The fifth episode of Westworld unveiled Pariah, a depraved mining town with a booming brothel system replete with gold-painted prostitutes and writhing Dionysian orgies. Even the show’s most blasé critics, thoroughly forewarned about its explicit sex scenes, were shocked by the local color. Heather Lee Branstetter, Ph.D., an expert on Wild West brothel culture, wasn’t.

While digging into the history of her hometown — the very real brothel-centric mining town of Wallace, Idaho — Branstetter uncovered stories from the late 1800s that would make a robot host blush. The admitted Westworld fan talked to Inverse about the birth of brothel culture in male-dominated towns, stiletto stabbings, and gold-covered sex workers.

How realistic does the town of Pariah seem to you?

It seems … not real to me at all. There were a lot of Latin elements — what I would imagine classical Greek and Roman society to [have been] like in terms of the debauchery. But I’m not an expert in that area. That was the tone that it gave off to me: not so much Wild West so much as Classical.

What were you more likely to see in Western brothel culture?

There was a lot of excess and crazy showmanship. In Murray, which is about a half hour [drive] away from my hometown, [Wallace, Idaho], there was this woman there who was known to pull a bathtub out into the street while the miners would pour gold dust onto her, and she’d strip for them in the bathtub while they threw their gold dust in.

Were the brothels ever as opulent as the one we saw in Pariah?

In these old boom towns, it was dirty, it was gross, and there weren’t paved streets. People were walking through manure. There was really a lot of limitation on what the women could actually do with their environment.

How did brothel culture originate in these towns?

The reason why the brothel system of morality formed is because there are so many men in comparison to women that are available. Wherever you’ve got a huge population of men, you’re going to have the perfect conditions for sex work. The conditions will remain viable until they’re made not viable for some reason. Those systems, once they get established, want to keep on going, and it does take a lot to get rid of it.

And how does the culture sustain itself?

A part of it is the permissive culture that allows it. It’s this “live and let live” culture where it’s really permissive, everything goes — that is, within the guise of a Victorian morality. In a lot of towns, the sex work would happen in a designated area, or it would happen within the saloon culture.

To what extent was violence against women a problem in these towns?

Much more so than you probably see in contemporary sex work. But there was violence between women, too. In my research, I found a story about one woman who had stabbed another colleague with a stiletto seven times. They got into a fight, and the fight went out on the street — and this was the highest-class brothel in town.

So there was a pecking order within the brothel culture?

You had the fancy parlor houses, and you had variety shows and dancehalls — they put on crazy bawdy theater. There was one story from Arizona or Colorado about this woman who would ride in naked on a horse. Around the time of the turn of the century, there wasn’t much difference between actresses and whores. Whores were providing the entertainment, and they were offering a preview of their services.

These anecdotes seem shocking to us because they involve real people. Does the fact that these stories involve robots in Westworld make them any more okay?

The show is a mix of what they imagine the guests’ fantasies would be, right? If I were one of the creators of the park, I wouldn’t necessarily want to keep everything in perfect verisimilitude to how it was. I’m sure that some guests would want to see a really gritty existence. But most guests, I would imagine, would be turned off by the reality of it. If you think about STIs …

What led to the demise of these cultures?

There was a big reform movement that started around the turn of the century, which really caught fire around 1910 when they passed the Mann Act. That was when the FBI showed up, initially; they needed people to regulate the interstate trafficking of women.

But then it was World War I, when soldiers were being seen as not fit to fight: They were coming down with diseases like gonorrhea and chlamydia, which are largely curable now but weren’t back then. The war department launched a huge propaganda campaign and systematically shut down red light districts, especially in the major cities. By then there weren’t many Wild West towns left.

Are there any remaining ones?

A lot of the mining towns in Colorado lasted until the 1950s or so; one in Montana lasted until the 1980s; my own town lasted until 1991. Of course, it evolves into a bit of a different situation, but in most of those old mining towns, where there was sex work through the mid-20th century, there was a lot of similarities with the system they had in the old days.

Is it still legal?

It’s still legal in Nevada, and it’s happening in a similar way, but now they’ve got these guys that are in charge of it. The reality of sex work is that once the men get their hands in the money and start controlling it, it’s not positive for women. In a lot of cases, that was the cool thing about Wild West towns, because women were the ones in charge in a lot of places, much more so than what you would see now in America, anyway.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Yasmin is a writer and former biologist living in New York. A Toronto girl at heart, her writing also appears in The Last Magazine and SciArt in America. You might recognize her as a past host of Scientific American's YouTube series.