Superfreakonomics and Prostitution

The blog here is a bit of a dude space. What can you do? It’s a blog about finance. But before we wander away from SuperFreakonomics, I’d like to take a moment to bring up their chapter on prostitution.

I found reading the chapter a really unpleasant experience. Like Daniel Davies, I noticed that when they mention “the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect” in the first book I couldn’t find a source. My reaction went beyond “this doesn’t seem like a correct statistics at all.” I remember thinking that was a really odd comparison, and that if they ever expanded their thoughts on the subject it would get creepy quickly, like if Schopenhauer was a teaching assistant for Economics 101.

And sure enough, the prostitution chapter kicks off the new book: “How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?” A lot of what you think of the section will depend on what you think of their thesis here:

There is one labor 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.

Ummm. Rortybomb esoterica: A distant female relative of mine was a Playboy centerfold. To say that Playboy is female dominated because only naked women appear in it is incorrect. It’s like saying Girls Gone Wild is female dominated; or that the diamond industry is African child dominated. It’s true, in one sense, not true in most though.

I also find odd the idea that the historical trade and exchange of women’s bodies was an early form of “Girl Power!” A more realistic version would take into account that the exchange historically has been done by men, for the strengthening of relationships between men (as well as having other effects).

Anyway, they interview two prostitutes, LaSheena who works in a housing project for ~$25 per trick, and Allie who works high-class clientele for $400+ trick. How did they end up in different circumstances? I kid you not, they quote LaSheena as saying that she “doesn’t like men” and would prefer to not be a prostitute. They then later go on to describe how much Allie enjoys her job, enjoys men, analyzing the supply and demand of the industry, etc. They don’t say that this is the lesson directly, since they lose interest in learning more about LaSheena, but that’s hanging out in the background. They end by wondering why more women don’t become prostitutes. Seriously.

Oh – in the endnotes they mention that one of the two prostitutes gives guest lectures at Levitt’s UChicago class. I’ll let you guess which one.

Anyway, this was a roundabout way of wanting to link to these two excellent responses to this chapter: Sady Doyle at The Guardian, and her follow-up with Amanda Hess at Sexist Beatdown. They are worth reading on your lunch break.

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5 Responses to Superfreakonomics and Prostitution

  1. gabe says:

    The freakonomics obsession with prostitution is a bit troubling.

    Also, doesn’t the first book contradict the second? The first book prostitutes earn more than architects, but in the second, prostitutes earn relatively little because men can “get it for free.” (I haven’t read superfreak fully, but this was my impression.)

  2. Will says:

    “would prefer to not be a prostitute” Revealed preference?

    Does the feminist critique of prostitution require the assumption that prostitution is the *only* occupation available to some women? Strawman: prostitution is bad because women are forced to prostitute themselves. If they have a choice, then they’re not forced even if their choice set is very constrained. Now, her limited choice set can be critiqued and it should be.

    But given the constraint and the fact she has a choice, I don’t see how a “normal” economic analysis can be thrown out the window. Its logically consistent to believe “given their limited set of choices, more women should become prostitutes” and to believe “women’s choice sets should be enlarged so that prostitution isn’t the best option”.

    Economics is done conditional on choice sets. Anthropologists study how the choice set is constructed not how decisions are made once the choice set has been determined. This suggests your criticisms from anthropology are missing the target.

  3. Exactly what I was thinking. I’m as open to economic analysis as anyone, and I’m not hypersensitive to feminist issues or anything, and I found the chapter vaguely insulting. A poor effort from Levitt and Dubner.

  4. noompa says:

    If its of interest to anyone, I happened to take Levitt’s class at the University of Chicago, which included the aforementioned guest lecture by a high-end call girl. A few things that I took away from the lecture:

    1. Said call-girl (can’t recall if her name actually was Allie) repeatedly harped on the lifestyle that her profession afforded her, including getaways to places all over the world (Rio, Paris Fashion Week, etc.)
    2. She initially got into the call-girl business as a means by way of which to supplement her income, stayed in it much longer than she intended to and has now quit, to pursue further schooling.

    Long story short, the “positives” in Allie’s profession largely arose from her position in the high-end segment of the market- I find it hard to see how similar positives could materialize for LaSheena. Given that we’re all about the economics of prostitution here, perhaps we should talk about barriers to entry in high-end markets, information gaps (which Allie stated as being the biggest obstacle in getting her career off the ground) and the sheer impossibility of transitioning from LaSheena’s level to Allie’s.

    Furthermore, I don’t recall Allie quite saying that she “liked” her clients- true, she did mention developing an emotional bond with some of them, largely because of how sad and lonely they seemed. Again, there is a distinction here between the types of prostitution practiced by Allie and LaSheena- given the differences in price, I expect Allie was put in contact with more men with whom she was comfortable letting her guard down, or getting to know. Its also worth knowing that Allie’s interest in analyzing the “supply-and-demand” of her industry largely arose after she met Professor Levitt…it hardly provided a retaining factor prior to that.

    I found Allie’s talk interesting, but ultimately useless since it really did not get to the heart of the uglier side of prostitution…LaSheena’s tragedy.

  5. crack says:

    When I read Freakonomics I remember thinking Levitt missed the really big question. He pointed out that the improved economy couldn’t have been the cause of the reduction in crime, and he claimed abortion did cause the reduction in crime. To me the real question was whether legalized abortion caused or contributed to the economic growth.

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