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.”


Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  1. Emily W says:

    “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.

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  2. Brant P says:

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

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  3. Kevin K says:

    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.

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  4. AaronS says:

    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.

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  5. Garbanzo says:

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

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  6. dd says:


    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.

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  7. Kyle A says:

    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?

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  8. Justin James says:

    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.


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  9. Jim says:

    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.

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  10. Nate says:

    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.)

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  11. J. Edwards says:

    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.

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  12. mike says:

    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.

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  13. Jeffrey says:

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

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  14. Billy says:

    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.

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  15. D. Johnson says:

    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.

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  16. Henry says:

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

    Oh, wait…

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  17. Mary says:

    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.”

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  18. BSK says:

    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?

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  19. katie says:

    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*

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  20. Emma says:

    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.

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  21. Kevin K says:

    Justin – That is just arguing semantics at that point and to infer Steven does not even view prostitutes as people, but more like chattel. That’s really reaching to find something that is just not there.

    I keep reading these comments and feel like people want to be offended, so they find offense.

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  22. Emily W says:

    Okay, let’s talk about numbers. What percentage of the world’s prostitutes are women? What percentage are men?

    Then let’s talk about selling services to be consumed. Once rice is consumed, it no longer exists. Services are not consumed. A prostitute does not sell her body, she sells the right to perform very specific acts with her. Her body is not consumed; it continues to exist after she gets her money and the transaction is complete.

    Jim, I’m sorry that you found it “silly” that people think that the comparison was sexist. The fact is, for adults, the majority of prostitutes ARE women. To refer to them with the same respect and with the same language as a object that is eaten is insulting.

    To then tell us that since he didn’t mean it, it shouldn’t be offensive is even MORE insulting.

    I agree with BSK: Why not step back and take this chance to UNDERSTAND why people are upset rather than dismiss them entirely?

    For the people who consider prostitution to be the same as dancers and athletes, well, I don’t even know where to start. They aren’t the same. Athletes and dancers have recompense if their bosses beat the crap out of them or take their money or force them to keep working or work in unsafe conditions. As that poor law student learned a few weeks ago, prostitutes do not have that luxury, at least not in most countries.

    Before you comment to explain why I’m wrong, stop and think for a second that I might be right, that there might be actually something different about prostitution that isn’t just about what service is being sold, but that the difference of service makes the entire transaction different.

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  23. PaulK says:

    Although I was not offended by the original post, I understand why some are. First of all, had you compared rice and *legal* prostitution (e.g. in Nevada), then it would remove the negatives associated with prostitution (e.g. the sex slave trade).
    To put that into context, suppose you asked for the connection between rape and rice, or murder and rice, or child porn and rice. You can see that being flippant about something we feel more emotional about would cause offense. They are valid in the sense that they exist, but one is expected to use more care in how they are treated. By using “legal prostitution”, and clarifying that you are comparing the price of rice to buy and legal prostitution services to sell (note services), then you have at least removed many of the stigmatized aspects of prostitution (slavery, children as prostitutes, prostitutes beaten by pimps and johns, drugs, etc).

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  24. Andy says:

    I’m a feminist and I don’t see anything wrong with Dr. Levitt’s posts. We’re all aware that prostitutes are people. Everybody chill out.

    Keep up the good work, Steven.

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  25. BSK says:


    That is a little bit ridiculous. You are a self-described feminist so your viewpoint is somehow more valid? Whether or not you consider yourself a feminist or not does not make your answer more credible or more accurate. You do not speak for all feminists, nor do all feminists hold all of the same ideas. It is fair and fine for you to disagree with those who are offended, but to act as if your feelings on feminism somehow give your comments greater significance is a poor approach to debate. Perhaps if you had some verifiable expertise in an area related to the topic, you comment would carry more weight. Unfortunately, you do not seem to and this leaves your contribution to the argument wanting and, more importantly, undermining the viewpoints of other feminists who may not share your view.

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  26. WJD says:

    Several posters who didn’t take offense to Steven’s posts summarized my thoughts above, so I’ll just add one more in (immature) support of our position: We get to watch those who are offended become comically shrill about it.

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  27. Beth says:

    Both are associated with the most desperate of human conditions: slavery and starvation. There is nothing clever or interesting about posing such a question for entertainment.

