Prostitutes and Rice: Announcing the Winners

When I casually offered some Freakonomics schwag to the person who could find the most compelling similarity between prostitutes and rice, I didn’t expect much of a reader response, especially given that the contest wasn’t mentioned in the headline and came buried after paragraphs of rather dry economic argument.

I knew, however, that I was mistaken as soon as the hate emails began to pour in. More than 600 reader comments later, I was stunned by both the anger and the creativity that this blog post triggered. For those of you who were offended by the post, the goal wasn’t to dehumanize anyone, but rather to a) show how not all economic analysis you read is correct, and b) get people thinking.

I didn’t have any particular answer in mind — to me it seemed that there were hardly any two things provided by the market that were much more different than prostitutes and rice — but I know from past experience that there is no limit to what our blog readers can produce when incentivized by the prospect of a Freakonomics yo-yo.

Alas, many of the most creative comments have since been purged since they were judged to violate Times policy. (The primary determinant of satisfying Times policy, it would seem from looking at the remaining comments, is that the comment must renounce me.)

Luckily, I had the chance to go through almost all the comments before they were deleted. There were so many interesting comments, taking so many different forms, that any of 100 comments could have been judged winners. In the end, I picked two winning entries that had a simple elegance which appealed to me:

No. 1: “They both get tossed at weddings.”


No. 2: “The wild and dirty versions of both command premium prices.”

The first one isn’t really economics, it is just clever. The second one is both clever and invokes the most fundamental economic force there is: prices.

Congratulations, respectively, to John Talbott and Carl Kay, authors of the winning entries.

Honorable mention goes to Scott Schneider, who confided to me that “his uncle Ben has an unhealthy obsession with both.”

Emily W

"For those of you who were offended by the post, the goal wasn't to dehumanize anyone, but rather to a) show how not all economic analysis you read is correct, and b) get people thinking."

Do you realize that your goal is not necessarily what you achieved? To compare the bodies of women to a grain that is sold and consumed IS dehumanizing, no matter whether you got people thinking or not.

Whether dehumanization was your goal is not the point.

I'm saddened that you are unable to see WHY people were upset about the way you phrased your challenge.

Brant P

How do you know he was referring to women? Men can be prostitutes as well.

Kevin K

Prostitution is itself, by definition, dehumanizing to begin with - women offering up their bodies for sale and (in a way) consumption. There was nothing about the challenge that caused to become more so, which is why I cannot understand WHY people are getting so upset about it.

Be upset about what prostitution is, not by the seeking to draw a comparison between two totally disparate things.


Speaking of the posting policy, I have noticed that several of my posts that come from a Christian perspective never make the cut, though they are, of course, brilliant, entertaining, witty, wise, insightful, and so forth (smile).

Seems the gatekeepers won't to be careful that a certain unmentionable Name and a certain worldview don't get a strong hearing.


At least if you had run a contest comparing rice to the organ transplantation market, you would have received some interesting recipes.



It is sad. It's also sad that he ignored the better judgment of the people who were implementing the Times policy by circumventing their deletions.

Mr. Levitt, I've been a fan for years now and this is really shocking. If you don't see the offense, please just accept that it's offensive and resist posting about prostitutes in the future. If you don't get why you've offended, you'll just keep doing it, as you have here.

Kyle A

Everyone who is "offended" by this post needs to take a step back and relax.

Prostitutes are SELLING their bodies to be CONSUMED. It's a valid comparison. Call it what is and don't hide the truth of the matter behind some perceived injustice just because you don't like the thought of it.

Why must words always be so shocking(!) to the supposed enlightened folk?

Justin James

Something I found not only offensive, but ignorant in the original post is when he mentioned "buying a prostitute" or "purchasing a prostitute", as opposed to "the prostitute's services". When you buy a *person*, who are not a "john", you are a "slave trader". Makes me wonder what his underlying attitude towards prostitutes is.



Emily - While Levitt could (should?) have asked about the economics of prostitutes' services instead of prostitutes themselves, I found the comments calling him sexist (and at least one even said racist!) to be rather silly. Nowhere was it implied that a john would be purchasing "the bodies of women."

Would their have been a similar outcry if he had asked "What do birthday clowns and broccoli have in common?"

BTW: they are both kind of scary when you are young, but somehow seem worth purchasing when you get older.


