ONTD Political

The guys who brought you Freakonomics ask "Why isn't prostitution more profitable?"

4:03 pm - 10/24/2009
Good news, ladies. You, too, can make millions by charging for sex! And you'll just have a slam-bang, gee-golly splendiferous time doing it, too – at least if you absolutely adore the sort of men who pay for it. Be warned, however: Disliking those men will consign you to the minimum-wage ranks of sex professionals, forever longing for the big bucks you could be earning, had you only an appropriately chipper attitude.

Such is the advice of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, of Freakonomics fame. They are back with a new book, Superfreakonomics, and recently they unveiled a bit of it in the form of an excerpt about how to succeed as a prostitute.

Freakonomics, of course, is the science of choosing an appropriately wacky or controversial subject (sumo wrestlers, abortion), applying a little economic analysis to it and coming up with a shocking conclusion that will make people blog about you. In that respect, the how-to-charge-for-sex piece was a no-brainer. Expressing any opinion about prostitution will bring on outrage (and attention) from one corner or another, no matter what your opinion turns out to be. Of course, if you are aiming for maximum impact, it helps to be – as Levitt and Dubner are – really, stunningly, remarkably wrong.

Levitt and Dubner build their piece around a comparison of two prostitutes: Allie, who works from her bedroom and makes between $350 and $500 an hour, depending on the client, and LaSheena, who works on the streets and probably makes about $350 a week
, based on statistics (some information – any information – as to LaSheena's specific circumstances and earnings probably would have helped the comparison, but Levitt and Dubner seem, in this instance as in many others, not to have bothered learning about their subject).

LaSheena and Allie are the Goofus and Gallant of sex work, at least in the warped little scenario laid forth in the Superfreakonomics excerpt. Arising, as Levitt and Dubner seem to assume they do, from absolutely no context whatsoever (the fact that Allie is probably white, and that LaSheena is probably not, is never once addressed, for example; neither is the personal history of LaSheena explored in any detail, though we hear about Allie at excruciating length) they are not actual women so much as they are flattened-out, hollow caricatures of Success and Failure. Allie is a good prostitute; she has succeeded. LaSheena is a bad prostitute; she has failed.

What has LaSheena done wrong, you ask? Simple: She doesn't like being a prostitute. "I don't really like men," she is quoted as saying. This is an interesting statement, which the authors fail to follow up.
Why doesn't LaSheena like men? Has she been beaten? Has she been raped? Is there a man taking a cut of her money? Was she forced into this job as a child by a man, by a boyfriend she loved, by sheer poverty? And has she seen the ugly side of men too often in this job to trust any?

Hey, here's an interesting thought: Maybe LaSheena doesn't like men because she's trapped in a cycle of poverty, and one of the only ways for her to stay alive is to have sex with men, whether or not she really wants to. Maybe that's enough to make LaSheena dislike men. We'll never know, however, because Dubner and Levitt don't ask. They don't care to humanise her. She's the Goofus in the scenario. Her poverty – which is assumed to be entirely her fault – is only there to provide a counterpoint to Allie's shining example.

Boy, oh, boy, does Allie ever love being a prostitute! Why, do you know that she just went ahead and did it on a whim, as a sexy adventure, and not because of any nasty old compelling factors like poverty or addiction or a man literally arranging for her to be raped over and over again and taking money from her rapists or anything like that? Well, it's true. The Freakonomics gentlemen said so!

They make a point of letting us know that Allie "liked men, and she liked sex". And do you know what men she especially likes? Why, her clients, of course. Allie "is the kind of person who sees something good in everyone". Isn't that nice? She credits this for the fact that she is so successful – and so do Levitt and Dubner.

Say, here's another nicety that Levitt and Dubner genuinely thought was a sane and intelligent thing to write down and publish: Allie's clients "treat her, in many ways, as men are expected to treat their wives but often don't". And Allie, in return, is like the "ideal wife", who "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."

