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.


DB

Mindy,

Are some prostitutes happy in their position, meaning they love their work, or is it just a means to an end, with a specific goal in mind (own house, fat bank account, early retirement, etc.)?

Do some $5,000 per-session prostitutes work part-time while holding down a "respectable" job?

F. Lee Bailey

Mindy: I would say re the lawyers that they would partake in D/s and have a preference for toilet play especially golden. But lawyers being lawyers I'm sure they all top from the bottom cross-dressed or not.

Question to both ladies: What exactly does $7,500 get over and above discretion. One can get a "true" GFE or PSE for $500 - $1K. As every act has a price; $7.5K must certainly buy a few hours of discrete depravity.

Flygal

For Dorothy (and Mindy , if this applies):
what is the risk of getting emotionally involved with a "regular"?
If a lot of encounters are not about sex and more about companionship, does the emotional toll outweigh the physical ?

Aaron

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.

Wes

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.

Nathaniel

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

Wm Conlow

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!

just someone

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?

frankenduf

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)

jim young

How lonely is it to work as a prostitute? Is there anyone you can speak fully and frankly with about your life, except others in the business? Does discretion paralyze your tongue in relationships with family, friends, significant others? Does loneliness and insularity lead some to drugs or alcohol abuse? If this is so, would it be more of a syndrome for high-end than for street-level sex workers, who are more accepted in their community?

jz

Funny how the men here use this opportunity to learn and strategize maximal value for their buck.

jz

to both ladies,

The issues of prostitution and infidelity are conflated. Is it possible , useful, or practical to separate the two?

jz

Mindy,
Best wishes in your pursuit of nursing. Why did you come to that choice?

Dr. Gary

The number one lawyer fantasy is to cue up an old VHS tape of the romantic kissing scene on the beach featuring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in "From Here to Eternity," while snuggling and sharing a bag of Orville's premium popcorn.

Glenn Dale

To Mindy: My guess is that they have a rape fantasy.

To Dorothy: my gues is that between the two choiced you outline 1) try and help the
man with his marriage problems 2)tell him not to talk about it, that the answer is to NOT Talk About it. (That depends on what kind of "help" these women are proposing to help solve the marriage problems.

However, I think a third choice, to just talk about it, without actually trying to help (other than by being sympathetic) would actually be the best response if the incentive is to keep the man as a client.

As a question to both: Most Escort ads that I have seen and most of the news I have read recently focuses on a dollar per hour fee structure. If that is truly the case, many men/clients would, I believe, feel the desire to "consume" as many sex acts within the alloted time as possible. How do sex workers feel about this?

Since they are being paid by the hour, technically they are not really doing much additional work (since they are not working more hours). However, I would guess that sex workers perceive actual sexual acts to be work and will try to delay/forestall/minimize/avoid additional sex acts.

What are their strategies for doing so and how do they resolve the conflict with a john/client who feels he has paid for the sex workers time and is entitled to additional sex acts while time is still remaining on the clock and the sex worker's desire to avoid additional sex acts?

Read more...

DaveF

How important is physical beauty?

Are certain body types more successful than others? (voluptuous? slender? athletic?)

Is there market pressure to get cosmetic surgery?

What's median age of a "high-end" prostitute?

How long can a career last?

What's the typical and/or range of education for women in your field?

Who are the people serving as your "pimps"? What are "pimps" called for high-end "escorts"?

Is there an equivalent service for high-end male escorts for affluent and powerful women? What can you say about this sub-market?

marmolillo

Question:
As a businesswoman, you tend to be more compliant with returning clients to maintain them or with new ones in order to make them came back?

Question for Mindy:
When deciding to retire and work in a "normal" job. It is too hard to think always in how little money and time you will have compared with your former job?

Celeste

Answer to Dorothy:

I would say help them with their marriage problems. Marriage problems never go away, so the client will keep coming back with other issues. And it sounds a helluva lot more supportive then "let's not talk about this."

Mark

I'll bet that they can cover their lack of job by saying they were "stay-at-home moms" or somesuch. No problem for women. For a guy it would say something like "I've been in prison."

jared

People naturally want what they can't have. So, since high end lawyers are typically in a professional/suit-bound atmosphere, I would guess they would want something the opposite of that... maybe something high-schoolish like a cheerleader.