(Brian Bahouth) – For nearly 30 years, Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof was largely the public face of Nevada’s all but unique system of legalized and regulated sex work. In the wake of Mr. Hof’s death in October of this year, the proprietor of Bella’s Hacienda Ranch in Wells, Nevada has formed a sex industry advocacy and education organization working to guide and remodel the state’s legal sex industry, the Onesta Foundation.
To learn more, I visited Bella Cummins, executive director of the Onesta Foundation, at her home near Reno and recorded the following interview with Cummins and Steve Funk, secretary of the Onesta Foundation.
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In Wells, Nevada, across the railroad tracks from City Hall and Saint Thomas Aquinas church are two legal brothels, Donna’s and Bella’s Hacienda Ranch. Bella Cummins is an ambitious entrepreneur and sole proprietor of her namesake brothel. She also owns Bella’s Restaurant and Espresso in Wells with her daughter, and now Cummins has added a new title to her colorful resume, executive director of the nonprofit Onesta Foundation, a sex industry advocacy and education organization.
I asked Bella Cummins about her history as a brothel owner in Wells.
“In the initial days, survival was determined by your ability to keep a low profile,” Cummins said. “You were literally supposed to keep your head below the sagebrush so you didn’t get it shot off. Being a madame was unpopular. It was judged. And that’s the reason houses were always built across the tracks from town.”
For Cummins, that her business is forced to be separate from the town is a symbol of the stigma that still haunts the legal sex industry.
“They loved it when we came across and spent our money … but that was it,” said Cummins. “I learned that lesson very well, so I’ve spent the past 33 years or so being very silent.”
By marked contrast, recently deceased brothel owner Dennis Hof was an eager and successful promoter of his businesses and was a noted spokesperson for the legal sex industry in Nevada.
“Mr. Hof came into the industry and worked along with probably other gentlemen to become very vocal, to have a presence,” Cummins said. “And that never meant that they were ever really accepted as what you would call first class citizens. They probably didn’t care. They were counting money, making money, and got away with it for a couple of decades.
“I opted to believe that I could keep the low profile and still have a really profitable business training young women to be entrepreneurs for a period of time in the sex industry, and then a percentage of them went on to do other entrepreneurial adventures, and successfully, and other went on to do that and now work for someone else. Still very entrepreneurial. They work as if they own the company, so a lot of that was very successful for me without anybody knowing that was part of my in-service to the industry. Because their careers are short, or should be,” Cummins said.
Cummins has been guiding young sex industry workers for more than three decades and said her success is a factor of her ability to adapt and improve on a personal level.
“As a madame, my longevity is determined by my freshness, my ability to evolve as a person and be even a better teacher, better leader, better … master at helping them do in an even shorter period of time what they came here to do and then get out,” Cummins said.
Several factors have added up to undermine Cummins’ business in recent years and challenged her ability to adapt. The decline in the use of CB radios has had an effect, but for Cummins, the advent of social media has resulted in an explosion in the illegal sex trade.
“Illegal activities in the women’s illegal sex industry, it just cauliflowered, it just went poof like this,” said Cummins waving her arms above her head. “Suddenly, what used to be … I’m going to call it smaller percentiles, seemed to boom because people thought they could do it, they could get away with it, they could screen people, they could be everything for themselves and of course, keep all the money.”
The many factors affecting her business motivated Cummins to rethink her low-profile approach and speak up. She said she realized that keeping a low-profile never prevented her from being attacked.
“After probably too many decades I decided that I should speak up,” Cummins said. “Because I had a different philosophy about the industry from what let’s say it looked like Dennis Hof might be representing.”
Cummins said her “take on the industry” is essentially different than Dennis Hof’s.
“His take on the industry was sex … sex maybe never exactly in-service in how it moved women forward. His was about sex,” Cummins said with emphasis. “Right down to it, whether it was porn or nudeness or whatever, it was just straight … I’m going to call it unadulterated sex.”
Bella Cummins wants to see an industry that reflects a more honest appraisal of the human need for sex and a positive change in the status of sex industry workers and businesses.
