In the SuperFreakonomics Virtual Book Club, we invite readers to ask questions of some of the researchers and other characters in our book. Last week we opened up the questioning for Allie, a high-end escort whose entrepreneurial skills and understanding of economics made her a financial success. Her answers are below. Thanks to Allie and to all of you for the questions.
Did it ever bother you (in a moral sense) to be an escort? – AaronS
I do not have a moral problem with having sex for money, as long as it’s safe, and between consenting adults. However, I have always been concerned about how the social and legal issues may affect my future and the people that I love.
Whether it bothered you or not, what sort of upbringing did you have? That is, were you from a particularly religious family (in which case this might be an act of independence) or were you from a more accepting home, etc.? – AaronS
I was raised in a very conservative area, but my family was not particularly religious. My parents always empowered me to make my own decisions.
Do your parents know about what you do for a living? What was your occupation before you became a call girl? What made you go into this line of work? Was it just the money or was it the flexible hours and the chance to be your own boss? – Dmitri
My parents don’t know about my work, or anything else about my sex life. I was a programmer when I decided to quit my job and become an escort. I was single and meeting people through a popular dating website. Finding someone “special” proved to be difficult, but I did meet many nice men. I had grown up in a repressive small town and I was, at that time, looking to understand my own sexuality. I have never attached my self-worth to some idea of virginity or monogamy, but I still had not really explored many of my desires. I was meeting people living alternative lifestyles, and, as I got to know them, the stereotypes that I had built up started to come apart. During this time I was in my mid-twenties, and I had an active sex life.
One day I decided to enter the occupation of “escort” on an online instant messaging profile. Within seconds I had many responses, and after about a week of talking to a few people, I decided to meet a dentist at a hotel. The experience wasn’t glamorous or nearly as sexy as I thought it might be. However, I came away from the experience thinking, “It wasn’t bad.” I began to think that if I just had one appointment a month, I could pay my car loan with it, and have a little extra money. Eventually, I chose to work as an escort exclusively. At that time, the reason I gave up my programming job was the free time. I was caring for a family member with a serious illness — the free time and money was a huge benefit.
Do you get along with your father? – frankenduf
Are any of the wives of your married clients okay with their husbands’ encounters? – jake
I rarely got the opportunity to find out if the wives were okay with it, but I did see several couples, so I assume they were okay with it.
Buyers and sellers in legal markets have access to courts who enforce contracts in part via the threat of a lawsuit, but that option isn’t available to sex workers and their clients. How, then, do you get around it? For instance, what can you practically do to ensure that a client doesn’t cheat you or do something that negates the terms of the agreement? What can he do, also, to ensure that you provide the services he has paid for? – lost_fan
During the initial contact with a client, I would always ask for their name and for a phone number at their place of employment. I would then use the information to confirm where they worked. Once I felt comfortable, I would call them at work and give them the address of my place, or just let them know I was looking forward to meeting with them. This was simple and made it clear that if need be, I could come by his work. This of course had far-reaching implications. There are also several networks and organizations that the escorts use to keep tabs on problem customers.
As for the clients, there are websites set up by clients to review escorts. If an escort is well-reviewed, then the client knows he is probably safe.
What do you like best about your job and what do you like least about it? – lost_fan
I loved the free time that the job allowed me. I was able to travel and spend time with friends and family. I disliked the dishonesty and secrecy.
How much are your monthly expenses as a sex worker? – lost_fan
$300-500 a month for my online basic ads
$100 a year for the website
$100 a month for a phone
$1500 a year for photography
If I was touring then there were extra expenses such as travel costs, hotels, and more advertising costs.