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  28. Grant says:

    I think WJD’s comment is the most trenchant. I always love when blog comment sections get really crazed like this. Everyone takes things so seriously…

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  29. BSK says:


    It is fine to not be offended and to disagree with those who are. But it is wrong to take pleasure in other people’s discomfort, just as it is wrong to describe people’s expression of offense as “comically shrill”. How do you feel when your feelings are dismissed? Because that is exactly what you are doing.


    It is easy to say that people are taking things too “seriously” when you are not in a position to be offended. When was the last time you were offended? If you can remember a time, were you simply being too serious or were your feelings genuine? And if you can’t remember a time, perhaps you have to look around at what has allowed you to sit back and enjoy life while so many others have to be “serious” all the time to avoid being further marginalized.

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  30. rtgkj3 says:

    @ Emily W #22: there have been many reported cases of athletes being beaten or shot for not producing desired results or having their wages withheld

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  31. cs says:

    “If you don’t see the offense, please just accept that it’s offensive and resist posting about prostitutes in the future.”

    dd: So prostitutes can never be discussed?

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  32. Lisa says:

    BSK: I was a prostitute, and I’m not offended – nor do I feel it necessary to take things seriously to avoid being marginalized. Or were you talking about people who eat rice?

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  33. HW says:

    Stephen- I don’t see the problem either. It was a very interesting question, and thank you for posting the responses. I feel sorry for people who take offense so easily.

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  34. Linda says:

    I am a woman, but I will say that it is women like Emily who make me very resistant to calling myself a feminist. I realize that there are some women who have turned to prostitution as a result of a lack of better choices, but they choose this as a profession (whether a high-priced call girl or someone wanting to get money for drugs). I also don’t think it is appropriate to compare prostitutes with slaves.

    Apparently the people who responded to the post know better than Levitt what is in his heart. Amazing power these people have. You might just have to talk about topics that disparage men from now on Steve! At least the posts from the so-called “feminists” or knee-jerk reactionaries will actually be cheering “Right on!”

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  35. adora says:

    I love the wedding one! Brilliant!

    While prostitute can be either male or female, I feel that male prostitutes are more of a luxury good. (Rarely do low income women purchase such service, while there are a lot of low income men seeking female prostitutes on regular basis.) Therefore, it is likely that the prostitutes in comparison to rice are females.

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  36. BSK says:


    Everyone is free to feel as they do about a situation. I don’t think it’s fair either to say that because you are not offended, you are not taking the situation seriously. The implication is that if you DID take it seriously, you would be offended, and that is wrong. What I was getting at is that many people are put in situations where they may be marginalized, and if they are not sensitive to and serious about these situations, they may be limited in their ability to resist them. For various reasons, people encounter these situations at vastly different rates, and if someone is a person who is not often put in these situations, it is not fair for them to judge the actions of those who are. I respect your opinion, not just because you once were a prostitute, but because I respect anyone’s right to have an opinion different than mine. What I think it unfair is people who act as if those who are offended suffer from some fatal flaw, which is often described as being “too serious”, “lacking a sense of humor”, are “looking to be offended,” or “take offense so easily”. While that may be true for a select few, it is an unfair characterization to apply to everyone.


    I know that I personally do not need any pity or anyone feeling sorry for me. To be honest, I feel sorry for people who are unable to understand the perspective of other people and grasp why they may legitimately feel different about an issue. I also feel sorry for people who do not care enough to be offended.

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  37. Justin says:

    I’m must admit that on a blog such as Mr. Levitt’s, I am amazed at the offense of so many readers. We are all adults here. I am certain that everyone understands that many atrocities are associated with prostitution and even rice. But that doesn’t mean that the comparison cannot be made or shouldn’t. Just because the topic is controversial or offense, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be posed.

    How many have been criticized for asking tough questions (whether right or wrong) that are not politically correct. Should we all just live in a bubble where the world’s problems should only be mentioned in hushed whispers? Or should we be bold enough or curious enough to try and understand them. Individuals such as Mr. Levitt help us understand our world, people who find these taboo subject’s offensive and wish to sweep them under the rug are worse than the people who pretend they don’t exist.


