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The Power of Human Touch and the Art of the Courtesan - An Inside Look at Mustang Ranch

Jan 07, 2020 11:15PM ● By Kristy Mc Lean

The Power of Human Connection and Touch

There is no greater hunger than the hunger of the heart.  

One of the greatest virtues of humanity is our collective desire to help those in need. We serve in soup kitchens, donate canned food, and organize meal delivery to our friends in need. We work to bring clean, running water to villages struggling through poverty and drought. We rally around fire victims who have lost their homes and we build shelters for the homeless. When we witness a lack of basic human needs like food, water, and shelter, we feel compelled to help. 

But, what about love…human connection…physical touch…sexuality?  

The basic need for sexuality is biologically programmed into us as human beings. Not only are we wired to procreate for the survival of our species, but we have the need for sexual fulfillment, likely influenced by our innate need for touch and human connection. Countless studies have proven that human connection and physical touch play a critical role in physiological and psychological development. 

According to Dr. Tiffany Field, Ph.D., Founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, “When you stimulate the pressure receptors under the skin, the heart slows down, food in the gastrointestinal tract is absorbed into the body better and serotonin is released into the bloodstream. When that happens, you decrease pain and heighten alertness. Touch can even stimulate the body to better equip its natural killer cells to fight off bacterial infections and even more serious health threats such as cancer.”  

MRI data shows that affective or emotional touch results in activation of the orbitofrontal cortex and the caudate cortex, the parts of the brain that strongly influence decision-making, impulse control, and learning. Research shows that hugging, kissing, and holding stimulate the production and release of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine – “feel good” hormones that create euphoric feelings, promote positive self-esteem, and reduce depressive thoughts. Conversely, the effects of touch deprivation and a lack of human connection can be catastrophic. Infants that are deprived of human touch display developmental deficiencies, metabolic disorders, behavioral abnormalities, failure to thrive, and, in some cases, even death. Touch deprivation has also been proven to contribute to fear of attachment, fear of commitment, heightened anxiety, loneliness, depression, aggressive behavior, body image issues, sexual dysfunction, unsafe levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and abnormal levels of hormones that regulate social behavior.  

The takeaway from this science? Humans need to be touched, held, and engaged with in order thrive. 

“In a research study across 49 cultures worldwide, the cultures that exhibited minimal physical affection toward their young children had significantly higher rates of adult violence, but those cultures that showed significant amounts of physical affection toward their young children had virtually no violence.”  – Dr. Tiffany Field, Ph.D.

We live in a time when social-emotional wellness and mental illness are of great concern, suicide rates are on the rise, and technology is intercepting human connection at every turn. While we know all about the recommended daily dosage for vitamins and minerals, did you know that experts also recommend 14-20 physical touches and 8 hugs per day for optimal health? 

Yet, social norms have trended toward a reduction in human touch. Psychologists, doctors, and educators are being advised to follow “no touch” policies, fear of harassment or being perceived as “inappropriate” has resulted in less interpersonal touch in our day to day interactions, and as society becomes more reliant on technology, our focus on meaningful human contact declines. In fact, while the majority of us are probably not even getting 20 human touches per day, a 2016 study by a leading research company, dscout, found that the average smartphone user touches their phone approximately 2,617 times per day!

 “Skin Hunger” – The Societal Ripple Effect of Touch Deprivation 

Dr. Kory Floyd, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona whose 2014 study of “affection deprivation” in more than 500 participants found that people who experience “skin hunger,” or a deep desire for physical contact with another person, were, among other things, more lonely, depressed, had less social support, experienced more mood and anxiety disorders and an inability to interpret and express emotions. This lack of affection correlated with a “fearful avoidant attachment style,” the same reaction so common in affection-deprived children from orphanages — and in many men. Dr. Floyd found that men are more likely than women to report that they received less affection from others than they wanted.  

Dr. Floyd is not alone. There are numerous studies that point to touch deprivation being more prevalent in men, and more detrimental. While women tend to employ a tend-and-befriend approach that invites confidence in and cooperation with people who can help them externalize their struggles, men tend to grow stoic, emotionally withdrawn and, too often, isolated when faced with conflict and stress. If the “tough guy” approach strengthened men mentally and emotionally, it wouldn’t be a problem. But the weight of so-called “gender role stress,” such as feeling the need to suppress emotions that may be perceived as unmanly, doesn’t make men more resilient. It makes them more vulnerable, triggers anxiety and depression, and prevents them from seeking mental health help. A 2000 study  by UCLA researchers found that “men are more likely than women to respond to stressful experiences by developing certain stress-related disorders,” such as hypertension, alcohol and drug abuse.  

