What HBO’s ‘Cathouse’ taught me about sex

This article contains sexually explicit content.

It’s 2005, and it’s probably 3:00am. I’m home for the summer from my sophomore year at an all-female college and I’m not sleeping much, which is how I stumble upon Cathouse, an HBO series set at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, one of the few legal brothels in Nevada, the only state that lets working girls ply their trade.

I’m watching Air Force Amy, the highest-earning prostitute at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, describe what you need to have a successful party. A “party” is the Moonlite Bunny Ranch’s euphemism for what men and prostitutes do once the money changes hands.

“You gotta have the toys, the dildos, the cock-rings, the vibrators,” Amy says. “You have to have the leather, you have to have latex, you have to have lace. You have to have the oils, the lotions, the lubes, everything!”

Later, I watch another girl at the Bunny Ranch talk about how the brothel is a place where anything goes and any male fantasy, no matter how outlandish, will be greeted with a smile. Blowjobs, threesomes, whipped cream—these are the things that men need, that wives just won’t do. “A man needs certain things,” she tells the camera with a knowing smile. “That’s where we come in.”

“A man needs certain things. That’s where we come in.”

The Bunny Ranch girls and the ranch’s owner, Dennis Hof, who refers to the ranch a “sexual Disneyland,” spend a lot of time talking about what men want and how to give it to them. But  I have to admit, as a quiet, studious, sexually inexperienced college sophomore, what the Bunny Ranch girls want is also something of a mystery to me. Perhaps that’s why Amy’s speech appeals to me. As long as you’re prepared, she intimates, as long as you’re ready to say yes to anything, men will be falling at your feet, desperate to sleep with you. In fact, they’ll want to pay for it!

So I decide to watch the show every time it’s on. Maybe I’ll learn something.

I recently tried to re-watch Cathouse after I received an advance copy of The Art of the Pimp, a memoir by Hof that recounts his exploits at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. I quickly learned that if you’re trying to watch the first season of Cathouse, you can find it three or four pages into a Google search; sometimes, it’s under a different title. At first, I was curious why those early episodes didn’t make the HBO Go cut, but when I started rewatching them last week I quickly figured out why. They’re shockingly cheesy, soundtracked by original songs with titles like “Show Us Your Tits” and interstitial titles made with early 2000s-clip art.

The women, too, look different from the naked women of HBO ca. 2015, which is to say they have stretch marks, Caesarean scars, and shockingly bad eyebrows. They are costumed primarily in fishnets and string bikinis, their ensembles topped up with the omnipresent lucite heels.

I’m sure the first time I watched Cathouse I noticed the shabbiness of it all, but even now I can’t help but look upon the early episodes fondly. The women are open about their love of sex as well as their desire to make money, and they’re kind, thoughtful, and inquisitive. 

In one episode, a prostitute who specializes in humiliation fetishes hosts a trampling party, in which a paying customer wants nothing more than for every girl at the Bunny Ranch to stomp on his stomach and chest, preferably in high heels. Even though some of the girls are so viscerally uncomfortable with the idea that they run shrieking down the hall, few of them actually judge him; some even seem enthusiastic about the prospect of partying with him. And from what I can tell, the enthusiasm doesn’t feel like a put-on.

The first season was meant to be a starring vehicle for Hof’s then-girlfriend, the porn star Sunset Thomas. But as Hof admits in The Art of the Pimp, producers and later visitors were captivated by another girl, Isabella Soprano—the so-called “girl next door.” I, too, was taken with Isabella, whose secret for getting a man to choose her from the line-up was to “look at him, then look away like you want it but want to play coy, then look back and bite your lip.”

When I saw her explain this move for the first time, I wrote it down.

That, I suppose, is what made the first season of Cathouse special. The Bunny Ranch girls weren’t from another planet. The successful ones were, for the most part, attractive women who’d figured out sexual personae that would appeal to men without slavishly catering to them. In one chapter of The Art of the Pimp, Dennis points out that Isabella hasn’t worked at the Bunny Ranch for almost a decade (she left to do porn, fell into some trouble, and now works under a different name on an organic farm in New England.) But the office still fields five or six phone calls every day from men who want to book appointments with her.