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  38. Jonathan says:

    Whether the comments by Dr. Levitt were or were not offensive is not something I care to weigh in on. What I will say however is that simply because something might be offensive does not mean it shouldn’t openly be discussed. Economists are constantly faced with issues regarding race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and many of these issues are fairly controversial. For example, consider how any one of these factors impacts an individuals income or wealth? A question like this is fairly controversial. All an economist can do research the question at hand and report their findings as objectively as possible. The idea that we should not research these questions on the grounds that we might be considered, sexist, racist, or otherwise is not a solution but rather will only perpetuate those problems by ignoring them.

    Do I think Dr. Levitt may have been somewhat cavalier in his blog? Perhaps, lets remember though that 1) he is an economist faced with these difficult questions and 2) it’s a blog which by its nature is a forum where being cavalier is acceptable.

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  39. OriginalODB says:

    I consider myself pretty empathetic but it was a real struggle to think of what could be offensive about the original question. I read the comments and I guess I see your point but it seems like a real stretch. To each their own I guess

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  40. David says:

    I do not find anything offensive about talking about prostitution, referring to people as “things”, or anything else Levitt wrote. The fact that people here are unable to articulate logical reasons why they are offended, and support them with evidence, undercuts their credibility.

    Go Levitt!

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  41. reyzl says:

    Thank you, Emily W and BSK for putting yourselves out there for lectures from people who think you need “to get a life.”
    I appreciate your trenchant analyses..

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  42. BSK says:

    My biggest problem is not with the initial question. I was primarily offended by some of the racist and sexist responses that were posted by readers and how incredulous Levitt was when people voiced their displeasure.

    When people come on to post things saying, “They are the two biggest commodities in southeast Asia” or “Both get thrown at a wedding” I find those comments to be ridiculously offensive and indicate that the original post was made in such a way as to encourage these ideas. Obviously, some people will always find a way to twist something, and that is not necessarily Levitt’s fault. But the subject of the post was not to genuinely argue the ways in which prostitutes and rice share similar economic properties. Rather, it was to find some clever, witty, or funny way to compare the two that invariably would lead to an already marginalized and often abused group of people being compared to a commodity.

    Mr. Levitt saying he was “surprised” that people were offended does not excuse it; rather, it points to a lack of perspective he has in failing to anticipate that this was a loaded conversation that was capable of offense. I would have been much less offended had he said, “I realize this is a sensitive topic and may not be one that is comfortable for everyone, but there are important things worth learning and thinking about that come from it, so I feel it is worthwhile.” One could then argue the merit of the pros and cons. By being “surprised” that people were offended demonstrate that Levitt is severely out of touch with the realities of the world of prostitution and how easily offended people can be when talking about such a loaded topic. Being “surprised” only points out his own ignorance and does not invalidate the feelings of those who were offended, which was seemingly Levitt’s point.

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  43. JP says:

    Stop complaining about the content while ignoring the context. Some people find capitalist economics offensive and I’m sure none of you would care to pander to their understanding every time they could get offended by this blog (that’s saying they read the blog). There’s also no need to complain about the colloquialisms in which people are reduced to things or when one person is spoken as a “they”, especially when THEY are being spoken about in an abstract manner. Setting aside those forced into prostitution, those who participate in the practice are exploiting their skills and bodies in exchange for some form of payment. By this strict definition we are all prostitutes at some time or another during our lives as we exploit our skills and in some cases bodies for compensation. In fact any job is an exploitation of a worker by their superiors and the company as a whole; maybe to varying degrees but exploitation doesn’t always have a negative connotation (although I’m sure someone will find a definition saying otherwise). Athletes go to the point of breaking bones, suffering concussions, and occasionally die from exploiting their bodies for money. Athletes and prostitutes both exploit their bodies, just in different manners and to differing degrees, so should I stop watching football now? Stop trying to guilt this guy into thinking he did something wrong.

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  44. John says:

    Why are so many people assuming prostitutes to be female? (and why is that not perceived as offensive as Steven’s comments?)

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  45. PK Son says:

    Wow, flaring. Levitt is great at what he does because he can see things from a strictly economical sense.

    Prostitution is a behavior that naturally arises in any society. Just because some people have taught you (you know who you are) that it’s bad and it degrades people doesn’t mean it’s taboo. It’s a part of human society, and probably always will. So what’s wrong with discussing it, and comparing it with .. of all things, food?

    I think you guys should calm down, and look at things objectively.