Loneliness: A new report found that loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Photo Credit: Getty Images

A December 2019 Washington Post report analyzed mass shootings in the U.S. since 1966. The findings are not only interesting but align with this concept of touch deprivation. There have been 172 cases in which 4 or more persons were killed by a lone shooter since 1966. In all but 4 of the cases, the shooter was a male. The same report claims that social isolation is the number one common denominator that mass shooters share. Frequently, these loners are separated from their spouses (or have never been married) and have been alienated from their families. Considering this wide body of evidence, perhaps we should take a closer look at the societal effects of skin hunger and touch deprivation, and seek to develop a greater appreciation for the value of therapeutic touch. 

The Business of Human Touch 

Despite the natural tendency of humans to care for those in need, it seems that there is a widespread reluctance to offer support for the basic human need for touch and sexuality. We are cautious in social situations so as not to invade our friends’ personal space, and in school we are taught to keep our hands to ourselves. It’s perfectly acceptable for someone to collect food stamps, walk into a homeless shelter, drink water from a public fountain, and receive financial aid for prescription drug therapies, but to publicly promote sex and human touch as charitable outreach would likely be considered absurd by the general population. Furthermore, touch therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and cuddle therapy are not covered by medical insurance plans nor prescribed by family doctors. So, how do we solve this growing issue of skin hunger and touch deprivation that could be having massive effects on violence and mental health in America when charitable outreach, treatment, and business practices that address the basic human need for touch and sexuality are not socially acceptable?  

One of the only professions that truly addresses the need for human touch and sexuality is that of the professional courtesan. The majority of clients seeking both private cuddling services and the companionship of professional courtesans in legal brothels are overwhelmingly male, straight, educated, divorced, and in their early 50s. This same demographic has suffered a stark increase in opioid addiction and suicide, and, as demonstrated above, is the exact demographic at highest risk for the negative effects of touch deprivation. Other common clientele of the legal brothel industry includes disabled veterans, wheelchair users, elderly widowers, and married couples seeking to rekindle the romance in their relationships. And, sure enough, their most common request is simply to be touched or held. In fact, the madams of Mustang Ranch, a legal brothel in Storey County, Nevada approximately 15 miles outside of Reno, claim that more than 50% of their “parties,” or experiences between professional courtesans and their clients, never even involve sexual intercourse.  

Though prostitution has been commonly referred to as “the oldest profession in the world,” with documented roots that date back to 6th century B.C., it certainly is not a socially acceptable career choice and the sex industry has undergone great scrutiny throughout time. Modern anti-brothel advocates vehemently oppose the idea that there might be value in a transaction of money for physical touch/sex and they worry about the commercialization of women. Brothel supporters, on the other hand, believe that it’s better to have prostitutes regulated, controlled, and tested regularly than to have them walking the streets.  

The sex industry has certainly withstood the test of time and appears to meet a societal demand, so rather than listen to the critics, we went straight to the source, got to know the ins and outs of Mustang Ranch and have had amazing, real conversations with about 20 of the courtesans. What began as an intriguing investigative study evolved into sincere friendships with and appreciation for these fellow entrepreneurs who happen to choose Mustang Ranch as their preferred place to conduct business, and their stories are among the most impressive and compelling stories we’ve ever heard.  

The Art of the Courtesan 

The Courtesans, or “working girls,” of Mustang Ranch are all independent contractors who must be 18 years of age, register with the county sheriff, pass a background check, undergo regular medical checks, and pay federal income tax. They are business owners, mothers, neighbors, family supporters. Though they all have different stories, every single one of the courtesans we interviewed made a point to say how proud they are to be working in an industry that empowers them to earn real income and to pay their taxes, live debt-free, and work toward a life goal such as paying their way through college, buying a house, or helping fund the chemotherapy of a parent. They also volunteer, make charitable contributions, and much like anyone who travels for work, if they have children, they leave them in the care of a trusted spouse or family member while they’re gone on business. Then, when they’re home, they are 100% present, perhaps even more so than the average working parent.  

As the courtesans shared heartfelt stories about their experiences with clients (keeping all client details confidential, of course), we began to develop deep empathy and respect for not only the courtesans and their clients, but also for the owners and staff of Mustang Ranch who work diligently to welcome all walks of life into their beautiful home. These professionals are confident and proud, and they have a natural gift for making people feel special, loved, accepted, and normal for a change. This is certainly not a job that anyone can do.  