How this qualifies as wifely behaviour, outside of reruns of Father Knows Best, is unclear. But Levitt and Dubner seem genuinely convinced that this one-sided scenario of happy subjugation and infantile, pampered narcissism is good for everyone involved. Allie gets a MacBook! Doesn't that prove that it's working?

Levitt and Dubner seem, at some point along the line, to have missed out on the fact that women have inner lives, lives which do not revolve entirely around servicing men and which may in fact require some servicing by men along the way. It's evident in the way they extol Allie for getting such unmitigated joy out of subjugating herself to her clients.

It's also clear in the fact that they praise prostitution for allowing men to have sex without the "the potential costs of an unwanted pregnancy". (Well, no, sex with prostitutes did not carry the potential costs of an unwanted pregnancy, for men. In fact, I've noticed that very few men tend to get pregnant as the result of sex, whether with prostitutes or with anyone else. Perhaps Levitt and Dubner can take some time, in their forthcoming book Superduperultrafreakonomics, to puzzle that one out for us.)

It's clear in the way that they classify women who do not charge for sex as "competition" to prostitutes – as if those women were offering the same, or even comparable, experiences, and as if Levitt and Dubner genuinely cannot believe that sex is not a service performed for men by women, but a thing that women do for their own satisfaction.

It's most clearly, cruelly evident in the way they blame LaSheena for her own poverty – placing the credit for it not on any of the multiple obstacles she may have had to overcome, but on the fact that she simply doesn't love to be a prostitute the way Allie does. Deep down, there is the assumption that servicing a man is all a woman can reasonably aspire to, and that those who don't love to do it are somehow faulty.

And as for how much Allie loves to be a prostitute ... well, we don't have her direct testimony, do we? What we have is the word of two best-selling authors, which has been edited into book form. Allie's story is so romanticised that it seems unlikely the authors bore no agenda in their interviews – or that Allie, a woman whose job is to figure out what men want from her, was unaware of it.

It's entirely possible that, faced with a couple of men who very clearly wanted one specific version of her story, she sized them up and did the same thing for them that she did for all her other clients. That is to say, she told them what they wanted to hear.


Levitt and Dubner's article on prostitution
rex_dart 25th-Oct-2009 01:17 am (UTC)
I believe we have at least one sex worker in this community who will be glad to give you her "armchair" opinions on it if she happens to drop by.
rex_dart 25th-Oct-2009 01:20 am (UTC)
And the relevance of this is what? The point here is that I've personally heard from just as many women who chose sex work and believe that it should be legal and safe as I have from women who were forced into it. Your opinion =/= everyone's reality.
rex_dart 25th-Oct-2009 01:22 am (UTC)
And you propose we do what about it?

Oh, and this isn't my social circle. Please cite your studies.

Edited at 2009-10-25 01:23 am (UTC)
rex_dart 25th-Oct-2009 01:28 am (UTC)
And when did I say we didn't need to help women who are forced into it?

The entire point is that it's as stupid to say that no women would ever choose sex work as it is to say that no women are forced into sex work. Neither is true or productive. The fact of the matter is that what we need to worry about is respecting that women can make that choice, making sure that women who don't want to get the help they need to not have to, and making sure that women who do want to are protected by law instead of made into criminals whose lives are ten times more dangerous because of it.

Edited at 2009-10-25 01:29 am (UTC)
rex_dart 25th-Oct-2009 01:35 am (UTC)
Well, I said in the first place that this article was stupid and so was the original. I didn't really have a point. I just think it's counterproductive to dismiss the experiences of women who enjoy their line of work, because casting sex work as something that's inherently demeaning or harmful isn't going to help fix our society's problems with it in the long term. I think that bringing the sex industry aboveground and trying to regulate it and clean it up is something that needs to be done to prevent more women from getting into the same cycle that we're currently trying to get sex workers out of now, or else we'll just be working to fix the outcome but not the cause.
myfanwy53 25th-Oct-2009 03:35 am (UTC)
I think the point of the article was that the book did just the opposite: totally dismissed the far larger unwilling part of the profession in favor of fetishizing the much much smaller willing profession AND through the constant glorification (probably done largely for the male audience) implying that the unwilling population simply needed to bend over and like it. They are in fact correct that the book is incredibly biased and basically a sexist exercise in masturbation. No one EVER mentions regulation because the point was that the need for regulation would be negated if everyone simply loved their job as much as the happy hooker. And seriously, any regulations are just going to make the black market and forced prostitution that much worse.