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  46. LuxuryYacht says:

    Prostitution (both male and female) is legal in Australia. This protects everyone from disease and organised crime. Thankfully we here do not have a history of slavery and all that it brings with it. I thought the “land of the free” meant that people were free to say and do what they liked. Apparently not.

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  47. Mike M says:

    Judging by the heated responses generated by this topic, I think you need to do a post on the price equalibrium for abortions.

    For even more fun, compare the social benefits of abortion to the social cost of cancer. We could even argue that if we had more abortions we would have more resourses available to fight cancer, especially for those without healthcare (like prostitutes).

    I wonder which of an unborn fetus or a cancer-striken prostitute, the commenters above would find a greater utilitity in preserving.

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  48. BSK says:

    I think part of the larger problem is that this is not an isolated incident on this blog. I have seen numerous posts and ideas stated here, both by the bloggers and the commenters, that demonstrated intense prejudices or blatantly racist, sexist, classist, and other offensive ideas. I understand that sometimes it is important to wade into uncomfortable territory in order to make real change and real progress. However, I sense that many people here do not even REALLY they are wading into uncomfortable territory, and thinks that this gives them carte blanche to say what they want regardless of how it impacts others. When called out on it, they respond with an air of superiority, trumpeting the same tired responses of “relax and stop trying to be offended.” I respect and appreciate that the authors of this blog are willing to look at things in non-traditional ways in the hopes of promoting a better understanding of how the world works. But they need to recognize that non-traditional does not necessarily mean “right” or “better” and is capable of genuinely offending people.

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  49. Leonardo Herrera says:

    C’mon, this was not a question on morale. It was a question from an analytic perspective, as always: finding correlations, cause and effect, etc. of _things_ worth of analysis. Prostitutes, rice, oil, postal workers, cars, fertilizer, planes, all are possible variables in any outstretched economic analysis.

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  50. Jack says:

    To those who were offended by the idea of comparing rice and prostitutes, well, so what? Do you somehow have to right to go through life being protected from things you find offensive? It’s one thing to register the fact that you took offense at another person’s statement. It’s quite another to suggest that because you took offense, the other person therefore should not have made the statement.

    I suggest that those who found the comparison offensive because of the plight of prostitutes should, in response, do something material to alleviate people who they feel are suffering. Seek out a prostitute in your vicinity and offer to help them find drug counseling, or an improved living situation. Or, at least, offer to take them out for a meal, or to watch their kids for a night.

    ….I didn’t think so.

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  51. BSK says:


    Who’s to say that the people registering their offense on this board aren’t already doing work to alleviate what they perceive to be problems in the world?

    Furthermore, my bigger problem is not that people shouldn’t say things that may risk offending. It is that we constantly see the same groups being offended. It is easy to say, “Deal with being offended,” when you are not a member of a group that has been constantly marginalized and offended. As I said earlier, if you can stand back and say, “I don’t get all bent out of shape all the time, so why are these people,” perhaps you should investigate WHY you have not been put in a position to be constantly offended instead of judging those who have had such positions thrust upon them.

    I do not think that Levitt should be banned from asking such questions. But to act as incredulous as he did when people suggested that his post was offensive and insensitive implies a far deeper ignorance on his part and an unwillingness to engage those who disagree with him. That, I feel, should be criteria that would limit the opportunities someone had to express himself through one of the most widely read and respected media outlets in the world.

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  52. Nate says:

    “many people here [… think] that this gives them carte blanche to say what they want regardless of how it impacts others.”
    “But they need to recognize that non-traditional does not necessarily mean “right” or “better” and is capable of genuinely offending people.”

    BSK, you’ve now compared yourself to a prostitute and implied that being offended on the internet is the same as being harmed.

    Everyone understands why you’re offended; we all know how political correctness works. I think people act surprised because it doesn’t make sense; you haven’t given a logical reason not to talk about something.

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  53. JP says:

    Can I see some evidence that there are more female prostitutes in the world than there are males ones?

    And for those of you who are offended, so what? If you are constantly offended while others are not, take a little of your own advice and consider why you are offended.

    BSK #36, your pity towards those lacking ability or interest to understand those with differing opinions is exactly the same type of dismissal you described about the people whose comments opposed your own?

