Last updated at 9:37 AM on 29th July 2008
The two ladies of the Women’s Institute arrived promptly for their appointment at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Nevada. They were greeted by the ranch owner, Dennis Hof, wearing a sharp suit, a fat cigar in his mouth and two nubile blondes at his side.
Jean Johnson, the 62-year-old wife of a retired British Airways captain, and Shirley Landels, a 73-year-old engineer’s widow, were there to make an inspection to report back to their WI branches back in Hampshire.
Would this rather garish brothel, plonked surreally in the middle of the Nevada desert in the U.S., be a suitable model for similar establishments back home, they wondered?
Unlikely chat: Shirley Landells, 73, and Jean Johnson, 62, of the Hampshire Women’s Institute spoke to sex workers at the Bunny Ranch, Nevada
Not quite. While it ticked some of the boxes on their list – regular testing for sexually transmitted infections, a safe environment – it was altogether, well, over the top.
They didn’t approve of the way the girls were brought out in a lineup for the client to choose. As Jean put it afterwards: ‘It was a bit like a dog show.’
Shirley did not like the fact that the girl who was chosen didn’t have an option about whether to accept. ‘I think a girl should be able to say no to a man if she doesn’t like the look of him.’
So what, precisely were these Hampshire grandmothers doing, weighing up the pros and cons of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch?
The ranch was one of a number of brothels visited by the pair in Holland, America and New Zealand as part of their ‘research’ for the campaign by Hampshire WI to decriminalise prostitution.
Obviously, the WI is the last organisation you might expect to take on such a campaign, but then things have never been quite the same since those ladies from Rylstone and District WI in North Yorkshire stripped off for a calendar and their exploits were turned into the film Calendar Girls.
It seems they’ve discovered a taste for notoriety. But while the calendar was frivolous, this, say the ladies of the WI, is deadly serious.
While there is no doubting the women’s good intentions, some, perhaps, might find the idea of two grandmothers from the WI gallivanting around the world, effectively promoting prostitution, a trifle odd and unsettling.
WI fighting for the legalisation of prostitution
The Hampshire WI are ready for the legalisation of prostitution for Britain – but are the rest of us?
The unlikely story of the two grandmothers fighting for the decriminalisation of prostitution is told in a Channel 4 documentary to be screened this week, in which they can be seen – among other things – sitting together in the window of an Amsterdam brothel and taking a mobile ‘WI brothel’ around Hampshire.
In short, the documentary makers have milked the ‘jam and Jerusalem grannies see the inside of a brothel’ angle for everything it’s worth.
Will viewers regard the placing of two grandmothers in a brothel window as a tawdry and exploitative stunt?
So how did it all begin? It was Jean, a mother-of-three – including one daughter – who decided that something must be done about the prostitution laws in Britain following the murders of five prostitutes in November and December 2006 by the so-called ‘Suffolk Strangler’ Steve Wright, who was convicted last year.
Jean raised the subject at a meeting of her local WI in the village of Holybourne, Hampshire.
‘These girls were from all stratas of society,’ she says. ‘They were somebody’s daughters, somebody’s grand-daughters and somebody’s sisters.
‘If it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. My concern was that if women were to work as prostitutes – and there will always be prostitution – then they should be able to do so in safety. I wanted to get prostitutes off the streets, where they have no protection. My fellow members agreed with me.
‘Our feeling was that the best way forward was for prostitution to be decriminalised and then work out a way of licensing brothels.
The WI inspection of sex toys has a Carry On feel
‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning prostitution, but you have to be realistic.’
The branch made the licensing of brothels the subject of its motion for debate at the autumn meeting of the WI’s Hampshire Federation, which has 6,000 members. The motion received almost unanimous backing.
In order for Holybourne to pass the motion, it had to be seconded by another Hampshire branch, so Jean got in touch with Cheriton WI, which Shirley has belonged to for the past 40 years.
That’s how Shirley, a retired local government officer and mother of a grown-up son and daughter, became involved.
The Hampshire WI’s campaign was reported in the Press and soon afterwards Jean and Shirley were approached by the documentary team.
They decided to visit Holland and New Zealand, where prostitution was legalised in 1997 and 2003 respectively. They would also stop in at Dennis Hof’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Nevada.
Under a quirk of Nevada law, any county with a population of fewer than 400,000 people is permitted to license brothels.
First stop was the red-light district in Amsterdam, where women sit on display in shop windows.
After a cursory inspection of some sex toys – again this has a rather Carry On feel about it – the women decided that in order to gauge how it feels for a prostitute to advertise her services in a – window, they should have a go at it themselves.
They must have stood out more than they intended, given the actual prostitutes in the windows wear as little as possible, and these two were dressed in smart trousers and jackets.
‘We were told we had to make eye contact with passers by, but I must say I found it very difficult,’ says Jean. ‘Shirley did better than me, however – she said someone winked at her.