They spoke with conviction, pride, and honor as they likened themselves to therapists, caregivers, and confidants, and explained how compassion and listening skills are the key skills involved in doing their job well. Many had tears in their eyes when they expressed their gratitude for their employers and their coworkers. They described the Mustang Ranch Madams, Jennifer and Tara, who manage all aspects of the business from reviewing the hundreds of applications they receive on a monthly basis and interviewing applicants to ambiance and customer care, with a tone of respect and adoration that one might use when describing their mother. One after another, the working girls of Mustang Ranch described the resort as a safe haven, a refuge, the best place they had ever worked. They had learned more life skills, fiscal responsibility, and professional strategies at Mustang Ranch than they ever had before. They shared how Lance Gilman conducts sales meetings and training sessions on negotiation techniques and strategic business practices, and the madams teach them life skills, safe sex practices, and encourage them to be on a five-year plan or less. Working at Mustang Ranch is a stepping stone, a means to an end, not an end-all-be-all for someone who has no other choice. Many women who have worked at Mustang Ranch have gone on to become successful lawyers, hospital administrators, or real estate professionals. And, they credit Mustang Ranch for teaching them more than they ever learned in college. 

Setting the “Gold Standard” for the Brothel Industry 

While not all brothels operate at the same level of quality as Mustang Ranch, the owners of Mustang Ranch are actively working to improve industry standards for brothel management. They have been known to host fellow owners of legal brothels in Nevada for training and consultation, sharing their business practices and desire to set the gold standard for the industry, and encouraging their colleagues to follow suit.  

The business is completely transparent; all visitors are encouraged to tour the Mustang Ranch Resort without any business obligation, and, for our tour, we would have the pleasure of Madam Jennifer herself as our guide. We were unsure what to expect as the security guard opened the door and welcomed us inside the Wild Horse Saloon, the 24x7 gateway to Mustang Ranch, but any anxiety quickly dissipated when Madam Jennifer greeted us with a friendly smile and welcoming charm. The Saloon is dimly lit and relatively small but has a lively feel, good music, a bar in one corner and a stripper pole in another. A male bartender offers us a drink and, as we wait, we glance around the room; there’s a few ladies hanging about, one is chatting with a patron, one is casually walking around the pole but not for anyone’s entertainment but her own, and the other is sitting by herself, not a cell phone in sight, looking friendly and ready to chat if you are. They are dressed as if they are going out – some more clothed than others but all appear professional and happy to be there. Jennifer enters a code into a keypad on the wall and gestures us to follow her through a doorway and into another large lounge and, with full drinks in hand, we embark on our tour.  

Madam Tara & Madam Jennifer

Jennifer was beaming with pride as she walked us through the halls of the Mustang Ranch, in and out of immaculate, beautifully appointed guest rooms, each with a different theme and custom scent but all with a warm, welcoming ambiance. She spoke highly of the girls who work there and it is clear she loves them all like her own. She and Tara also care for the entire property as their own with 24x7 housekeeping, kitchen, and security staff, as well as strict standards for cleanliness and zero tolerance for drug use. In fact, in order to maintain their track record of zero incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STI) at Mustang Ranch, the ladies are tested weekly and must be medically cleared to come back to work after leaving the property. Each customer undergoes a visual inspection of their genitalia prior to service and every guest room is equipped with a shower or bath. The first thing that happens in any experience is a shower, cleansing, or bathing of some sort. The ladies are all independent contractors and they decide what services they’re willing to perform, have a right to refuse service to anyone, and they personally negotiate and agree on the value and terms of each transaction or “party.” All services and associated costs are agreed upon in a negotiating room prior to their party, and, just as a hair stylist, makeup artist, or commissioned sales representative might, they split their client fees 50/50 with the house.  

To ensure the safety of the ladies at all times, there is a panic button in every room and security cameras throughout the resort. They run background checks on all of their staff and contractors and uphold the highest expectations for quality, cleanliness, and exceptional customer service. They must be doing something right as the courtesans claim that up to 80% of their clientele is repeat business, and they unanimously agree that most of their clients come primarily for companionship, cuddling, and conversation in a safe, nonjudgmental environment in which they can be the most uninhibited version of themselves. These ladies are passionate and they believe they are fulfilling a need in society, helping to minimize the effects of mental illness, loneliness, and rejection. They believe that without brothels and legal prostitution there would probably be a higher incidence of rape and sex crimes, and there certainly would be more danger and life-threatening work conditions for the women who choose to service the demands of a sexually driven society.  

The History of Mustang Ranch & The Relentless Spirit of the Entrepreneur 

Joe Conforte

Mustang Ranch is one of the original “For Women, By Women” businesses in Nevada. And, its original founder, Joe Conforte, was truly a self-made man. A first-generation Sicilian immigrant who came to America through Ellis Island in 1937, Conforte eventually made his way west and worked as a cab driver in Oakland, CA where he learned first-hand about the supply-demand cycle of the sex industry as he drove incoming sailors and marines to nearby brothels. He moved to Nevada in 1955 and opened his own brothel and began lobbying for legal prostitution. In 1971, Storey County made prostitution legal and licensed Sally Conforte (Joe’s wife) as a brothel owner. Mustang Ranch became America’s largest and most profitable brothel until it was eventually shut down in 1999 due to tax evasion.  

