Prostitution, Prostitution Everywhere

As a big fan of prostitution — er, I mean, as someone who’s very interested in the social, economic, legal, and psychological elements of prostitution — it’s always good to see interesting articles about what’s always called “the world’s oldest profession.”

(If I recall correctly, this premise was once countered on an episode of Barney Miller. As I remember it, one character mentions that begging is the world’s oldest profession, and another one says, “I thought prostitution was.” To which the first person replies: “Well, someone had to ask for it.”)

There is a pair of such interesting articles today, both on the front page of prominent newspapers. In the New York Times, Bruce Lambert writes about how Craigslist has become the perfect tool for an increasingly mobile prostitution business, and how police use the same tool to try to arrest the prostitutes and their managers.

In the Wall Street Journal, Matt Moffett writes about a Sao Paulo brothel owner [sub. req’d.] whose new high-rise hotel may pose a danger to the nearby airport. One interesting quote: “Prostitution itself isn’t a crime in Brazil, though procuring it is.” (Let me suggest an industry slogan: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Sell.”)

If this pair of front-page articles is a function of demand, rather than simply news value, that’s a good sign for Levitt and me, since we may be writing a good bit about prostitution in our next book.


I think this article is very interesting, but most of all it is funny way of looking at "the oldes profession in the world."
It was a great read too bad it wasn't that long.


I'm not sure I see why prostitution itself is illegal - it seems like a victimless crime between consensual adults.

Violent pimps and suchlike might be a problem, so make their actions illegal, sure. But who gains from prostitution being illegal?


I don't really understand that expression. You'd think hunting/farming would be the oldest professions...

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

I agree with #2, except to add that where children are concerned, people should be punished to the full extent of the law. And by "child", I mean anyone below 18. I'm glad that Levitt and Dubner will be writing about this topic, as it is an interesting one in many ways.


The answer to why prostitution is illegal is there are too many people in the United States congress who are afraid of being associated with immorality (on purpose that is). The only way to ever have it passed would be through the supreme court which is currently run by old republicans set in their ways. Though for the life of me I can't remember who it was, but in Maryland General Assembly there was someone who was practically thrown out of his respective party for even bringing up the idea that we should give notions like this their democratic day in court.

Henry V

Speaking of Barney Miller, I'm reminded of an old Cheers episode where Diane says of an attractive female patron "She's in the oldest profession."

Coach responds, "She's a farmer, Diane?"

Also, speaking of prostitution, I've always been curious about the porn industry (from a purely economic perspective). It seems to me that with the incredible amount of free content available, that the economic profits should fall to zero. Is there evidence that has happened? If not, why not? And, given that porn is a (imperfect) substitute for prostitution, should the internet have led to an overall increase or decrease in the price of prostitutes?


hunting and farming weren't professions, they were just ways to get food for yourself/your family


i guess that's the joke, prostitution is even older than hunting and farming. wherever two or more are gathered...


I recommend Lysander Spooner's "Vices are Not Crimes" (1875) though this is more a philosophical rather than economical piece.

J. P. Velloso

Oldest profession?.... What about politics?... Were they invented by the same person? ;-)

James McGarry

The two characters are Dietrick (Steve Landesberg) and 'Wojo' (Wojciehowicz - Max Gail). Coincidentally there was a character named Levitt on Barney Miller too (Officer Carl Levitt - played by Ron Carey, according to IMDB.Com).


With prostitutes the sex is free – what you actually pay for is the prostitute to leave.

And as many of my now divorced friends have told me "Sex with a prostitute was a lot cheaper than sex with their wife!" They told me this while they were married – now the opposite applies.

And to Henry's comment about “prostitution being an (imperfect) substitution for prostitution” – I think that you may have just ticked off a lot of “actors,” unless you were going to hire a prostitute to watch the porn movie with you.

Definitions from Wikipedia

Pornography or porn is, in its broadest state, the explicit representation of the human body or sexual activity with the goal of sexual arousal and/or sexual relief. It is similar to erotica, which is the use of sexually-arousing imagery for mainly artistic purposes. Over the past few decades, an immense industry for the production and consumption of pornography has grown, due to emergence of the VCR, the DVD, and the Internet, as well as the emergence of social attitudes more tolerant of sexual portrayals.

Prostitution is sexual intercourse in exchange for remuneration. The legal status of prostitution varies in different countries, from punishable by death to complete legality. A woman who is supported by only one man she has sexual intercourse with but does not live with is a mistress, and is not normally considered a prostitute. Male prostitutes offering services to female customers are known as "gigolos" or "escorts".
The term is used loosely to indicate someone who engages in sexual acts that are disapproved of,[1] such as sexual promiscuity or sex outside of marriage. Cultural usage varies widely, and the use of the term as a pejorative indicates acts that are not formally considered prostitution in a cultural context.


Walk The Line

I don't understand why more localities adopt the approach that some counties in Nevada have taken. Rather than outlawing prostitution, they could make it legal and then regulate it like any other industry (with mandatory STD testing). That way, rather than trying to eliminate an activity that has been around since ancient times, you can ensure it happens in a relatively safe environment for all parties involved.

Why is the government in the business of regulating what happens between consenting adults?

Eric Crampton

It's been legal here in New Zealand for about three years now. The number of streetwalkers is down, there are about a half dozen brothels in downtown Christchurch. All seems to be running fine. The Ministry of Justice released a report in 2005 giving background to the law change -- it'll be interesting to read their follow-up report in a couple years' time.


To reply to #5, prostitution is *legal* in the US, except 49 states have outlawed it. That is the only way that Nevada can have its clubs, so it has nothing to do with the supreme court.


Uh, Tom at #5, you must have missed the memo, but the Supreme Court doesn't pass laws, it merely rules on a law's constitutionality. And any state that wants to do so may legalize prostitution, as Nevada has. Hasn't got a bloody thing to do with the Supreme Court or the political philosophy of those on it.

And Tom, what exactly is a "democratic day in court"? Time to brush up on your Civics. Or Social Studies. Or whatever they call it now.


How in the world do you come to the conclusion that pornography is a substitute for prostitution? That's like saying milk is a substitute for ice cream.


Yes, pornography and prostitution are at least partial substitutes. After viewing pornography, I have no use for a prostitute for the next hour. (It used to be 20 minutes, but those days are long gone.)


“Prostitution itself isn't a crime in Brazil, though procuring it is.” in the Portugal it works in the exact same way.


Keeping prostitution criminalized just doesn't compute. We can pay people to do every conceivable thing to us and our bodies, including but certainly not limited to cutting our hair, clipping our nails, rubbing our sore backs, cutting us open and repairing or replacing our internal organs, tatooing our skin, giving us enemas, and on and on. So, how is it that paying for sex escapes this long list? It is true that sex is better when combined with love, but sex without love can bring needed relief in much the way that scratching an itch does. Adults ought to be able to scratch that itch if they so choose.