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  54. BSK says:

    Nate, I fail to see how those quotes, or any of my other statements, indicate that I compared myself to a prostitute. To say that I am only offended because of “political correctness” is to avoid any genuine acknowledgment of my and others’ taking offense. As I and many more have pointed out, the post and resulting comments treated an already-exploited group of people as commodities. Furthermore, I have registered specific offense to some of the responses to the blog, in which people made blatantly racist remarks, such as, “They are Southeast Asia’s primary exports.” If you cannot see why that is offensive and how the tenor and nature of the blog post invited such remarks, then I don’t know how much more explaining I can do.


    I did not say I pity or am dismissive of people who’s ideas are different or oppose my own. I welcome a variety of ideas and am open to hearing how differing opinions can help me refine or reflect on my own. But I do pity people who are unable or unwilling to understand that their own perspective is not shared by all and that their own experiences are not shared by all and that this fundamentally leads to people have vastly different yet equally legitimate viewpoints that must be examined for the ways in which the differing experiences have informed people’s worldviews. Failing or refusing to do this is ignorance. And, yes, I pity the ignorant. Does that mean I think everyone who disagrees with me here is ignorant? Of course not. Is everyone who is less often offended ignorant? Of course not. Do I think that people who dismiss the feelings of others who’s responses to situations are informed by their unique life experiences and state that they should just “toughen up” or “stop looking to be offended” are ignorant? Yes, I do.

    On the flip side, I have not seen someone articulate a point demonstrating why we should NOT be offended. Do I understand why others are not offended? Yes. Is it okay that they are not? Of course. I feel as if Levitt’s follow-up posts and some (not all) of the posts supporting him seem to indicate a mindset that says, “People who are offended by this are wrong to be so,” and that is entirely unfair.

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  55. Curtis Ludlow says:

    “No. 1: “They both get tossed at weddings.” and No. 2: “The wild and dirty versions of both command premium prices.””

    LOL! I love this blog!!!

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  56. Johnny Arbogast says:

    I think those offended are either missing the entire point of the study of economics, or are offended because prostitution exists. It is certainly in keeping with the superior intellect reguarly found on this blog to translate the transaction between prostitute/client to seller/buyer. To agonize over whether a prostitutes body is “consumed” is to fall into the shallow end of the politically correct pool. I have known Steven Levitt since grade school, I continue to be thoroughly impressed with his and Mr. Dubner’s work.

    I noticed that none of the complaints came from a professional prostitute. Maybe it is dehumanizing to pretend that the economics of their industry doesn’t exist, thus forever condemning them to back alleys and egregiously flamboyantly dressed managers.

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  57. WGWAG says:

    Hurt feelings bear no relevance to the study of economics.

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  58. Laura says:

    “Prostitutes are SELLING their bodies to be CONSUMED. ”

    Wrong. Prostitutes sell sexual services. Their bodies, while the vehicle through which these services are provided, remain their own. Someone above mentioned that massage therapists also use their bodies to provide a service – this is true, but nobody considers the hands/arms of the masseuse to be “theirs” while enjoying the service.

    To be more accurate, perhaps the original column should have asked, “What do fellatio and rice have in common?”

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  59. Derick says:

    Comment #1: He put them together because they were *different*! I know it’s politically correct to be offended to the point of irrationality, knowing you can package deal any criticism with insensitivity, but the whole premise of the joke is that they’re different. He’s comparing them in a way that implies they *aren’t* the same. If I were to say “capitalism and communism are unalike” I’d be comparing them, not saying they’re similar.

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  60. Chris MacDonald says:

    I’d like to know how many people who commented above — on either side — have actually read the original posting in its entirety.

    From what I can see, the main posting (about Giffen goods) is unobjectionable. (I think the *contest* was tacky, and was bound to attract some pretty ugly comparisons that have nothing to do with economics.)

    So, setting aside the regrettable contest, let’s focus on what the original comparison was trying to do: help us understand markets in general, and the markets in rice and prostitution in particular. And as for the latter, I submit, whether we’re interested in eliminating that trade, or simply making it safer for all concerned, it is crucial that we understand better the workings of that market. In that regard, the posting was a real service.

    (p.s. on my own blog, I recently compared the porn & tobacco industries. I guess I did it right, because no one seemed offended.)

