12/9/09 - prostitution

In today's excerpt - prostitutes in the United States a century ago likely made in excess of $70,000 per year in today's dollars—far in excess of today's prostitutes and were a higher percentage of the population. The reason? Today's prostitutes face more competition from women willing to have sex with a man for free. This conclusion stems from the work of economist Sudhir Venkatesh on the subject of the Chicago prostitute industry:

"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 acknowledges that some prostitutes accept drugs in lieu of cash—usually crack cocaine or heroin and usually at a discount. Of all the women in Venkatesh's study, 83 percent were drug addicts. ...

"Many of these women took on other, non-prostitution work, which Venkatesh also tracked. Prostitution paid about four times more than those jobs. But as high as that wage premium may be, it looks pretty meager when you consider the job's downsides. In a given year, a typical prostitute in Venkatesh's study experienced a dozen incidents of violence. At least 3 of the 160 prostitutes who participated died during the course of [his] study. 'Most of the violence by johns is when, for some reason, they can't consummate or can't get erect,' says Venkatesh. 'Then he's shamed—'I'm too manly for you' or 'You're too ugly for me!' Then the john wants his money back, and you definitely don't want to negotiate with a man who just lost his masculinity.'

"Moreover, the women's wage premium pales in comparison to the one enjoyed by even the low-rent prostitutes from a hundred years ago. Compared with them, [the typical street prostitutes] are working for next to nothing.

"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.

"Who poses the greatest competition to a prostitute? Simple: any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free.

"It is no secret that sexual mores have evolved substantially in recent decades. The phrase 'casual sex' didn't exist a century ago (to say nothing of 'friends with benefits'). Sex outside of marriage was much harder to come by and carried significantly higher penalties than it does today."


Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner


Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should by Life Insurance


HarpersCollins Publishers


Copyright 2009 by Steven D. Levitt


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