Did you ever read Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner? I never did, what with being an economist-n-all. Anyway, these gentlemen have written a new book, called Superfreakonomics, and the Internet is abuzz with the way they discuss global warming in it. As in "wrong". But few are probably going to feel that there's anything wrong with the way they discuss prostitution:
There is one labour market women have always dominated: prostitution. Its business model is built upon a simple premise. Since time immemorial and all over the world, men have wanted more sex than they could get for free. So what inevitably emerges is a supply of women who, for the right price, are willing to satisfy this demand. But what is the right price?
Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia University in New York, spent his graduate school years in Chicago, embedding himself with a street gang that practically ran a South Side neighbourhood. Along the way, he became an authority on the neighbourhood's underground economy, and began collecting data on the local prostitutes.
Knowing that traditional survey methods don't necessarily produce reliable results for a sensitive topic like prostitution, Venkatesh hired trackers to stand on street corners or sit in brothels with the prostitutes, directly observing some facets of their transactions and gathering more intimate details from them as soon as the customers were gone.
Most of the trackers were former prostitutes — an important credential because such women were more likely to get honest responses. Venkatesh also paid the prostitutes for participating in the study. If they were willing to have sex for money, he reasoned, surely they'd be willing to talk about having sex for money. And they were.
It turns out that the typical street prostitute in Chicago works 13 hours a week, performing 10 sex acts during that period, and earns an hourly wage of approximately $27. So her weekly take-home pay is roughly $350. This includes an average of $20 that a prostitute steals from her customers and drugs accepted in lieu of cash.
Their income of roughly $18,000 a year is next to nothing compared with what even low-rent prostitutes in Chicago earned 100 years ago. A woman working in a "dollar house" took home the equivalent of about $76,000 today annually, while prostitutes at the Everleigh Club, the city's top brothel, could earn the equivalent of about $430,000.
Why has the prostitute's wage fallen so far? Because demand has fallen dramatically. Not the demand for sex. That is still robust. But prostitution, like any industry, is vulnerable to competition.
That competition, dear ladies, is you giving it out for free! So let's return to the beginning of that quote: " Since time immemorial and all over the world, men have wanted more sex than they could get for free. So what inevitably emerges is a supply of women who, for the right price, are willing to satisfy this demand. But what is the right price?"
So why would the supply of "free" sex have risen? What is so different from the new generation of women,eh? Are they rather stupid, not to realize that you'd make more by charging for fucking? Or let's put it in reverse: Why was the supply of "free" sex so much less in the past?
Levitt and Dubner don't seem to answer these questions for us (at least in the above excerpt I found). But they are very important questions, after all, and their answers have something to do with the way societies punished women who "supplied" "free" sex. You can still get stoned for it in a few places on earth.
By not answering these questions Levitt and Dubner make it sound as if men would always want more sex than they can get "freely", whatever the societal setup. Yet the amount they appear to get has risen over time, and in theory, at least, it's possible to imagine a society where the "supply" of "free" sex would be enough to cause the prostitution markets to die out.
Is it really true that prostitutes in the past earned so very much? Even those at the bottom of pay scale? The excerpt above compares today's street prostitutes to prostitutes who worked from brothels in the past. Were there no street prostitutes in those days of yore? The point I'm trying to make is that we need to compare like with like, and I'm not sure if the above comparisons really are of that type.
Never mind. Levitt and Dubner discuss a study of today's street prostitutes and their lives and then skip happily over to interview one high-end prostitute who is making loads and loads of money! In fact, the more she charges, the more customers she gets, and the more she earns with less work! It's totally TEH career of the future for us wimminz. Note that we are not talking about street prostitution here, nope. We are talking about competing with the Trophy Wife markets:
About this, Allie is probably wrong. Although she views herself as similar to a street prostitute, she has less in common with that kind of woman than she does with a trophy wife. Allie is essentially a trophy wife who is rented by the hour. She isn't really selling sex, or at least not sex alone. She sells men the opportunity to trade in their existing wives for a younger, more sexually adventurous version — without the trouble and long-term expense of actually having to go through with it.
For an hour or two, she represents the ideal wife: beautiful, attentive, smart, laughing at your jokes and satisfying your lust. She is happy to see you every time you show up at her door. Your favourite music is already playing and your favourite drink is on ice. She will never ask you to take out the rubbish.
Street prostitutes like LaSheena might have the worst job in America. But for elite prostitutes like Allie, the circumstances are completely different: high wages, flexible hours and relatively little risk of violence or arrest. So the real puzzle isn't why someone like Allie becomes a prostitute, but rather why more women don't choose this career.
That's the puzzle. Levitt and Dubner don't even TRY to answer that puzzle. It's something about the mysterious women, refusing to supply sex for good money, when they should. They are probably too stupid to realize that they could do that instead of getting married as trophy wives. Which is just prostitution under another name.
Levitt and Dubner don't actually properly tell us why Allie's profits rise as she raises her prices. It must be that she is exerting market power, as if she had a local monopoly in sex-for-money. But it isn't really sex she appears to be selling as much as "trophy-wifeness": The proper way for a wife to act. Or that's what Levitt and Dubner hint at.
It's all pretty fascinating. Like picking up a rock and looking at the slimy critters wiggling all over each other. Because ultimately Levitt and Dubner are arguing that women sell sex and men buy it, even when we talk about marriage. That means that if you pay a woman enough, she will act as a proper trophy wife. Or she should act that way. Or something like that.
And high-end prostitution is completely vanilla. No customer ever wants to hurt the prostitute, no. They bring wine and gift cards! They are harmless married dentists or stockbrokers! They just want to enjoy a moment when women act like they should act at home, too.
Let's go back to that first excerpt, about men always having wanted more sex than they could get free. There's no actual evidence for that, but never mind. Let's set up something similar but in reverse:
Since time immemorial and all over the world, women have wanted more romance than they could get for free. So what inevitably emerges is a supply of men who, for the right price, are willing to satisfy this demand. But what is the right price?
But such a market has never existed, to my knowledge. Why would that be? Worth thinking about, this one. It also links to the whole attitude of Levitt and Dubner.
The picture above was selected to draw attention to the way women's legs are used in the linked excerpt to the chapter on prostitution.