What is your opinion of the profession, ignoring the social and legal ramifications? If prostitution were legal and not socially stigmatized, how would you feel about your child being in the profession? – Steve
If the social and legal ramifications were gone, I think that being an escort might be like being a therapist (I have never been a therapist, so my knowledge is obviously limited). Like most escorts, a therapist sells his or her skills by the hour. A therapist also has to meet people for the first time not knowing who is walking in the door. Many have their own offices and work alone. In addition, the session is generally private and requires discretion. I imagine that many times therapists have patients that they like and some they don’t. A therapist’s revenue, like almost all other occupations, probably increases if the client feels that the therapist likes them. I don’t mean to imply that I have the skills of a trained therapist, or to in any way demean what they do; I’m just observing some obvious similarities.
If I had a child, I would hope that they would feel empowered, and have the opportunity to do whatever they desire to do, and that they would be in charge of their own sexuality. This job has its downsides, though, and can take a high toll on a person. I know that it’s made many aspects of my life and my relationships more difficult. So, like any parent, I would always want more for my child than I had for myself.
Have you ever ‘fallen in love’ with a customer? – David Chowes
Do you feel that the inelasticity of demand for your services was because a higher price signaled a higher quality to the client or was it the case that your prior experience in your profession justified the raise or is there another explanation? Related to this, do you feel that a new escort could enter the market and charge the higher rates that you arrived at over many years? – Sam R
I believe that a higher price does signal a higher quality to clients, but many clients are well informed and decide on who they are going to see based on photographs and reviews. Many of these clients are not price sensitive, and in those cases I don’t think a few hundred dollars would make a difference if they found someone they wanted to see. I think in my case I was able to raise my prices because I was well-reviewed, and had clients already in my book that I had established a relationship with. I have no doubt that if a new escort marketed herself well, and treated her clients well, she could achieve and maintain a reasonable business with these higher rates.
On your downtime do you find yourself scouting for clients? – DeeKay
I only advertised in places that people go exclusively to look for escorts. For that reason, I didn’t need to look for clients; they were able to find me quite easily if they knew where to look.
Are you recognizable as a sex-worker or do you ‘work’ in costume and/or change your identity? – DeeKay
I didn’t work in costume. I prefer a more discreet appearance.
Are you worried about your salary decreasing as you get older? Are you worried that you will have to retire at a young age? – Trevor L
I am retired from this business, but I know women who work well past 40. That said, older women will work less as they age, and eventually will have to retire.
How much time did you spend maintaining the “ideal” body for your work? – Vicki
First, I would like to say I have an okay body, not an “ideal” one. I work out for an hour 5 times a week. This is the same effort I have always put into my fitness. Before I became an escort, I had the idea that all escorts looked like Barbie. They don’t. This is why I was surprised that I was even marketable as an escort. I thought all men only wanted women that were impossibly beautiful. After sampling many men I can tell you that they like all shapes, sizes, colors and ages. If you take a look at the reviews and ads, there are all categories and many well-reviewed women that don’t have “ideal” bodies.
Do you think women turn to prostitution as a result of the male-female wage gap that SuperFreakonomics discusses? – A.
I think women turn to prostitution for many reasons. There are almost as many reasons as there are escorts. That said, a wage gap between the sexes — whether real or perceived — probably doesn’t help.
How do you feel about the legalization of prostitution? – A.
I feel that prostitution should be legal. If a couple meets for dinner and a bottle of wine, and have sex, that’s a date. If they meet for dinner and a bottle of wine, and have sex, with money in an envelope left on the dresser, that’s illegal. I realize that there are women in prostitution that are there because they feel like they have to be. These women work in a different part of the industry than I did. Many have drug or abuse issues, among other problems. I think, instead of spending time and finite resources on arresting and criminalizing these women, we should spend our resources on making sure that these women have other opportunities and a place to go for help. The women who don’t want to be prostitutes shouldn’t have to be, and they should be able to get the help they need. Women who want to be should be able to. I feel that no one should have to take a job to make a living that is against his or her own moral judgment.
If you get to choose again, would you still choose to be an escort? – Mari
Being an escort provided me with many opportunities that I’m not sure I would have gotten if I had not been an escort. That said, my choice to become an escort had a definite cost associated with it beyond the advertising, photos and websites. I believe it is close to impossible to have a healthy relationship while working. So it can be a lonely life. In addition, hiding my job from my friends and family proved to be difficult for many reasons.
