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.”

and

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.”

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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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