tours a day — often it's just curious grandparents passing through, or people looking to get out of Vegas for a bit. The first week of January is always a particularly busy week, though.
"We always go up for CES. Always. There's just so many people. And it's kind of a traditional thing for CES," she said. "They're all looking for either a strip club or a brothel."
The CES-related clientele is more "rah-rah" and excitable compared to the ranch's usual clients, who tend to be Vegas regulars, Dena said. But she said that CES-ers as a demographic didn't have any particular sexual preferences.
She led me through some theme rooms (pirates, Egyptians, etc.) and into a pornscape fantasy house, which includes a variety of scenarios, such as a naughty-secretary setup. One partner, "the secretary," sits at a desk outfitted with pencils and a defunct old-school telephone. In another room, "the boss" has a spy cam under the secretary's desk that streams to an old PC. (Sheri's Ranch management is interested in the new GetMyFox camera that debuted at CES this week.)
There's also a locker-room scenario space with actual lockers, and a classroom with ambiguously inspirational phrases written on the walls. And then there's the GFE room — the "girlfriend experience" — which just looks like a living room, with an overstuffed sofa, a TV and a tray of KitKat bars. A lot of customers are widowed, divorced or disabled, and they just want to hang out, Dena explained. The most popular activity in this room is playing naked Wii.
"Guys like to do a lot of things here they can't do at home, I guess," Dena said.
There was a surfer-themed room sponsored by Budweiser. "We're the only brothel sponsored by Budweiser," she said.
We went back to the bar, where "the girls," as they called themselves, were still hanging out. Shania Twain's empowering song "That Don't Impress Me Much" played on the TV.
Dena got herself a Diet Coke, and one of the girls came and joined us at a bar table. Soft-spoken and petite, Erin O'Hara started tweeting in April. She said she gets pleasure from it, and has gotten a client on Twitter recently, but wonders whether to use Twitter to build a cohesive, sexy brand, or to use it as a forum for personal expression.
"I love Twitter, but it's confusing, because I want to be sexy, but I also want to post nerdy things sometimes. If it's a personal brand, it's supposed to showcase your personality, but how much?" she said. "For my first one, I typed it in 10 times, and then would type it in again before I could press the button. Dena said just be yourself."
"Just be yourself," Dena repeated.
"And some of the girls have thousands of followers, so I get jealous," Erin said.
"It just takes time," Dena said.
Amber Lynn, who had a big smile and sorry-but-I-just-can't-not-mention-it cleavage, came and joined us. She started on Twitter about a year ago.
"It's fun. It's something to do when we're out here," she said. "And I'm a total computer geek. I'm a graphic designer by trade."
Amber's favorite Twitter moment was when the famous porn star, and her namesake, the "real" Amber Lynn, retweeted one of her posts.
The girls communicate frequently with their clients. One time, they wanted to have a water-gun fight, and posted their desire to Twitter. Someone mailed them plastic water pistols. Erin needed a new Nintendo 64 controller. She posted to Twitter and, lo and behold, it arrived.
When the conversation turned to videogames, specifically Halo, I realized I was way out of my element.
Social media also solves a very practical issue for the women of Sheri's Ranch: The brothels usually control their email addresses and, therefore, their relationships with clients, whereas social media accounts stay with the women, providing an avenue to maintain a relationship even as you go from brothel to brothel, as many of the women do through their careers.
A young woman named Destini joined us to explain: "I've worked at all the major brothels — all the ones calling themselves 'world famous.' The other brothels, they answer your email and your social media for you," she said. "That's what kept me here — I've been here four years because they let you keep your voice. We can't advertise, so social media has been really important."
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Emotionally, maintaining real relationships is enjoyable, she added. "I've gotten clients through Twitter. But above and beyond money, Twitter's given me a way to connect with my customers. It makes it more real for me."
Destini, like the other girls, preferred Twitter to other social media outlets.
"Facebook was a way to get in touch with clients, but now I'm slacking off," she said. "I like Twitter because it's more instant. And you reach beyond your friends. I feel like I'm connecting with people who might not even think about going to a brothel."
"Facebook has to be more PG-13. Twitter's very, very big for us," Ranch Mama Dena said.
The women said that not many people are brave enough to follow them on Twitter — a lot of clients just read their tweets.
"We call them 'lurkers,'" Dena said.
Not all social media platforms have been open to the women. They're not allowed to have LinkedIn accounts, a point about which they were quite upset, even though the decision came down more than a year ago.
"It was the verbiage," Dena said. "How they did it was very offensive to us."
Destini added: "If they don't want to promote any illegal profession, that's fine, but what we're doing is legal. It's backwards. I pay my taxes. This is my career."
But Dena encouraged her girls to be at peace with it.
"They own their own website, and have the right to dictate what's on it," Dena said.
It was getting late, and I had to get back to CES and the gadgets.
"We have gadgets," Destini said, winking.
—By Nellie Bowles, Re/code.net.
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