‘We saw the inside of the room where the girl takes the man. It was spotlessly clean, with a hand basin and shower and a panic button, in case things turn nasty. Panic buttons are a very good idea because they help ensure the safety of the girl, which is of paramount importance.
‘I spoke to a man who has more than a thousands girls working for him in 20 windows,’ says Jean. ‘He says girls under 21 are not allowed to work for him because they are not emotionally able to handle it. A rule like that is a good thing.
‘I discovered that in brothels in Holland men must wear condoms, which makes sense, and girls are regularly tested for infection. This is very important, not just for the girl, but for the family of the man who has been to see her.’
But although Jean and Shirley found much to recommend Amsterdam, on balance they decided they didn’t think brothels with hookers in windows were quite right for places such as the village of Holybourne or the charming Georgian town of Alresford, close to where Shirley lives.
‘I would hate to see a girl in a window in Britain advertising herself,’ says Jean without blinking. ‘I think it must be quite degrading.
‘I felt it was rather in your face,’ adds Shirley.
In Amsterdam, the two women also visited a club with tiger-skin wallpaper and hostesses serving champagne at £800 a bottle. The ladies drank orange squash.
‘We didn’t want anything stronger,’ says Shirley. ‘The girls there were very attractive. It was quite upmarket as these establishments go.’
Jean and Shirley also visited an escort agency next door.
‘Apparently, a man will call asking for a type of girl,’ explains Jean, ‘for example a blonde with a DD bust. I’ve learned that a DD bust is important. The computer will call up a girl matching that description and she’ll be sent off in a chauffeur driven car to his hotel.’
The next stage of the ‘research’ took place in Nevada at Dennis Hof’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch.
‘It was very interesting,’ says Jean with some understatement. ‘The girls were standing in line like we used to at school for selection in the hockey or football team,’ says Jean.
‘Apparently, men come from all over the world, they’ve even got a helicopter pad. We had to laugh, otherwise I think we would have cried. All in all, it really wasn’t something we would want in Hampshire.’
Shirley adds carefully: ‘I can’t say I was absolutely happy with the system in Nevada.’
So while the trip so far had been enlightening, Jean and Shirley had not yet found a prototype brothel for the WI to introduce in Britain.
But in Wellington, New Zealand, they found two brothels they were very impressed with. The first of these was a house in an upmarket suburb of the capital.
‘It was a beautifully situated suburban house,’ says Jean. ‘Very discreet, no one would know what was happening. What I liked was that there were two girls there, which provided safety for each other.
‘It’s what they call a Small Owner Operated Brothel. And the hours were so civilised – 10am to 7pm Monday to Friday. Just like a regular job, really.’
To Jean and Shirley, it was a perfect model: clean, safe and not seedy in the least – as least as they saw it. The other brothel they liked in Wellington was in the city centre and was more luxurious.
‘It was like a boutique hotel,’ says Jean, ‘with antiques and designer robes. What was especially good was that the rooms have a peep hole, so if the girl doesn’t like the look of the man knocking at her door she can turn him away.
‘If a girl does invite a man into her room and then decides she doesn’t want to see him again, that is her prerogative. I do believe that the girls should have the right to say no.’
And so, by the end of their trip around the world, the ladies of the WI had the perfect brothel in mind.
A nice suburban house with panic buttons and a peep hole, health-and-safety checks, mandatory use of condoms and the option to turn a man away.
They returned to Hampshire and continued their research. Earlier this month, the two women hired a camper van which they transformed into a mobile brothel of sorts and went on a tour of Hampshire, taking in Winchester, Southampton and Alresford.
Along the side ran the words: ‘Hampshire WI resolution on brothels’ and along the back was the line: ‘Safe working practices for working girls.’
Inside were condoms, clean towels and talcum powder.
‘People we spoke to when we visited those places were hugely supportive about our campaign – I’d said more than 90 per cent,’ says Jean. ‘A few huffed and puffed and I’ve had letters saying the path to hell is paved with good intentions, but I just ignore them.’
And at a shopping parade in Winchester, the documentary team set up a window brothel like those seen in Amsterdam.
This time, it wasn’t Jean or Shirley who posed – perhaps this was a bit too close to home – but the journalist who made the documentary, Nicky Taylor.
It was decided, in the circumstances, that there would be a WI theme, so in the window along with Nicky the ladies from Medstead WI had set up a stand with cakes and flowers.
And so this bizarre campaign goes on. At the moment they’ve just got the WI in Hampshire on board, but they hope the WI will take on the cause nationally.
Then these two most unlikely radicals will lobby the Government for a change in the law.
Certainly, it is an extraordinary view to emerge from this most conservative of organisations.
Whether the rest of us should listen to their argument is perhaps another matter.
- The WI And The Search For The Perfect Brothel is on Channel 4 on Sunday at 10pm.