Lance Gilman

Mustang Ranch got its second chance when another self-made man, Lance Gilman, happened upon the auction of the establishment on eBay. It seemed like a reasonable investment given that he was in development on the surrounding property along Hwy 80 and USA Parkway.  

Chinook helicopter transport of the original Mustang Ranch building to its current location.

“My background is in real estate development, particularly commercial projects like the Tahoe
 Reno Industrial Complex. While I knew about brothels, I had no idea I’d become a brothel owner in order to ensure Storey County’s financial future. While I was initially hesitant about the idea and the stigma that was sure to follow, I purchased Mustang Ranch in 2003 off eBay, paying $145,100. In order to preserve the history of the operation, we moved the original buildings by Chinook helicopter to their current location and began extensive upgrades and renovations costing millions to ensure the luxury of the resort. Through years of renovations, I watched the brothel change into a business I could be proud of, not something I would shy away from. Now, nearly 20 years later, I hope if anything, I left this industry better than I found it. That’s what I want my legacy to be.”  
- Lance Gilman

Gilman’s long list of achievements in commercial real estate and land development date back to the 1980s when he was instrumental in the development of nine major shopping centers in San Diego County, CA. He was then responsible for the acquisition, planning, and marketing of South Meadows Business Park in South Reno before he moved on to create the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, America’s new hot bed for the manufacturing industry and home to the first Tesla Gigafactory and many more industrial giants. While Gilman and his son, Donny, own the land and sign the checks, all of the Mustang Ranch’s day to day operations are handled by the madams. Madams Jennifer and Tara speak so highly of their place of business and the opportunities they have to change lives every day. Both madams worked at the Ranch as courtesans back in the 70s when it was owned by Joe Conforte and claim that, even then, it was the safe haven that saved their lives and gave them the stability they needed to get off the streets, buy a home, have children, and give back to the community.  

Embracing the Heart of the Wild, Wild West 

Nevada has history, heart, and prides itself on a “to each his own” kind of mentality. It’s where the salt of the earth and the pie in the sky dreamers come together. Homesteaders, miners, ranchers, gamblers…all with big dreams. Some strike it rich, some do not. Imagine the gold miner, countless hours underground, desperately searching…did he get his 8 to 14 touches per day for optimal health? Probably not…but, enter the courtesan with her therapeutic touch and shoulder to cry on to help diffuse those wild fantasies and keep him out of the bar fight that night.  

In an attempt to lift the state out of the hard times of the Great Depression, Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Like mining, gaming and entertainment, the sex industry is woven into the very fabric of the great state of Nevada. Whether your outlet of choice is gaming, food, shopping, sex, drugs, or rock ‘n’ roll, in Nevada, you can legally explore activities that push the boundaries of social norms and satisfy the hunger that nags at your skin, your stomach, your soul…get your vices “out of your system” so you can go back to your real life with gratitude and appreciation for your freedom, your job, your family. Like it or not, these industries continue as the backbone of Nevada economics and the income generated from gaming and legal brothels helps pays for our schools, our infrastructure, our health and human services. Legal prostitution in Nevada grosses approximately $75 million per year, and Mustang Ranch, like all legal brothels, pays more in taxes and fees per square foot than any other business in Nevada.  

Mustang Cares

Mustang Ranch also has a heart for giving back to the community and they do so in countless ways that include feeding residents at a local senior citizen center and providing hundreds of backpacks filled with food and school supplies to local children in need. They also believe that no one should ever dine alone so they host holiday feasts on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter at no charge – everyone is welcome, no one is turned away. Even the Red Hat Ladies…you know, those cute little old ladies who pride themselves on their philanthropic endeavors, gather for the occasional luncheon at Mustang Ranch to enjoy the warm hospitality, fabulous food, and exceptional service. This is the culture of Mustang Ranch; inclusion, compassion, and human connection. 

Learn more about the Mustang Ranch courtesans at and in the Bliss Media mini-documentary that will be released January 24, 2020 – Stay tuned to and follow @blisslifemagazine for details. 



Resources and References: 

Hands on Research: The Science of Touch;  

The Terrible Numbers that Grow with each Mass Shooting; 

Putting a Finger on our Phone Obsession; 

Relational and Health Coordinates of Affection Deprivation; 

Loneliness warning: Nine in 10 now fear being alone 'more than ever';