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  61. JP says:

    BSK- #54
    “…I do pity people who are unable or unwilling to understand that their own perspective is not shared by all and that their own experiences are not shared by all…”
    These are the people I was referring to in the post you were responding to.

    You do have the right to be offended and maybe no one has listed a good reason for you not to be offended. Although some topics like this one get so dragged out that people get tired of them which is why people get tired of hearing the same arguments from both sides. When people make jokes about controversial topics that fall into this category saying that you are offended is redundant and practically ubiquitous. Being able to make humor about these topics allows people to get past the problem, ie jokes about Nazism, racism, and in this case sexism. Obviously sexism was going to come into play when talking about the economics of prostitution and it is by no means an issue of the past but that will never stop people from analyzing it and/or making jokes. I’m not going to tell you to get over it, but I will say that I smirked at a few of the responses while at the same time being aware of the issues brought up in the posts that followed. I don’t believe in censorship in any form so I feel comfortable laughing at something I know to be morally questionable.

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  62. BSK says:


    To say that we laugh at these issues to get over them is ridiculous. How many blacks laugh at racist jokes? How many Jews laugh at anti-semetic jokes? Yes, we may joke about the social institutions such as racism and the absurdity of them to better understand and point out their failings. But this post and responses did not do that. It did not attempt to point out the ills of society that lead/force many people into the world of prostitution.

    Chris McDonald makes a great point and one that I have been trying to make all along: the post itself was not inherently offensive; it was the tasteless contest that came at the end of it that invited ridiculously offensive responses.

    I am not saying that prostitution is off-limits as a topic of study. I think there is much light that can be shed on the issue by thoughtful, objective, practical studies of the various aspects of the situation. I think MUCH of Mr. Levitt’s work did that (and I have said this from the beginning). However, the crass way that he ended the column, with the little contest that I think any reasonable person could have predicted would have led to some ridiculously offensive responses was the issue. For him to say he had no idea that would happen just further demonstrates a point of ignorance for him.

    Some people have come on here saying that prostitution should never be discussed and I do not agree with that. I also do not agree with WGWAG’s point that “hurt feelings bear no relevance to the study of economics.” Do I think that an important study should be avoided because it risks offending someone? No, not if there is merit in the work and benefit that can come of it. But people’s emotions are just as important and valuable an entity as any other; to say that people being offended should have no bearing on a situation is wrong. Should it be the absolute determining factor? No, not if there are more pressing issues. But it certainly should be one of many criteria being used in a decision making process, be it an economic one or otherwise.

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  63. Michael says:

    Laura #58

    “To be more accurate, perhaps the original column should have asked, “What do fellatio and rice have in common?”

    Oh, is this like the one about what do cold beer and cunnilingus have in common? (you can’t get either in London)

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  64. blake says:

    Some people here simply refuse to believe that prostitution can be other than oppressive, sad and inhumane. That is why they CHOOSE to be offended, because their prejudices demand it. While not all prostitution is good, neither is it, by definition, bad.
    Perhaps I could be wrong though, and every person who has explicitly or implicitly engaged in sexual intercourse for a favor, or a gift, or some other exchange is worthy of pity.
    Hmm . . .

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  65. Gregory A. Butler, a proud local 608 carpenter shop steward says:

    Stephen, Stephen, Stephen…

    To paraphrase an old saying from the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings era “You just don’t get it, do you?”

    Comparing prostitutes, a particularly benighted group of workers, frequently subject to horrific abuse by employers, customers and the agents of the law, to rice, is pretty basically offensive.

    You are comparing exploited women (and gay men, and transgendered folks) to a commodity food item.

    Do you not understand why people of good will (male and female alike) would be offended by that?

    There’s a great lady named Rachel Lloyd, she runs a group called GEMS right here in Manhattan – she helps rescue 13 year old girls from their brutal pimps, on the streets not far from the New York Times beautiful office building – perhaps you should have a conversation with her sometime?

    Maybe she’ll bring you along to the hospitals – and the morgues – where some of her young clients end up.

    And, perhaps, you’ll understand why your joke was about as funny as a joke about Auchwitz or a joke about lynchings.

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  66. BSK says:


    Perhaps we don’t CHOOSE to be offended by prostitution itself but, instead, are offended by a contest that results in answers such as, “Both get thrown at weddings” or “They are the two primary exports of Southeast Asia” that offend sensible people.

