Sex under scrutiny: Brothel owner seeks understanding with advocacy nonprofit
WELLS, Nev. — When patrons of Madame Bella Cummins’ Bella’s Restaurant and Espresso get nervous or curious about her other business not too far away in Wells, she encourages them to walk over and take a tour of her Hacienda Ranch and find out what it’s about.
“It’s one of the few brothels you can ring the doorbell, go in, doesn’t matter what your gender is, talk to the gals, go see the house, get your questions answered, learn something,” Cummins said. “Find out why people do this. What is their calling? Ask them!”
Some take her up on her suggestion, including senior citizens, and it usually does help them to understand how her brothel works at the end of their visit.
Cummins, sole proprietor of the Hacienda Ranch, is highly invested in fighting off the judgments she’s faced as a brothel owner and in improving the image of Nevada’s sex industry as a whole.
Recently, she founded the Onesta Foundation to accomplish this. Her objectives aren’t that complicated, though getting past many local and national stereotypes will be, and she, too, as others around the state, will be keeping a sharp eye on what happens at the Legislature this year.
“It’s like cutting your teeth on being a second-class citizen,” she said. “You really, what I call, get tough skin as far being concerned about approval. You get through that pretty quickly and learn how to keep a low profile. … You work to keep it out of the public eye because of the stigma, the judgment and the things that have kept the industry misunderstood and in the dark ages for a long time.”
In addition to owning her restaurant with her daughter in Wells, Cummins is now executive director for the foundation she formed last August that’s looking to educate the public. It’s also aimed at finding legislative solutions for the legal sex industry.
She also hopes Onesta will help workers improve their skills as business owners and their own safety, a value inspired by past interactions in smaller jurisdictions between city or county managers, the police and her own business.
“It’s awkward, and it’s probably one of my last times thinking that it mattered to prove that I was right, that I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I learned much about how to be a better person, how to look at men that come through the door and influence that I had on them. That was huge because out there you get real beat up, and then when you walk into the door of a brothel, life’s happened — and yet you have this need to be human just for a second.”
To assist her in her efforts, she’s recruited local community activist Steve Funk, who’s helping her to promote programs meant to eliminate stereotypes about workers in the brothels and sensual services industry. Funk originally is from Northern California’s Bay Area and has been a longtime Northern Nevada media communications professional. He accepted the task to help Cummins set up Onesta through a few mutual friends after she had decided he was best suited to help “without judgment,” he said.
One place Funk immediately wants to start focusing on for Cummins is improving the relationship brothel owners and workers have with the municipalities and police departments.
“One of our big things is to open up the conversation and relationship between the industry and law enforcement because right now law enforcement abuses the industry because it can,” Funk said.
Between the counties or the cities and their own sheriff’s or police departments enforcing the code set forth by each jurisdiction, Cummins and Funk want to make sure everyone’s rights are protected equally.
“It seems to me there should be a better way to regulate brothels in the 21st century,” Cummins said. “And I’m going to throw this in: Nevada gets to decide if they are going to look at what they’re doing in Reno and in Las Vegas because if everybody knows that it’s illegal activity all the way across the cities, the question is, are we just in rural Nevada to really keep a low profile or are we here to make a change?”
Funk’s insights and strategies are strengths Cummins will bank on in the coming months during conversations she wants to have with legislators as she sets out to start these discussions, as well as his ability to place Onesta’s birth into context.
The origin of “onesta” for the Onesta Foundation is based on the women of the Cortigiana Onesta, or “Honest Courtesan,” of Venice, Italy from the 16th century during the Renaissance. “Courtesan,” Cummins said, means “fair, honest and virtuous” and men and women attending court were highly favored and politically astute as dignitaries at the time. But as art and culture flourished in the 1500s, health and safety for women began to decline. As power changed hands, Funk said, so did conversations about politics, sex and women’s rights and roles.
“There were some personal individual agendas in there as well, but the point was that by bringing it out of the shadows and into the light, we could be better assured of health and safety, and so they used education and culture, music and art and science to create a higher class of courtesan, which was the Cortigiana Onesta,” Funk said. “And at that time, it was deemed a great success.”
Though the word “courtesan” gradually took on a more negative connotation, Cummins wants to give the industry something that’s been lacking to help the public better understand what goes on behind closed doors in the brothels, which, for many customers, is usually more about seeking out companionship than fleeting sexual activity. The ladies who spend time with the men in those rooms usually are fulfilling emotional needs rather than physical ones.
“It’s not always about the sex act,” Cummins said. “There are deeper psychological issues and needs. … How working ladies can have a positive influence on men and their psychological issues that they’re unable to safely deal with outside the legal sex industry … and there’s more being done all the time, and we’re doing a lot to support that kind of research…”
She said her vision is to invite other brothel owners and employees to become part of the advocacy and education effort, and the more who join, the better.
“There’s never been a direction, which is professional working ladies removing the stigma and being allowed to have a collective,” she said. “Instead, it’s been every brothel for themselves. And that includes Dennis (Hof).”
Cummins, who hails from the Midwest, originally began in agriculture and opened her first business in Carson City. She has guest lectured and focused on helping young women who have aspired to become entrepreneurs in eastern Nevada. She encourages them to dream and think bigger, which is a goal of hers come this legislative season with Onesta.
“I never intended to be the lone ranger kind of approach,” she said. “…The idea is to talk about how to be human safely. It’s the avenue that I believe is necessary to be able to talk about the sensual services industry with a clear direction and purpose and have it linked to something that’s good.”
Word of mouth has long been key to small business success, and online reviews provide a new, relevant channel to do so. That said, while more respondents say online reviews are more helpful than not, there is also awareness of the damage a negative write-up can have.