Chapter 1

How is a Street Prostitute Like a Department-Store Santa?


Meet LaSheena, a part-time prostitute . . . One million dead “witches” . . . The many ways in which females are punished for being born female . . . Even Radcliffe women pay the price . . . Title IX creates jobs for women; men take them . . . 1 of every 50 women a prostitute . . . The booming sex trade in old-time Chicago . . . A survey like no other . . . The erosion of prostitute pay . . . Why did oral sex get so cheap? . . . Pimps versus Realtors . . . Why cops love prostitutes . . . Where did all the schoolteachers go? . . . What really accounts for the male-female wage gap? . . . Do men love money the way women love kids? . . . Can a sex change boost your salary? . . . Meet Allie, the happy prostitute; why aren’t there more women like her?

It turns out that the typical street prostitute in Chicago works 13 hours a week, performing 10 sex acts during that period, and earns an hourly wage of approximately $27. So her weekly take-home pay is roughly $350. This includes an average of $20 that a prostitute steals from her customers and acknowledges that some prostitutes accept drugs in lieu of cash — usually crack cocaine or heroin, and usually at a discount. Of all the women in Venkatesh’s study, 83 percent were drug addicts.

Like LaSheena, many of these women took on other, non-prostitution work, which Venkatesh also tracked. Prostitution paid about four times more than those jobs. But as high as that wage premium may be, it looks pretty meager when you consider the job’s downsides. In a given year, a typical prostitute in Venkatesh’s study experienced a dozen incidents of violence. At least 3 of the 160 prostitutes who participated died during the course of the study. “Most of the violence by johns is when, for some reason, they can’t consummate or can’t get erect,” says Venkatesh. “Then he’s shamed — ‘I’m too manly for you’ or ‘You’re too ugly for me!’ Then the john wants his money back, and you definitely don’t want to negotiate with a man who just lost his masculinity.”

Moreover, the women’s wage premium pales in comparison to the one enjoyed by even the low-rent prostitutes from a hundred years ago. Compared with them, women like LaSheena are working for next to nothing.

Why has the prostitute’s wage fallen so far?

Because demand has fallen dramatically. Not the demand for sex. That is still robust. But prostitution, like any industry, is vulnerable to competition.

Who poses the greatest competition to a prostitute? Simple: any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free.

It is no secret that sexual mores have evolved substantially in recent decades. The phrase “casual sex” didn’t exist a century ago (to say nothing of “friends with benefits”). Sex outside of marriage was much harder to come by and carried significantly higher penalties than it does today.

Imagine a young man, just out of college but not ready to settle down, who wants to have some sex. In decades past, prostitution was a likely option. Although illegal, it was never hard to find, and the risk of arrest was minuscule. While relatively expensive in the short term, it provided good long-term value because it didn’t carry the potential costs of an unwanted pregnancy or a marriage commitment. At least20 percent of American men born between 1933 and 1942 had their first sexual intercourse with a prostitute.

Now imagine that same young man twenty years later. The shift in sexual mores has given him a much greater supply of unpaid sex. In his generation, only 5 percent of men lose their virginity to a prostitute. And it’s not that he and his friends are saving themselves for marriage. More than 70 percent of the men in his generation have sex before they marry, compared with just 33 percent in the earlier generation.

So premarital sex emerged as a viable substitute for prostitution. And as the demand for paid sex decreased, so too did the wage of the people who provide it.