SuperFreakonomics Book Club: Sudhir Venkatesh Answers Your Prostitution Questions
We recently introduced the SuperFreakonomics Virtual Book Club, wherein we’ll regularly invite readers to ask questions of some of the researchers and other characters we wrote about in our new book. Last week we opened up the questioning for Sudhir Venkatesh, the sociologist whose fieldwork on street prostitutes in Chicago is the foundation of a long section of our first chapter. Here are his replies. Thanks to Sudhir and all of you for participating.
Do prostitutes want prostitution to be legal, why or why not? — Joe
Sex workers may desire particular collective goods that come with legalized commerce– the capacity to use the courts and police, the erasure of stigma, and access to health regulations being some of the most substantial. They are, however, fearful that if the industry becomes completely legitimate, they will be bought out by those who can benefit from investments that create economies of scale. Just imagine what WalMart or Goldman Sachs might do if they had access to this industry.
The Internet has revolutionized prostitution. In short, is street prostitution a nearly dead industry? Also, what will become of pimps? I realize there will always be a certain base level of street prostitutes to serve addicts and thrill seekers, but certainly the sample size must be getting smaller every day. — Alex Churchill
The Internet has transformed the possibilities for many players in the sex work industry, not just “prostitutes” per se. Those who dance, who provide sexual services via phone, and who run escort agencies have all benefited from use of the web. But we should note that there is a digital divide in sex work. Low-income, urban, and minority populations are really not able to take advantage of IT to the same degree. They may wish to, but the initial costs as well as the need for upkeep/maintenance exceed their capacities.
The sample size may indeed be getting smaller, but that may also be a result of gentrification. The fact is, mayors in Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Cleveland, etc, have proactively pushed their low-income populations out to the city’s edge. So we actually do not know for sure whether there has been a decrease, or whether we are simply not looking at the right place.
In the book, Levitt and Dubner estimate the size of the “pimpact” — the added value of pimp management — using variation over time in working for a pimp and a prostitute’s earnings. What typically is happening in a street prostitute’s life that might cause her to leave employment with a pimp? Is she usually fired for some reason (and if so, what are typical violations that would get her fired), or does she leave for her own reasons? — anonymous
Pimps provide their sex workers a steady client base and protection against the wanton abuse of a client. But, like any manager, they can extract concessions from their workforce that are viewed (by the worker) as unfair. Often, they ask the sex workers in their employ to give “freebies.” They may ask sex workers to work longer hours, to work overtime, and so on without fair remuneration. A pimp is no different than a corporate manager in these respects. So it’s not surprising that the worker gets frustrated and exits. Or she or he could become frustrated, not show up for work, and be fired.
Have you found any economic justifications that could be used as an argument for legalization? — Michael K
As long as we break down “legalization” into its component parts, I’m willing to move forward and consider what it may mean to have a regulated sex-work industry — which, in fact, we already do have to some extent. First, legalization could open up the possibility for safer health practices: use of condoms, testing, ensuring that sex workers have access to health care, shelters, etc. In my view, these things would definitely need to be addressed.
Second, we know that when illegal practices become legalized (alcohol, drugs, etc.), workers who lack the capital for investment quickly become susceptible to those who are able to take advantage of economies of scale. If prostitution moves into a for-profit space, the sex workers themselves will be at a severe disadvantage because they lack the capital to protect their investments. So we have several options. First, we can ensure that the workers have the capacity to collectively bargain– just as any industry leader is currently allowed to do. Second, we could limit sex work to nonprofit auspices– perhaps temporarily giving the workers and their advocates a fair shot at controlling their work environment. Otherwise we could get big banks using federal money to wipe out the little guy, or gal. Legalization also means access to judicial institutions, and this raises a host of problems viz. ensuring that sex workers have the capacity to defend themselves in a court of law. Currently, they do not. All this is to say that legalization is intriguing, but it is often invoked as an easy fix to a complex problem.
How do the various prostitutes who work for one pimp relate to one another? Is there a sense of a “team” among the group or a sense of competition? Did any of the women work together to better their working conditions, to deal with clients, to deal with a pimp? — deborahb
Sex workers are actually quite invested in building and maintaining collective relationships. They do so much better than most workers, and indeed, they need to do so in order to deal with the dangers associated with sex work– e.g., monitoring police, responding to abuse, following a john who committed theft. They usually form groups, and this may depress individual competition– although it can generate considerable animosity between groups who are fighting for sales spots or access to clients.
What do the women do with the money they earn? Do they save any of it? What do they spend it on?
> — LP
Those who work at the so-called “higher end” of the sex work trade have considerable difficulty with cash reserves. It is not so easy to buy property, open up a checking account, establish a line of credit, etc. So many build alliances with family members or open up independent consulting businesses in order to get rid of cash and create investments for their money.
SuperFreakonomics suggests that prostitution is a substitute for unpaid sex. Since sexual morals have loosened over the last few decades, unpaid sex has been increasing. As a result, the demand for prostitution has been dropping. Do you think there are other goods that serve as substitutes for prostitution that have altered demand for prostitution in recent years? Internet pornography seems to me to be an obvious example that got no mention in SuperFreakonomics, but perhaps an increase in other entertainment options such as video games, webcams, and digital TV channels has had an effect. — David
I’m not sure I agree that prostitution is a substitute for unpaid sex, at least not for all social classes. They may correlate, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship between the two merits such an argument. But, hey, what do I know. I’m only a sociologist.