A Selection of Memorable Brothels in Pop Culture


If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, then it makes sense that whorehouses are such a pervasive part of pop culture. So, when we heard that the cable channel HDNet is producing a reality show documenting the exploits of the Mustang Ranch, America’s first completely legal brothel, it got us thinking about some of the most memorable establishments in books, movies, television shows, and visual art where a lonely traveler could spend a night with a willing companion. Here’s a quick list of some of our favorites — but we haven’t even scratched the surface, so leave your additions in the comments!

Petyr Baelish’s brothel in Game of Thrones (2011)

Of course we were expecting a lot of sex in the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels — how else are you going to keep people engaged with complicated medieval political scandals and magic? — but the frequency and, um, intensity of HBO’s focus on the brothels in the show is extreme, to say the least. Seriously, there’s at least one sex worker in every single episode! Not that we’re complaining, of course, but that’s a lot of naked women.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)

Originally a Broadway musical, this film stars Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds as the madam of a successful whorehouse and the sheriff she’s in love with. Although it was eventually known as one of the best movie musicals of the 1980s, the term “whorehouse” was still considered patently offensive in much of the United States when the film was released. Some states changed its name to “The Best Little Cathouse in Texas,” while others banned it completely. It’s hard to believe that was only 30 years ago, when these days Rush Limbaugh gets to call whoever he wants a whore on national radio.

Risky Business (1983)

Everybody remembers the dancing scene where Tom Cruise slides across the room in his underwear and sunglasses, but not many people talk about what happens after that, when Tom Cruise turns his parents’ house into a brothel in order to pay for all the stuff he’s either broken or had stolen over the course of the movie, and absolutely nothing bad happens to him at the end. In fact, he gets accepted to Princeton! Annoying, because you know if it were a movie about a woman trying to do the same thing, she’d end up a social pariah (isn’t that almost the point of Easy A, after all?).

Bella Cohen’s brothel in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)

A literary double for the enchantress Circe in The Odyssey, the aggressive madam Bella Cohen bewitches Leopold Bloom and, in his hallucination, is transformed into a sadistic pimp named Mr. Bello who rides him around the room. Yeah, Joyce’s modernist masterpiece is a pretty strange book, and this is one of its oddest chapters. But hey, at least she doesn’t turn people into pigs like the original Circe does, right?

Madame Anaïs’s brothel in Belle de Jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel’s classic film follows a bored French housewife who decides to moonlight (well, technically daylight) as a high-class prostitute in order to act out her sadomasochistic fantasies. Naturally, it all goes dangerously wrong at the end, but we’d be remiss not to point out that Madame Anaïs’s brothel is the pinnacle of French mod fashion. Everyone’s so stylish!

A brothel on Barcelona’s Carrer d’Avinyó in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

Speaking of French prostitutes (how many times do you get to say that?), Piccasso’s painting was originally going to be called The Brothels of Avignon, but he decided on The Young Women of Avignon instead. Depicting five nude prostitutes from an establishment in Barcelona, the painting, with its flat perspective and African mask-inspired faces, was an essential early work of modern art that gave rise to Cubism. Of course, Picasso was hardly the first artist to be interested in prostitutes as subjects (Manet’s Olympia is another of our favorites), but Avignon is among the most groundbreaking works of the 20th century.

Nandi’s Ranch in Firefly (2002)

In Joss Whedon’s masterpiece of a space western, trained “companions” like Inarra Serra are more like courtesans or geishas than they are prostitutes. That doesn’t mean prostitutes and old timey Western-style brothels don’t exist, of course, because they do. The episode “Heart of Gold,” which actually never made it to air before the show was cancelled, is about just such an establishment. This episode has it all — gunfights, paternity battles, and sexy woman being extra sexy around Nathan Fillion! It even won a Hugo Award for writing, so take that, Fox television executives!

Belle Watling’s brothel in Gone With The Wind (1936)

As the madam of an Atlanta brothel, Belle is a pretty minor character both in the film and the novel — until you remember that in the book, Rhett Butler uses the brothel as an alibi for him and his men when Yankee soldiers come to investigate a shooting in town. So if not for Belle, Rhett wouldn’t have been able to give a damn about Scarlett O’Hara, because he’d probably have been in jail. Yay for 19th-century prostituton!

Love Ranch (2010)

Based on the real story of the Mustang Ranch, this movie stars Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci as a married couple who opened the first legal brothel in the United States. Unfortunately, the film opened to some pretty negative reviews, but Helen Mirren posed nude for a few magazines to promote the film, so you could argue that it still counts as a win for everyone.

Pretty much very other building in Deadwood (2004-06)

Man, where do we even begin with this one? First there’s the Gem, owned by Al Swearengen (Ian McShane); then there’s the Bella Union Saloon, which opens up across the street from the Gem in season 1; and finally there’s the Chez Amis, which comes to town in Season 2. Apparently there were even more bothels and saloons in the real Deadwood, enough that 90% of the women living there in 1876 were working gals.