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  67. Q says:

    BSK –

    Although I completely respect your right to write whatever you want, I’ve been reading the comments that you’ve posted in response to this post and think that it’s a little bit overboard. You may think that the two statements above are a contradiction in terms, but they are not. This is a blog made specifically to keep the conversation of Freakonomics going and as such there will always be people who disagree with what is being posted. I’m sure that there are people out there who are offended by rice, never mind the prostitutes. People are offended by different things and just because someone isn’t offended by the specific wording of Dr. Levitt’s posts doesn’t mean that they are callous and unthinking.Sometimes you have to just let it go.

    If it upsets you that much, you can stop reading the blog. Just a thought.

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  68. BSK says:


    My point was NEVER that people who are not offended are callous or unthinking. It was that people who cannot fathom why someone would be offended are unlikely to have the necessary perspective to understand a different worldview from their own. That is a highly different argument.

    And the whole “if you don’t like it, go somewhere else” argument is exactly the type of mindset that further marginalizes people who often already are.

    Rather than tell me that I’m wrong and should just go away, how about you debate the major points of my argument?

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  69. Rob says:

    Wild and dirty prostitutes do not command higher prices. The higher priced prostitutes are elegant and refined, and they can escort someone to a black-tie event without anyone being the wiser.

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  70. Joe Smith says:

    No point getting offended about prostitution – it has a rather well entrenched history. Most of the prostitutes I have talked to are making a rational choice to engage in prostitution rather than seek out other vocations. Many or most are introduced to prostitution by a female relative or friend. I have met two who said they sought out the employment on their own initiative by contacting an escort service.

    I would be interested in the answer to this question: what percentage of women at some point in their lives engage in an overt act of prostitution exchanging sex for a cash payment? ( as distinct from the widespread practice of exchanging sex for a meal or a roof over the woman’s head.)

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  71. Peter Rabbit says:

    What do negro slaves and rice have in common?

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  72. whoanellie says:

    BSK – you write, “It was that people who cannot fathom why someone would be offended are unlikely to have the necessary perspective to understand a different worldview from their own.”
    This isn’t what I got out of Levitt’s posted response. Funny, how things read by one can be interpreted so differently by another. I highly doubt that Levitt simply can not “fathom” any offense taken, he merely states that he was “stunned” by BOTH the offense taken AND by the creativity of the responses. Being stunned, in my view, seems to say that he was surprised or not expecting such an outcome, but it certainly doesn’t say that he cannot “fathom” or understand the point of view held by others.
    Of course, you may be referring to other poster’s comments – and with that, well, people have the tendency to boil down their view with a few sharp points on either side of an issue. Not all, of course – thanks for taking the (extensive) time to discuss yours.

    P.S. Wild rice isn’t really “rice” at all… how come this hasn’t been discussed?

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  73. Haoest says:

    For those that are cool with the subject, please relax and don’t criticize too much of those that are offended by it. They might have personal friends or close relatives that have had traumatic experiences.

    Show some sympathies please.

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  74. J says:

    BSK – Aren’t you not respecting other people’s rights to their own opinions? Why are only your ideas/thoughts/interpretations the correct ones? What experience do you have that qualifies you to be an expert on identifying when someone demonstrates an intense prejudice or blatantly displays racist, sexist, classist, and other offensive ideas?

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  75. Jesse says:

    Isn’t anybody here going to defend the rice!?!?!??!

    Jeebus people, relax. He didn’t go and suggest people go out and club a prostitute.

    By the way, *excellent* choices picking the winners. Both are clever, insightful, and funny.

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  76. Linus says:

    I find it hilarious that people mock those who find his post offensive. (what a sense of humor i have, and look at how those i mock have no humor!)

    Those who mock the people who are offended just need to chill out. (see, i can be “cool” and not “crazy” like the people i mock!)

    The people who reply on these comments defending the author just don’t get it. (look, i “get” it, they are just stupid.)

    There, have i summed up about 95% of the defenders’ posts?

    I have a degree in economics from UoC. (My background means my point is better than yours).

    And while i completely understand that economics can and does attempt to look at subjects in an objective way and try to find relationships between seemingly disconnected topics, i don’t think that why people were upset with Prof. Levitt.