And if you don't really have a point, why in the hell are we having this argument?
chaeri 25th-Oct-2009 05:55 am (UTC)
Agreed. If sex work were legal, the girl who was arrested for shooting her pimp would never have had to go that far. She could have called the cops, gotten him arrested for rape, the end. Since prostitution is illegal, she couldn't go to the cops because there was just as much a chance that she would be arrested as he would. She was instead forced to kill the guy and was given such a harsh sentence because she was a prostitute.
rex_dart 25th-Oct-2009 01:37 am (UTC)
Settle down and be prepared to provide the sources you explicitly state that you have. You're in a debate, not make-believe time in kindergarten. If you've got a stack of sources, name them because I'd like to read them.
rex_dart 25th-Oct-2009 01:40 am (UTC)
Good to see you didn't actually have any sources! Thanks! :D
thewhowhatwhats 25th-Oct-2009 02:25 am (UTC)
You're ridiculous. You haven't won anything by compensating for your lack of an argument by being condescending and calling everything stupid.
mint_chalk 25th-Oct-2009 01:47 am (UTC)
out of curiosity, do you think it should be legal?

i'm not really sure of what the effects would be. would it be like McJobs, where no one really wants to work there but for some people it's their only option (based on where they were born, their race/sex/combined sum of all that, etc)?

it seems like the more brutal aspects would be easier to monitor if legal though. ideally.
de_wood 25th-Oct-2009 02:03 am (UTC)
"selling sex should be decriminalized, buying sex should be criminalized."

iawtc & with you in this post
box_in_the_box 25th-Oct-2009 02:38 am (UTC)
That's actually an interesting idea. The main problem I see with it is that, as long as one aspect of a profession or trade is criminalized, it still tends to ... taint the rest of it, if that makes any sense.

Also, I'm hard-pressed to think of any other industry where it's legal to sell, but not legal to buy - in certain European countries, it's almost exactly the opposite, with regard to drugs, so that trafficking is illegal, but possession is not - so I'm wondering whether such a law might itself be challenged on the grounds of legality.
ameonna 25th-Oct-2009 03:54 am (UTC)
Even though I don't think sex work should be illegal, buying OR selling, I'm sympathetic to your argument. The thing is, I'm not sure why selling sex being decriminalized is part of the solution. Isn't the aim to discourage both parties?

I think if the existing laws against paying for sex were enforced as much as the existing laws against selling sex are, it would be a non-issue. I think rather than having the police, a majority male agency with an interest in exploiting the prostitutes, handle the parties involved, we need something more similar to Child Protection Services, staffed by social workers and women.

Edited at 2009-10-25 03:59 am (UTC)
eleveninches 25th-Oct-2009 04:43 am (UTC)
iamcheryltweedy 25th-Oct-2009 05:54 am (UTC)
My armchair opinion aligns well with this comment. :3

Stay safe, bb.
mint_chalk 25th-Oct-2009 06:56 am (UTC)
the comparison was in the hypothetical instance that buying and selling sex would be decriminalized, which ideally wouldn't leave any of those risks..with the exception of STI's that can be transferred even with protection. and it wasn't so much a "sex work would be like fast food," but rather - look, still another job most people wouldn't want but would be essentially forced into.

but yea i have always wondered why people look down on the sex worker.. they're not the ones paying for sex. the ones who create the space for the market are the ones who will buy sex.
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