Why do you think the higher rates meant you had less sex? Was it just the higher rates, or a side effect of pruning your client list? – Andrew Wyld
It was partially because I had control over my book of business. I also believe it’s because the higher-end clients are less concerned with squeezing the value out of every dollar spent.
What are the men like? Single? Married? Families? Good looking? Skinny? Fat? Etc? Do they have huge egos? – Chris
My clients were generally between 35-55 years old and married. I found my clients generally very nice. They rarely had huge egos that I noticed. Beyond that, I would estimate that they physically were just a snapshot of the public, some good looking, some not, some overweight, some not.
Do you pay taxes? Do you depreciate your money maker? – bob
I do pay taxes, but I haven’t found a way to depreciate my moneymaker.
Does the appearance and/or personality of the client affect your state of mind, if at all? – Michael
A client’s appearance had little effect on my state of mind or desire to “work” with them. Their personality is important, and I generally didn’t have a problem finding something endearing about each of my clients. On the rare occasion when I found someone to be offensive or simply unkind, I would just ask him to leave.
Over what age do your johns use Viagra/Cialis etc.? Do they share this information with you? Are there some johns using Viagra/Cialis etc. who are still unable to maintain an erection while using a condom? – jz
I know some of my clients did use medication to sustain an erection, but I wouldn’t be able to give an estimate to how many, due to the fact that many don’t share that information with me.
What can an “average” girl in the industry do to improve her success in this field? – Vico
I would suggest the same things anyone should do in any industry. Market yourself well and maintain a good reputation.
What are the common mistakes that most girls make in this field that can be avoided? – Vico
Always check out your client, safety first. Be on time. Don’t cancel appointments at the last minute.
Would you have sex with a customer without a condom if he agreed to get tested for STDs and also pay you extra? – Ralph K.
No, in the market I operated in it is widely understood that clients have to wear condoms. I made good money without taking those chances or complicating the transaction.
The difference in salary between you and, say, the girls paid $7 in the ghetto is incredibly large even though the supposed product is technically the same. Is the $93 difference from having an education and the setting to create an upscale environment? Do you think a girl from a low socioeconomic status could make as much as you or can high-end call girls only come from high-end environments? What differentiates your ‘product’ from theirs to cause such a huge wage gap? – Aviva C.
I think in general, a large part of the wage gap is due to the transaction costs borne by the client. Seeing a street worker has very large non-monetary costs, such as higher risk of arrest, disease, etc. Obviously, education will help anyone with any job. On its face it may seem that the difference between what I provided and what a street worker provided is near zero, but we provided a very different service.
I sold my time by the hour, provided a clean and safe environment, with a much lower risk of legal repercussions. Also, it was much easier for many upscale clients to pull up my profile on their computers, learn about my services, and contact me. They could also schedule appointments ahead of time in the safety of their own office or home. I was also located in a higher-income area. These things alone lower the transaction cost borne by the client.
Street workers are selling each provided act separately. The locations tend to be in lower income areas. The women can be harder to find, and not dependably at the same location, and there is the fear of both pimps and the law. The clients know little to nothing about the women or the cost until they have already approached the woman. These things increase the transaction costs to the client.
I also don’t want to ignore the possibility that some clients make a moral choice in the sense that they feel that if an escort is making hundreds of dollars an hour, she is making a choice to be an escort, and has not been forced into the sex trade against her will.
I had an entirely different perspective on business and economics university courses following my post-undergraduate years working in finance. Do you have any examples of some… unique … “Oh, now it makes sense..” moments given your particular professional background? – Bobby G
Sure, here are some examples:
Dinner with Friends = opportunity cost
Perfect information = review sites
Transaction cost = setting an appointment up
Repeated game = reputation
Product differentiation = Not a blonde
Seriously, I wish I had known then what I know now.