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.


Prostitution deserves the negative connotation it's held since time immemorial- the best reason for disabusing its practice is the aphorism: would you want your mother, your sister or your girlfriend/wife to be one (a prostitute)?


I am currently reading your new book. It is interesting, but the analysis tends to be limited. You essentially ignore the interesting differences between many European Countries, where it is both a legal and accepted norm of their society. The puritanical American market vs the European Market analysis of prostitution would have been an interesting comparison....I suspect there are less sex crimes in these European countries...which would greatly benefit everyone!?.........perhaps in your next book?


While serving in the army in Germany in 1963 I observed a practical solution to the "problem" of prostitution. Prostitutes had to register with the police, be medically checked by physicians and carry updated medical cards which could be produced for customers and upon demand by police. The prostitutes were then assigned a street in a commercial section of the city. If a sex worker was plying their trade outside her assigned parameter or did not produce an up to date medical card, they were arrested. This practical approach in a non-puritan society solved many issues. Pimps were non-existent, the sex trade was out of sight, and the police protected rather than harassed the prostitutes. Most of the prostitutes were single mothers successfully supporting themselves.


I lived in Amsterdam's huge red light district (8000 women) for 4 years in the 80s. this was legalized prostitution at its best. While i can't discuss the economic impact, the destruction of human capital was amazing: time and again, we'd watch sexy, bright women (vast age range there) turn into bitter, jaded sex tools- even the ones in the windows (which were the registered ones). Sex and money just don't mix- and I love the Walmart comment, especially.

gaetano catelli

1. "prostitute" is an inherently sexist term.

2. as any economist knows, there is no such thing as "unpaid sex", just as there is no such thing as a "free lunch".

those who actually know something about this subject are unanimous that the *least* expensive sex is via the service of a professional adult-service provider.

Marian Wollstonecraft

You mention "abuse" twice in this discussion, but you seem determined to ignore that the man who uses a prostituted woman (or man) is paying to abuse that person.

Everyone interested in this topic ought to research the Swedish experiment of decriminalizing the prostitutes and criminalizing the clients.


Legalization would remove the stigma of being a criminal. Convicted criminals are not considered for many jobs. Our criminal systems are overburdened with prostitution and drugs when the police should be going after the hardcore criminals that really put us and our property in danger.


Thank you Carolyn (16) and Joshua (18).

I find this treatment of prostitution to be horrific and damaging to women's dignity.

Tom from Wisconsin

In response to David (#8) concerning women who receive AFDC required to take a "position" as a prostitute:

Get real, man. The basic reason prostitution is illegal is based on morals. There is no possible scenario in any foreseeable future where forcing an AFDC mom to have sex for money would not be greeted with moral outrage. If prostitution were legal and anyone were foolish enough to attempt to force someone out of AFDC help because they wouldn't prostitute themselves, that bureaucrat would be excoriated and legal exceptions would be put in place immediately.

Do you want a model of what prostitution would look like if it were legal? All you have to do is look at Nevada outside of Reno and Vegas. Adding cities and other whole states is unlikely to produce anything different.


For the most part, this sounds like a cold-hearted discussion between “high-class” (employed) pimps and johns.


I'm from Germany, where prostitution is legal. However, out of all of my friends, only a few have ever been with a prostitute and none on a regular basis. Legalized prostitution does not mean that the practice becomes acceptable and the every day norm. It is still looked down upon and having a steady partner is still the goal of most German men.


@NM "1. Your supposition that legalization reduces stigma is baseless. One word: abortion."

Actually, the example of abortion SUPPORTS Venkatesh's view. Although there will always be some who oppose abortion and look down upon women who get them, I would bet that today, the proportion of ordinary people who think a woman should be ashamed to have gotten abortion is far lower than it was when the procedure was illegal.

Abortion is not praised, and it probably never will be. But it is far more acceptable for a woman to admit that she had gotten one in the past (or was about to get one) than it was 50 years ago.


Why is there not a detailed analysis of Nevada here.?Nevada provides an excellent laboratory of public policy on this issue. I have been to Nevada many times and I see no obvious problem other than overt advertising for prostitution that can be distasteful. But I definitely agree that a society with legalized prostitution is a degraded and immoral society. And yes, Nevada is degraded and immoral; more because of gambling than prostitution.


@Carolyn (#16): "Interesting how prostitution is viewed as a commodity in this discussion. It strikes me as such a male view, that sex is objectified."

No. It's not a male view. It's a realist, non-prudish view. Sex can be about love, but it doesn't have to be. It can be a commodity if both parties agree to it, and there is nothing wrong with that. Nor is that either a male or female view. The fact that there are female prostitutes who are willingly in the industry attest to the fact that some woman share that view.

Of course, you will condescendingly react by assuming such women can't possibly know their own mind because they are damaged, stupid or ignorant. But perhaps you're the one who has a hangup.

"How little is thought of the causes of women going into prostitution in the first place."

It's not mentioned here because it is irrelevant to the discussion, which is to discuss possible effects of prostitution being legalized. Why women decide to be prostitutes may (and probably will) change if such a legalization occurs.

"The emotional ability of a woman to be a prostitute is directly related to her devaluation of herself."

Predictably condescending OPINION (and not fact) from someone who is projecting her own hangups about sex onto her entire gender and presenting them as superior.

" I would say, it is not the essential nature of women to have sex without some attachment."

That might be true. I tend to agree with you. But as humans, we are all conditioned to choose circumstances when we instead use logic and intellect to overcome our natures. Why should this be different?

"Men feel their needs have to be met, and they have little regard for the needs of others, particularly women, when it comes to sex."

