Sex under scrutiny: Onesta Foundation shares community, statewide goals
LYON COUNTY, Nev. — When Hacienda Ranch owner Madame Bella Cummins is invited to guest lecture about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, she finds it fascinating how quickly her audience members become discouraged once they find out what it really takes to be successful.
“They have a big dream to do it,” she said. “However, most people aren’t cut out for it. They aren’t willing to work seven days a week around the clock or do whatever it takes or forego being paid.”
But to be a madam in the sex industry is freedom for her.
“It’s very positive that I’m a madam, that I get to go in and do that because it brings up a lot of fun things that happen, you know, just where people just get to be people, and we are a funny group,” she said.
It gets to be a challenge to say so, though, in front of the Nevada Legislature if she wishes to speak on the advantages of being a business owner or on the industry itself.
It was former brothel owner Dennis Hof’s larger-than-life quality, according to Cummins, and his vision for taking the sensual services industry to a new plateau that carried the potential to help others feed into it. He seemed to make it easier to go to the legislators to vie for support for Nevada’s legal sex industry. But others remained in the shadows, she said, and that has left the industry vulnerable until recently.
“It (the industry) should be thriving,” she said. “Even when Mr. Hof was alive, it wasn’t thriving. He had a direction, and then there were the rest of us keeping a low profile. Well, he did a great job marketing himself. Starbucks did that, too. Do they have the very best coffee? No, but their marketing worked.”
Cummins wants to use her skills and her newfound Onesta Foundation to erase perceptions the sex industry is more than just making money and to bolster local governments’ understanding of how to regulate the brothels.
“We were never the problem,” Cummins said. “It’s information, it’s involvement of an industry that should be able to put a sign on a highway that says we’re right here for the people that are looking for us. The people that aren’t looking for us, they’re never going to see us anyway, instead of hiding us in a little remote town with people that don’t really want to put their hand up and say, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m pro-brothel.’
“They’re thrilled it’s there because how it helps the economy of small towns, but it needs help.”
The Onesta Foundation will support research being done at universities such as the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Brigham Young University to advance ideas about the sensual services industry, Cummins said. She said she wants to reach out to stakeholders in the community at an event the nonprofit would create.
“Right now, our big plan is to create a forum before the Legislature gets going to have this conversation and open it up so that legislators can approach it from a baseline point of view to find the correct way forward,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to bring everybody together.”
She also seeks to enlighten the public on how regulation could or should work and enhance Nevada’s broader reputation as a result, which involves keeping a close watch on what happens in the state’s 80th legislative session starting in February.
She admits it won’t be an easy path to take. She continues to engage in many of the same arguments with opponents to Northern Nevada’s legal brothels she had even when Hof was one of their most outspoken supporters.
“I really believe Dennis wanted to be good for the industry, but he wound up with labels like ‘Nevada’s pimp,’ and I’ve talked to people who worked for him or have been a working lady for him, and yes, there’s some that have terrible things to say about him, but as far as helping evolve the industry, I think that’s still to be done,” she said. “We need to call them in the paper and say this is the only way for people to understand how to be kind instead of right, how to be nonjudgmental instead of judgmental.”
Ultimately, Cummins wants to focus on improving the treatment of workers in the state’s legal brothels, which, according to the website of the recently revived group, the Nevada Brothel Association, were employing about 200 women as of February 2018.
“By launching the Onesta … the idea with Steve Funk’s help — because there are so many things I don’t know, but boy, do I know how to run a brothel — was how to get a direction that other houses could either head that direction, even though it was a nonprofit, I felt like it was a direction,” she said. “It was bigger than just making money. It had to do with getting things into the 21st century — the laws, the regulators.”
Sen. Joe Hardy has filed a bill draft request for the upcoming legislative session that would prohibit prostitution in Nevada, though specifics aren’t yet available. Funk and Cummins want to approach the legislators and help them to think on a larger scale about the impact removing the brothels would have on Nevada as a whole, they said.
“There are ways to be heard and for me to just stand up as an owner,” Cummins said. “My concern is that I would just look like another brothel owner with a beef.”
Spurring a conversation among municipalities, legislators and residents statewide is a major short-term goal for Onesta, Funk and Cummins said, because they feel it’s been too long since anyone’s had a higher-level dialogue about how to approach these concerns objectively.
“I think we agree that it’s important that local communities should have the final say about how this happens in their community, but we feel the state of Nevada kind of has abdicated its responsibility in oversight and in working to create better situations for the workers in the industry and not to continue to add to the stigma that goes with it,” Funk said.