    The problem was that the contest was not really an exercise in economics, but rather a call for jokes. What he describes as “creative” seems to be only creative in silly ways to compare people’s services that are extremely controversial. If this was a serious discussion that really did try and figure out whether or not prostitution is like rice as a geffen good, then i imagine it wouldn’t garner much protest. But it sounded much much more like a call for jokes. And if you read the comments, the vast majority participating thought it was a forum to compare women(and yes, women) to a consumed food product.

    I am skeptical that Prof. Levitt didn’t know that people would use his call for “creativity” as a forum for posting jokes that themselves are pretty offensive. What i find surprising is that while he describes “hate” mail, he never did acknowledge that some of what got posted really were offensive and really did dehumanize women.

    Finally, the two picks that did “win” the contest don’t appear to be testing any sort of economic theory whatsoever. The last line about prices being relating to “being dirty and wild” is a stretch at best. Really? Is that supposed to make price theory, the supply and demand curves, clearer?

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  77. Q says:

    BSK –

    My argument is that everything is offensive to someone on the planet. I don’t understand why someone would be offended by, e.g., lollipops, but that doesn’t mean that i am “unlikely to have the necessary perspective to understand a different worldview”. On the contrary, I think that the people who blog here, including Dr. Levitt, are people who are very interested in different ways of seeing the world.

    As hard as it is to not be riled about something like prostitution and its admittedly enormous human toll, a certain amount of objectiveness is needed. Domestic and sexual violence upset me greatly, but knowing the cold hard reasons why it happens is more useful for preventing it than crying my eyes out, no?

    Admittedly Dr. Levitt’s post seems flippant to some, but he can’t please everyone. There isn’t a single post on the blog that hasn’t drawn negative comments. What I take issue with is the tone of those comments. And yes, I recognize that you are by no means the most antagonistic.

    Also, I’m not telling you to go somewhere else. I’m saying that reading this blog is a choice. Commenting is a choice. And although the posters have to deal with a lot of comments, both positive and negative, their posts are their choices, and should be respected. I think the anonymity of the internet has created a situation in which people feel free to say what they please regardless of how it makes other people feel. I think there’s a way to explain how you feel without being combative. Would you say all those things to Dr. Levitt in person?

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  78. OBG says:

    To those in the audience that think mentioning prostitutes and rice in the same sentence is somehow demeaning to women, consider that prostitutes are women who sell their bodies and rices is a commodity. If you think a woman who sells her body is demeaning women, I can understand your rage being directed at the prostitutes. Don’t attack a person that suggests there is a similarity between selling one’s body to selling rice (not that Andy even did that), because there is a perfectly valid link between two things being sold.

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  79. CJ says:

    Schneider’s answer made me laugh the loudest..haha…brilliant!

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  80. HappyCat says:

    Reminds me of an old joke: “What’s white and crawls up your leg? Uncle Ben’s perverted rice.”

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  81. Chetan Gangoli says:

    I saw many more comments on prostitution than on rice… here my attempt to balance it a bit.

    Assume that rice is not only the staple of chinese farmers, but also their primary output. Any rise in prices would mean that they need to sell less of it in the market to buy goods other than rice – leaving more for household consumption. Not sure if data confirms this, but it might just be a significant reason for rice being a ‘Geffen’ good.

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  82. Tim Slaughter says:

    I say that they both are Giffen goods. It’s very much like coffe, chocolate, getting your hair done, or even a great massage. The better the price normally means that the product is worth what you are going to be paying. Sometimes it may seem too high or too low, depending on your standards or even own opinion on the brand. What do they have in common? I’d say if not for the fate of my grade.

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  83. Anon says:

    I’m here late in the game, but there were less than a handful to take the route of what I thought of this, so here it is…It is an insult to the rice to compare it with prostitution.

    I agree with those who were outraged at the thought that a staple food would be considered a Giffen good. It requires that all else is constant. If the price of rice went up but the price of vegetables and meat stayed constant, the amount of other foods bought and consumed would go up and less rice would be eaten. This is a phenomenon that happens in every Chinese household regardless of whether they are in rural China or a California manse.

    Prostitution is an entertainment comodity and not a basic sustenance, and an expensive one at that, so therefore more often purchased by the wealthy, not the poor. And the more money a person has, the more prostitution services that person will purchase. The poor are more likely to masturbate to meet their sexual needs.

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