Do High-End Sex Workers Have it Easier?

I have been researching prostitution markets since the mid 1990’s. Much of my work has been in based Chicago, New York, and, more recently, Paris. Steve Levitt and I recently prepared a paper on the low-wage prostitution market in Chicago that received a lot of press. I’m hoping that the final version will provide some hard numbers on a difficult-to-reach sector of the American economy.

We know fairly little about the high-end pay scale. There are memoirs and scandals, but researchers tend to focus on the streets, in part because of difficulties of access to higher-income sex workers. (Freakonomics readers might recall that Dubner recently blogged about one of their contacts who works in the high-end.)

In New York, I have been interviewing women who decided to enter the “indoor sex trade,” a part of prostitution that I argue exploded after Giuliani shut down the open-air street markets in Manhattan. In 2006, I published a paper on this with Alexandra Murphy (now a sociology grad student at Princeton), but the media didn’t think it was newsworthy at the time. We interviewed high-end sex workers with the help of the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group that provides services and support for men and women in the trade.

Alex and I wanted to disrupt the glamorous view of women at the higher-end. “Kristen,” of Spitzer fame, was a typical sex worker who catered to the elites: she came to the city to get away from family problems; she was forced to engage in dangerous work with little assistance if things went wrong; and she received only a fraction of the money her employer (the escort service) obtained from the client. I’ve found the higher-paid women are abused about twice per year by their clients. I define “abuse” as suffering physical pain that prevents them from working and that includes visits to the hospital. Of course, no one is going to feel sorry for people earning thousands of dollars, but that doesn’t mean women avoid exploitation, violence, and danger altogether by making more money than they would on the streets.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of high-end sex markets was the motivational structure of the john. For example, I kept hearing reports from the women that men would not always demand sex — in fact, my surveys revealed that 40 percent of the meetings involved only light petting or kissing. Men often wanted comfort and a conversational partner.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: this is either anecdotal or these women told me lies. I felt the same way. So, I asked the women to help me find johns to interview. I ended up speaking to numerous clients who confirmed this basic fact: sex was only one part of what they wanted.

I thought you folks might want to send a few queries to women who know a lot about the high-end (and low-end) sex trade. I lined up two women who agreed to take your questions (and comments):

Mindy is a 43-year-old white woman who was a sex worker until 2007, when she decided to retire. (She typically retained a clientele of 12 to 15 men, all of whom paid a “per-session” fee of $5,000 to $7,500.) She made enough to buy a house and she is currently preparing for a career as a nurse.

Dorothy is 55, African-American, and lives in Chicago. “Dot” was a subject of my documentary (see my website). Although she was never a prostitute, she knows the streets and hotels of Chicago, and she has helped me to interview over 250 women.

They are happy to reply to your questions, but they also wanted to field a pop-quiz to Freak readers.

So, readers, you may opt to:

1. Ask Mindy a question or take a guess at hers:

I slept with many lawyers. What do you think was their most common fantasy/role play?

2. Ask Dorothy a question or answer her queries:

I have seen a lot of women break into the high-end [sex market]. They always ask me, “Should I try and help the
man with his marriage problems or should I tell him not to talk about it?” What do you think is the best way to keep the john around for a long time?

Fire away.

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  1. Wm Conlow says:

    Are Dubner and Levitt frustrated that Venkatesh’s posts are always so much more interesting?

    Should we expect a final installment of the The Wire thing, or not?

    Either way, I saw this man on the Colbert Report. Way to be!

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  2. frankenduf says:

    what on earth is worth $5000 per ‘session’?- I guess I’m naive, because the only thing I can fathom is that you do brain surgery while on top (this negates my initial trampoline conjecture)

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    • h says:

      As a Ho I can assure you that the only workers who make over $1000 for a one hour session are working unprotected and giving very particular extras. It’s $500 max full service for a young beautiful girl with surgical enhancements unless she is famous – television, radio famous. Once one reaches a certain price it means that things are going to get nasty. There is a difference between a sex worker and a woman who will allow herself to be defecated upon. I am serious and it is a terrible trend that originated en masse in St Tropez.

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  3. just someone says:

    Mindy: I’d guess the answer to your question is that they wanted you to be a judge.
    Question for Mindy and Dorothy: what percentage of women involved in “high-end” prostitution were subject to some sort of abuse (sexual or otherwise) prior to entering the trade?

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  4. Nathaniel says:

    Lawyers like to be submissive in the bedroom — probably spanked.

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  5. Wes says:

    Great job on Colbert the other night…

    I would guess that the way to keep someone around is to discuss it with them, only to affirm that the relationship with the escort could remain the same regardless of the outcome of the marriage. Being the relational constant could be a huge benefit to the escort.

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  6. Aaron says:

    1) I’d guess being arrested.

    2) Probably talking to him would keep a guy coming back. From these last few posts on the matter, it sounds like guys are paying for intimacy and not just sex.

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  7. Noah Horton says:

    What are the advantages of working with an agency? I assume that client flow is the main issue, but are there others?

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    • h says:

      So much – which is why they take such a percentage! Any issues with legality of location the agency deals with, so you don’t need to worry about people in the neighborhood or apartment noticing (they will, eventually and you might have to move the day the police knock on your door!). You have protection (strong driver with weapon) for “out” calls who responds immediately to a text or phone call and is hired for their temperament of kicking down a door if need be. Also you get to work with other women, so it’s not so antisocial.

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  8. Roger says:

    Question – Have you been able to have sexually satisfying realtionships with men that didn’t pay you? How did they feel about your job? How did you decide that they didn’t have to pay?

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    • h says:

      I’m on a roll here and this post is from two years ago.
      In response: yes! How did they feel? They didn’t like it – usually! For who pays and who doesn’t well, as long as men are making more than women I expect them to treat women to nice things since we have less opportunity.

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