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
ameonna 25th-Oct-2009 04:07 am (UTC)
I think I can answer the question without stupid metaphors, imaginary hookers or a lot of sociological studies:

Because the majority of men who pay for prostitutes are the same sort of men who don't mind women not being paid equally for equal work.

Because male lawyers and male doctors have decided that sterilizing a woman of childbearing age should not be her choice.

Because these same men find sexually autonomous women threatening.

Because organized religions want to maintain their monopoly on the minds of those who create life and bring it into the world and use intimidation and brainwashing to make desire a shameful thing.

Because sex, like medicine, food and shelter, has too many emotional connections for most people and the idea of bartering something so intimate for money is something people are generally hesitant to discuss outside of the theoretical.

Because pimps dominate the industry and use violence, rape and intimidation to force their commission system on the lower income prostitutes.

Because as far as women have come, we still have a really long way to go before we aren't vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and we may not get there in our lifetimes, or ever.

There are a lot of reasons why prostitution isn't more profitable. None of them have anything to do with whether or not prostitutes who enjoy their work exist. The article discussed fails, and I'll be trashing my copy of Freakonomics when I get back to the US. I found the book interesting, but I didn't realize the authors were idiots, I thought they were just sheltered academics.

Edited at 2009-10-25 04:09 am (UTC)
noein9 No true economic discussion of sex work at all25th-Oct-2009 07:06 am (UTC)
Based on the article link and the post here, I find it very interesting that there is no true discussion of sex workers and the economies of scales involved in sex work.

The authors weasel out by talking about irrationalities- an emotional response to the proposed work- rather than the real rational cost/benefit analysis of what sex work entails, why some women embark on it, the backgrounds of people involved, and societal conditions.

( Oh, BTW? The stereotypical 'Black' names is a falsehood. Most African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Brazillians don't have names like Shaniqua or LaSheena. Many people with vowel ending names are actually Afro-Arabic in origin, and were usually given as an alternative to Western European names as a nickname or first name. Want famous examples? Queen Latifah, whose birth name is Ms. Dana Owens; her name means delicate flower. Then there is Tunde Adebimpe, whose father was from Nigeria and his name is an actual clan name. It's stunningly insulting- like calling every European woman Mary.)

And the racism and sexism knows no bounds. There is no discussion of how marketing, no discussion of how these women prepare for their work shifts, of how the money is used and invested. There is no discussion of health, bith mental and physical, and no discussion of how that money is used - for investment, for bare survival, for rent or mortgage? Instead, these women are reduced to easily available stereotypes- the black bitch who is a whore and has bad attitude so she deserves her poverty, and the accommodating white girl who is a whore, but a whore with a heart of gold, you see; she has a great attitude and act exactly the way you want, without any interference of her own feelings or inner life at all.

If this was a discussion of steelworkers, engineers who opened a co-op, farmers who did the same, grocery workers or plumbers, we would not have this. There would be studies and discussion about background, rational choices, availability, scales, and demand.

This is not honest in any way.

What the authors have done is not discussed sex work in any sort of way. This is nothing more than parlor talk, cocktail party bulllshit, dinner party repartee when conversation runs low. This is entertainment for an entitled white men's party, where prostitutes can be reduced to nothing more than racial and gender assigned stereotypes, without fear, because, hey, they're whores, after all!.


Also, interesting that there is no real discussion of sexual relations between men and women who do not use sex workers and men and women who do use sex workers. Sorry in advance for capslock abuse, but THIS IS A VALID AND TRUE AREA OF STUDY- THE ECONOMICS OF SEX WORK. It is disgusting and disappointing that these very sheltered academics did not see the opportunity to do something important and reduced sex workers, regardless of gender or racial/ethnic, to a cocktail party joke.

*drinks wine*

ameonna Re: No true economic discussion of sex work at all25th-Oct-2009 09:26 am (UTC)
Thank you for saying what I meant so much better than I did.
noein9 Re: No true economic discussion of sex work at all25th-Oct-2009 10:14 am (UTC)
Hey! No problem! Total wine based rant!

I was just infuriated at the wasted potential and the absolute stupid. Just stunning, really, when sex work and tourism are top professions in the world, period, and how these profession affect everything- health, how the self is seen, transit of money, just everything.

Phenomenally stupid waste of bloody time. They really had something there to really work on, but hey, I guess such a truthful study is not as profitable- nor as class and gender affirming- as reducing women to stereotypes!
ameonna Re: No true economic discussion of sex work at all25th-Oct-2009 10:21 am (UTC)
Just reminds me of the essay I linked my father to two weeks ago when he forwarded me yet another list of blonde jokes.
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