I bet you think all black people are great at basketball and all Asians are good at math, too. Kindly spare us your insulting and inaccurate stereotypes. The kind of men you describe exist. But they don't describe any of my friends.

"For men to imagine that legalizing it could “remove the stigma” attached to it, shows little understanding of how prostitution comes into being in the first place."

I know how prostitution came into being. There was a man willing to pay for sex. There was a woman willing to have sex for money.

" It is a male fantasy, that prostitution is any more ok than slavery."

No. Slaves don't get paid. Prostitutes do. If you feel they are abused and/or undercompensated, that's exploitation. But it's still not slavery.



@Arrtist #21: "Prostitution deserves the negative connotation it's held since time immemorial- the best reason for disabusing its practice is the aphorism: would you want your mother, your sister or your girlfriend/wife to be one (a prostitute)?"

No. But neither would I want my brother, father or friend to enlist in the military and volunteer for combat in the Middle East. And for exactly the same reasons: it's generally a dangerous occupation.

But there is nothing inherently immoral about prostitution or serving in the military.

The difference is, the dangers inherent in prostitution are basically caused by prudes with sexual hangups enacting laws that disempower prostitutes and make them vulnerable to abuse. Having sex (assuming condoms are used) is not inherently risky. In comparison, serving in the military is inherently dangerous because fighting is inherently dangerous.

Venkatesh is right in that legalizing prostitution requires consideration of complex issues. But the question is not whether legalization will make things safer for prostitutes, but how to legalize the trade so that things improve as much as possible.



Kudos to the commentor who hit the nail on the head about Venkatesh's lightweight boxing status as an academic. His "Gang Leader for a Day" followed his vouyeristic travails with a street gang, from which he offered us tired wisdom that was always a hair's width away from outright glorification and support of violent, crack-dealing street thugs who sell the means for the people in their own community to ruin their lives and kill themselves, all for their own material benefit.

The practice of making readers feel like they're part of an intellectual discussion by picking a juicy topic and doing a gimmicky, shallow but academic-sounding analysis of it apparently comforts the readers, sells well, and makes an author rich, but it doesn't garner respect among genuine scholars and boy is it annoying.

If there are seven billion people on earth, there could be seventy million prosititutes inthe world and, while this would be a prostitute for every 2-3 grown men in the US, by scale, it would be one percent of the world's population. The point is that even if prostitution is everywhere, happening all the time, it just means that there are many, many women who are either flagrant materialists, or in dire straits, or both. Apart from as a thrill or for experimentation, nobody sells sex because they want to. They do it out of unchecked greed or desperation. Trotting out the occasional woman who is articulate and says she absolutely adores having sex with strange men for cash is the titillating exception that proves the rule. I have been around the block a few times. I assure you that when you scratch the surface, this woman is deeply troubled.

As for the idea that there's no such thing as unpaid sex, I feel bad for the people who say this. There is obviously something missing from their lives. A happy, honest marriage between two people who have carefully chosen each other is something they are obviously unfamiliar with.

Anyway, the is the NYT enabling Venkatesh to have a platform the the type of slumming that many readers love. This is why the NYT could very well be out of business by the end of the next decade.



@Joshua #18: Prostitutes don't just “get fired” or “leave employment with a pimp” when they don't satisfy their pimps - they get assaulted. They get mentally and emotionally abused. They get sold to another pimp. They have drugs forced upon them, and/or withheld. They have no legal recourse, and the police aren't necessarily the good guys. They have no safety."

True. (Or at least, true for many prostitutes, probably the vast majority.) HOWEVER. All these things are true BECAUSE prostitution is illegal. Prostitutes are vulnerable to exploitation because they cannot go to the police without risking immediate arrest. They cannot file a lawsuit to address grievances they have with their pimps or with a bad customer. I therefore submit that your argument is in favor of legalization.

"prostitution as it is most commonly experienced is a dangerous, cruel, and dehumanizing trap"

So was abortion, until they made it legal.

"... not a voluntary choice of how to make a living or a high-paying part time job for a suburban soccer mom looking to increase her family's holiday budget."

There are a lot of jobs a typical suburban soccer mom isn't likely to pick as a part-time job. Professional basketball, firefighting, McDonald's fry cook. Your argument doesn't make sense.

Unless, of course, you mean that the danger and social stigma or familial hangups associated with prostitution makes suburban soccer moms unlikely to choose such a job. Well, the danger gets removed with legalization. The stigma eventually will, too, though I would argue that a mom who really needs the money would say, "You do what you have to do." And as for familial hangups (which may or may not be valid): well, prostitution might not be the best profession for a married mother of two children. But that's no reason to make the professional illegal for everyone. After all, not everyone is married or a parent.



Prostitution is legal/tolerated in the U.S., its called...Nevada.

if one wants the services of a prostitute without the fear of being prosecuted just book a weekend flight to Nevada. If one wants to work in the sex trade just move to Nevada.....problem solved.

C Earl Jr

I've had discussions with women who work at brothels in Nevada. The projected image is that it's all a big party, but the significant percentage of women who suffered sexual (and other) abuse when they were young is undeniable. The drug and alcohol abuse (which contributes to the party atmosphere) is sometimes clearly self-medication, and there are some women who are working men for payback that involves more than cash.

Sure, you can find exceptions, but it's a lot like used-car sales, and it's really pretty depressing to be around on any kind of a regular basis.

The observation by Mark in Comment #24 about watching "sexy, bright women" become jaded rings all too true in my experience...


prostitution is legal in the US. it just takes an indirect route. step one, have sex with sports celebrity or politician. step two, make lots of money selling story. step three, watch the idiot guy pay for consequences. the pimp for that is us.