Don't worry, Steven, you may post about abortion and dealing crack instead.

(On second thought, since you're trying not to offend people, you better stop posting completely.)

J. Edwards

If you are looking for an economic reason for why rice and prostitutes are the same, why not go with a truly economic statement?

For a certain portion of the demand curve, demand for both goes up, while prices rise. For rice, it's true Giffen behavior exhibited by poor Chinese consumers. ( For prostitutes is that they are, in part a "luxury good": Higher price, higher quality, more demand.


Economists are able to look at subjects dispassionately. A subset (like prostitutes) can have something in common with something else (like rice) whether we stop to observe how deplorable prostitution might be or not. The haters seem to have inferred some glibness that I didn't necessarily detect.


It must be hard to be offended by life like many of the folks leaving comments on both the original post and this one.


Wow, most of the people complaining here about this post need to get a life. It is precisely these kind of interesting comparisons to seemingly unrelated subjects that we read this blog. Get over yourselves. Hate the game, not the player.

D. Johnson

Very weird. There were a couple of posts (one of which was mine) that built on the old Cheers episode in which Cliff Clavin appears on Jeopardy and blows the final question by saying "Who are three people that have never been in my kitchen?" I don't see how those violated the Times policy, but I don't see them anymore.

Maybe I'll need to include some boilerplate language about Steven being an insensitive chauvinist moron in my future posts to ensure that they don't get deleted.


You should write a book implying a correlation between abortion and reduced crime. That would really draw some heat.

Oh, wait...


Mr. Levitt, you wrote above: "to me it seemed that there were hardly any two things provided by the market that were much more different than prostitutes and rice"

Your use of the word "things" is revealing here. Prostitutes are not "things"--they are people!

i agree with the previous posters who have berated you for your unfortunate and careless use of language, which is dehumanizing.

The services of prostitutes are "things" but the prostitutes themselves are not "things."


First, I have had several posts rejected simply because they were critical of statements being made on the blog. So I don't think the people making decisions on what posts are allowable have any agenda to see you insulted.

Secondly, not only did I find the post itself offensive, but many of the comments were offensive as well. People made blatantly racist and sexist remarks that made it past the censors and demonstrated some really deplorable ideas held by some readers.

Thirdly, to say "I didn't mean for it to be offensive and didn't understand why people found it offensive, thus I have no reason to reconsider what I did" is ridiculous. Why don't you use this as an opportunity to "think" a little and try to understand why this topic was considered offensive by SO many people?


Authors sell their brains to be consumed by readers.

Massage therapists sell their hands and upper body strength to be consumed by the masses.

Ballerinas sell their bodies to be viewed by spectators.

Clowns sell their dignity to amuse toddlers.

I see no difference in any of the above and in a prostitute selling his body to a lonely buyer. You can sell yourself for sex, magic tricks, dance shows, massages, writing talent, medical know-how, culinary ability, etc. Service workers sell services. The delivery of that service necessarily involves the selling of themselves. Sorry. *sad face*


I fail to see any problem with the origional artical. Firstly, how is it sexist? Both men and women can be prostitutes, and those assuming that only women are should be questioning their own prejudices rather than accusing others of sexism (when as far as I recall, no gender was either mentioned or implied in the blog post). Secondly, prostitution itself is not dehumanising. It CAN be when people are forced into it, in the same way anything else would be dehumanising, though the proffesion itself is not. If someone was forced into manual labour, this would also be dehumanising - it is removing their freedom and human rights. However, in most cases, it is simply a carreer of choice for many men and women.

While many see it as dehumanising as it involves 'selling the body', this is not different to many other lines of work. Dancers sell their skill of displaying the visual pleasure of their body. Atheletes do the same, and manual workers 'sell' their body's physical ability. Would the same people call these carreers dehumanising? Unlikely... The outdated idea that sex is somehow taboo is little reason to judge more liberal and perhaps more enlightened people to be sexist or othewise prejudgiced due to their support of a person's right to use their body as they see fit.

As another commentor suggested above, prostitutes are (even though in some cases unwillingly) selling their body for consumption (perhaps hiring would be a more correct term), and this is therefore a valid topic (as well as valid terminology) for a blog focusing on economics, and those that disagree would do well to question their own prejudices, and whether they would disagree had the topic been "builders and rice", "actors and cameras", "atheletes and pencils", or any variation on those terms.