When news broke that Dennis Hof, the largest brothel owner in Nevada, died Tuesday in one of his famed ranches, women across the country opened up on social media about the self-described “P.T. Barnum of Booty.”
But this wasn’t the usual head-butting over whether prostitution is morally right or wrong: All of the women were sex workers, and they weren’t there to debate their choice of career. They wanted to debate Hof’s legacy.
In one camp were women who had worked for the businessman–at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the Kit Kat Ranch, or one of his five other establishments in Nevada–and said they felt demeaned or even abused by him.
"I don’t believe he respected the women he worked with," one former employee told The Daily Beast in an email. "He had a tendency towards violence, both sexual and psychological. I wasn’t moved at all when I learned about his passing."
In the other camp were those who proudly used ranch logos in their Twitter cover photos and posted heartfelt tributes to the man they called “Daddy.”
One Bunny Ranch employee, Alice Little, called Hof “a visionary.”
“He has a dream—to give women an empowering environment to own their sexuality,” Little tweeted. “He did that, and so much more. He was a mentor, role model, friend, and like a family member to so many of us.”
The image of Hof as mentor and role model was one he frequently employed to describe himself, both as a brothel owner and as a candidate for the Nevada legislature. (Hof defeated an incumbent state assemblyman in the Republican primary in June; his name will still appear on the general election ballot for the seat this fall.)
In interviews and campaign stops, Hof repeatedly claimed his brothels reduced human trafficking, protected customers from sexually transmitted diseases, and saved sex workers from lives of poverty and drug abuse. While he made crude jokes about women—his memoir contains the memorable line “There's no business like ho business”—he also claimed to empower them, offering his employees classes on negotiation, marketing, and financial literacy, according to QZ.
The positive marketing was especially important in fending off attempts from religious groups to outlaw prostitution in Nevada—the only state in the U.S. where prostitution is legal. Several employees spoke out about their positive experience at Hof’s ranches this summer, when anti-trafficking groups moved to ban prostitution in Lyon and Nye counties.
"We're not asking for their help," Little told The Independent of the anti-trafficking groups at the time. "How can they say that they’re advocating for us and they’re experts when they've never set foot inside a single brothel?"
But several former Hof employees said that while he preached female empowerment, he rarely practiced it. One Nevada courtesan who previously worked for Hof—and who requested anonymity to protect her current job—said he frequently pressured women into sleeping with him. Those who did were favored with free photo shoots and prominent placement on the brothel’s website.
Working for Hof as a self-proclaimed feminist, she said, entailed “some serious cognitive dissonance.”
“On the one hand I love my job. I feel much more independent and empowered,” she said of her time at the ranch. “...But on the other hand I have this walking giant thumb insisting that everyone call him ‘Daddy’ and playing grab-ass with me.”
There were other, more serious allegations against the brothel owner as well. In April, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that two former sex workers had accused Hof of sexually assaulting them years ago, when they were employed at his ranches. One woman, Jennifer O’Kane, 47, claimed she was raped and battered daily by the hustler.
Hof denied the allegations and dismissed them as politically motivated “muckraking.” The Nye County district attorney’s declined to prosecute because the statute of limitations had expired.
The former employee who emailed The Daily Beast said she believed the allegations.
“I had personal experiences with him choking me and smacking my ass, plus making disgusting comments against me,” she said. “Just because I work at his brothel he thought he had a pass to make as many comments on my body and my business as he felt necessary.”
Several women told The Daily Beast this week that they knew of other women who had been abused by Hof. But all were hesitant to speak on the record about the businessman, citing the power and influence he held in their industry, even after his death.
One woman who declined to speak on the record wrote: “I do not want to have my name associated with my opinions of Hof, I don’t need his mourning pro-Hof camp after me, they are vicious people.” Another wrote that his supporters “have a long history of attacking anyone who does not support him–even if there are accusations of sexual assault.”
One woman who eventually agreed to speak out said that she had mixed feelings. She knew women who said Hof had helped rescue them from drug addiction and homelessness. But, she added, “I just don’t believe the good he did for some outshines the bad he did to others.”
The Nevada ex-employee, meanwhile, was blunter.
“I actually think it’s wonderful for the industry that he is not here anymore,” she said. “There were a lot of people doing a lot of quiet celebrating yesterday.”