“For me, it was this necessary thing that we as human come to do. We come here to interact in all different ways, including sexually, safely, without manipulation, with integrity, with honesty, and if a gentleman comes in and says this is what I’ve got, and the gal that he has chosen says, ‘perfect.’ Then it’s an agree, and everybody is going to be happy, and then it’s all behind a closed door. It’s all very private. It brings an elegance to the industry versus that side that … my intention was to persuade Dennis to take a look at this other direction that all the other brothels had a choice to gather around, which was the Onesta Foundation of real humanness, of a real understanding of sexuality, and a belief that it wasn’t a second class type of situation. It’s first class. It just gets to be done correctly.” Cummins said and smiled.
The Onesta Foundation
According to the Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England edited by Diana Maury Robin, Anne R. Larsen, Carole Levin, during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the city of Venice, Italy was noted for its sex industry workers. There were many tiers of sex worker, from street walker to cortigna onesta or honest courtesan, a term reserved for a group of prestigious, well-educated courtesans who enjoyed the status of nobility and were noted members of elite society.
I asked Bella Cummins if the death of Dennis Hof was an opportunity for Nevada’s legal sex industry to better reflect the thinking of the Onesta Foundation.
“I believe that there is a huge possibility,” Cummins said. “I commend Dennis for his marketing, and I also believe that without him, maybe consciously knowing it, he has opened a door for us to say, ‘thank you Dennis and let’s head this direction.’ Let’s take it and bring an understanding of how we are sex therapists and counsellors, and how about advocates for clean, safe, fun, sex,” Cummins said. “And how about all of the psychological things that we all go through, and having someone that sees us in our now, in our moment, with no judgement.”
For Cummins, the Onesta Foundation is intended to give the legal sex industry in Nevada a new face.
“Onesta is designed to give the industry a mouth, a mouthpiece, a megaphone. Never to blow peoples’ hair back but to deliver information, to help remove the stereotyping because just for me to speak up, limits the ability for all the brothels to have the same say. I am willing to speak up about it and talk about it and laugh about it and be serious and say, ‘we never came here to see how hard we can work, we came here to enjoy being human, and sometimes yes, it’s ingesting food or wine or having great sexual experiences,” Cummins explained.
Cummins said even though her business is banished to the other side of the tracks, Onesta could help bring some much needed honesty to the role of the legal sex industry in society.
“From the beginning of time, the desires need to be met,” Cummins said. “And they need to be met mostly by men because of the way men are wired. We are herd animals. It’s us, its women who think it’s got to be a whole lot more. Guys are mostly looking for their release, and safe is the way to do it, and the Onest can be that organization that can do many things.
“If the Onesta, when I say Onesta, I say we the Onesta, can bring the education. If we can get better regulation that’s more in alignment with our constitutional rights as human beings, it’ll be better.,” Cummins said.
Even though a proposed brothel ban failed at the polls by a wide margin in Lyon County, Nevada in the 2018 election, the anti-legal sex industry sentiment exists. There is a Bill Draft Request filed for the 2019 Nevada Legislative session that would, “end prostitution” in the state of Nevada. Details of the measure are forthcoming, but how does Bella Cummins perceive the chore of changing public attitudes about the legal sex industry.
“Am I concerned that there is a bill out there? Sure. I believe we’ve got some work to do and quickly, and we get to put forward this case that you’re never just going to end the sex work in Nevada,” Cummins said emphatically.
Cummins said the next step for the Onesta Foundation would be to help educate Nevada lawmakers ahead of the the 2019 Legislative Session, and though Cummins said she had her ups and downs with Dennis Hof, she took time to thank him at the end of the interview.
“I believe that it’s important for me to acknowledge him for what he did do for the industry, even if part of it shed in the incorrect light on Bella’s, I believe there was no malice intended. That he was somehow working to move at least his part of the industry forward, and so for that, I believe that I would like to let him know that I thank him for than,” Cummins said.
This article was originally published by Nevada Capital News on November 29, 2018