I watched Cathouse then and I watch it now and it felt and feels revelatory, both to the 19-year-old me that desperately wanted to be an object of fascination to the opposite sex, and to the 29-year-old me who, perhaps a little less desperately, still does.

Cathouse felt revelatory, both to the 19-year-old me that wanted to be an object of fascination to the opposite sex, and to the 29-year-old me who still does.

When Cathouse returned for a second season, I was back at school. Amidst the commotion of libraries and independent research projects and driving to schools forty-five minutes away to spend time with long-distance boyfriends I’d forgotten about it. But I somehow knew of Dennis Hof’s new star (and girlfriend), Brooke Taylor, a bubbly blonde whose up-for-anything attitude and willingness to color her hair and apply makeup based on Dennis’ specifications (blonder and bolder, respectively) were a portent of what was to come.

The girls in the later episodes looked less and less like me. There are more breast implants. There are more big smiles and self-diagnoses of nymphomania. There are more discussions of pornography, and more girls who do it for a living. (Sunny Lane, a porn star in her own right, makes occasional appearances on the show as both featured Bunny and Dennis’ one-time girlfriend.)

Gone are the men from the first season, who want to pay “just for conversation.” Gone are the soft, careful eyes of Isabella Soprano. Instead, we get women who are indistinguishable from the hardcore performers on Redtube. The show is also shot to look like the tube sites are their destination. Erect penises are blurred out—it’s HBO, so I have to assume this is for the benefit of squeamish straight men—and each shot focuses primarily on the girl’s giggling face, her vulva shaved and her breasts bouncing. No one’s makeup is ever smudged. No one ever gets trampled.

It’s hard to know who was watching Cathouse at this point. Watching now, from my apartment, I feel less like a voyeur and more like I’m supposed to be intimidated by the behavior of the Bunnies, lest I disappoint any man who happens upon my bed.

I’d originally watched Cathouse because I thought its approach to sex was subversive. But the takeaway now seems to be that every man’s fantasy is to get a blowjob from someone twenty years younger than his wife. Years later, I have to ask: What’s so subversive about that?

In “Frisky Business,” a season three special, we witness a showdown between a former Bunny Ranch superstar who comes back to pay her mortgage and some of the new models, who insist that if a man doesn’t finish in his allotted time they’ll give him an extra ten minutes for free. “If twenty minutes are up and he doesn’t come, am I just supposed to kick him out? How rude is that?,” Barbie Girl asks, while Danielle, our veteran, looks at her with incredulity.

Danielle’s goal is for men to leave her room spent of cash and credit, not of semen, and it’s an honest one. She gives him flattery and companionship and a certain number of sexual moments, and in return she gets paid. But the former doesn’t happen without the latter.

Barbie and her friends, however, insist the sex comes first. The money is nice, sure, but they’re really at the Bunny Ranch for “mutually beneficial experiences,” for fun, for the sex itself. Any hint of personality other than that which is constructed to be easy for men to digest is subsumed.

This is confusing and disheartening and more than a little scary.

If the lesson of the first season was “open minds make for open wallets”, by the end of the third season, it’s this: Women, you’re not doing enough.”  

No one needs a television show to point out that intimacy is scary. What the first season of Cathouse did was point out, in its own way, that it might not have to be. That in a brothel in rural Nevada, two (or three, or four) people might come together and, for an hour or a night or a weekend, through the power of money and fantasy and sheer will, convince each other that intimacy was pleasurable, profitable, and fun while still being intimate.

The terror of the third season was that intimacy was something to be overcome. That fucking could be glossy and fun to watch in the mirror but that the veneer of can-do spirit and lip gloss could remain unsmudged. That was what people really wanted, or more specifically, what men really wanted from women. Had I seen this as an impressionable teenager, I shudder to think at how frightened I’d have been, how wide-eyed, how suspicious of every boy that smiled at me.

Even now, it frightens me: What if the women on Cathouse are right? What if my best efforts at being the prettiest, the most charming, the most eager to please aren’t enough? What if what the men in my life want most is to fly to sexual Disneyland and never come back?

Screengrab via Dennis Hof/YouTube