Your Sex Industry Questions Answered

DOtDorothy (right) and her daughter Do-Do.

Last week Sudhir Venkatesh solicited your questions for Mindy and Dorothy, two of his contacts in the high-end (and low-end) sex worker world.

Mindy and Dorothy also had a pop quiz for Freakonomics readers — which you answered enthusiastically (though not all of you passed).

Thanks to Mindy and Dorothy for their generosity and to all of you for your good questions and guesses.

Mindy and Dorothy provide some responses below.

But first … the pop quiz.

1. What was the most common lawyer fantasy/role play?

A: Lawyers have one common fantasy, according to high-end sex workers: they want their lady-friend to play the role of “opposing counsel,” by visiting them in the hotel room to strike a plea bargain. I’ll leave the rest to the imagination.

2. What’s the best way to keep the john around for a long time?

A: Dorothy says that “the best” sex workers will try to persuade their clients to discuss their marriages openly:

See, if you can start providing that kind of help, then the man thinks you’re not trying to hurt him, and he’ll come back for more. He’ll start being one of your regulars, and there’s nothing better than a man who keeps on paying!

On to the queries:

Q: There were several questions about hiding income from the I.R.S. and planning for the future. Mindy offered this reply:

MINDY: Most of us can’t make investments — we were never trained. We really operate in a world of cash, and we don’t tend to think about the future. But, then again, I would say most people probably aren’t so good at financial planning.

I don’t report my income. But sex workers will often form a business — some will style hair, others will do some kind of consulting — in order to start “cleaning” their money.

A big problem is that (if you don’t start a business or work part-time), when you try to apply for a job, you have this huge part of your life that’s empty. But that’s easy: you tell the employer you had kids. They never ask another question after that.

Q: What are your thoughts on legalization?

DOROTHY: I think legalization is really bad for the women because they will just get exploited. They’ll get paid a lot less and be forced to do a lot more.

I don’t condone prostitution, but I do understand survival.

Women sell their bodies for survival — I don’t care how much money they make. You don’t want to make that a permanent thing.

Q: How do you deal with cops?

DOROTHY: If you want to stay in the game, you better keep a police man happy. You always give a freebie now and then, because most women get caught now and then, especially if you’re on the streets. And you always want to tell him he’s the biggest man you’ve ever seen. Men ain’t that hard to figure out.

MINDY: Every sex parlor or escort service I’ve ever known has had cops who know what’s going on. I’m not saying that cops get laid, but they do know the clientelle.

Its simple: you keep the police in the know, because you never want to surprise your local officers. I’m not an expert on policing, but it seems that police don’t like surprises.

Q: How difficult is it to transport money at the high end of the sex work market?

MINDY: The women who make more than $5,000 per visit are the ones who have this problem. It’s really not common because most women don’t actually make that much money — the strip club, the manager, or the escort service takes most of their paychecks.

That’s what happened to the girl they called “Kristen” (from the Spitzer affair). I recommend that women always hold a part-time job because, if you have a pay check, you have a legitimate bank account. Then it’s pretty easy to hide your money.

Q: Is there much mobility from low to high-end sex work?

DOROTHY: I’ve seen a lot of women get off the streets and make a lot more money. They end up doing a dating service, or working at a hotel bar, or maybe they go place an ad on the internet. But most of these women make about $30,000 if they get really successful. They don’t make a lot more than that because they have a lot of expenses and they usually have children, rent, and things like that. They can’t keep a full-time job doing anything else while they are selling themselves.

Once in a while you find somebody who meets a rich man — or maybe two or three rich men — and then they hit the jackpot! These men start liking them, and then they let their friends know, and on and on. That’s how you can start earning a lot in the game.

But the women who do this are really smart: they know that the man wants to be treated like a king. He doesn’t just want to get laid; he wants to know he’s like a bull in the bed. He wants to know that he’s like a President or something like that.

Q: If men pay by the hour, they would want to consume as many acts per hour as possible. How do sex workers feel about this?

MINDY: I’m trying to be delicate with my answer: this usually doesn’t happen.

DOROTHY: Is he kidding?

Q: Mindy, why did you choose a nursing career?

MINDY: A lot of people probably won’t believe this, but much of our work is about therapy. These men who paid me thousands of dollars control their worlds. Everyone listens to them. And, at the same time, they are incredibly insecure people.

Every man I’ve had as a regular client went through a period of several months where he just cried — and I still got paid. I pursued nursing because I realized I wanted to relieve people’s anxieties in a more legitimate way.


what?- you mean I'm not the biggest?- (sigh)- and I thought I had women figured out

Charles Tsang

"price would go down ignores the fees and medical testing that legal prostitutes would incur. The regulatory costs alone will drive up the price."
The issue of testing would be nice to query. How many illegal sex workers don't test? If most of them do anyway (it's scarcely going to increase costs). Also, if they don't, the larger numbers requiring checks should drive down the average cost (or states could choose to subsidise it).

On another point of legalising, is whether the demand would increase, thus leading to more work?


Legalization does not mean the job will not still be attached to stigma. If the job is a legitimate one, then unemployed people who seek employment counseling (especially women) would most likely, after a time, be encouraged to enter into prostitution and be criticized for expressing reluctance or for not doing so. My understanding is that this is a problem in Amsterdam.

Jhan Stevens

Seems to me a working girl in a legally permissible environment has at least one thing in common with the guy cooking burgers at Mickey D's: they're both being "exploited" for their services, although admittedly, one is being financially exploited to a much greater degree.


The answer as to why legal prostitution would be more exploitative is market dynamics. Legalization would increase the demand, then the supply and drive down wages, with a likely scenario being that wages are driven down by greater 'managerial' control over prostitutes. I don't think that a larger supply of prostitutes would be good for present day prostitutes or society as a whole. If we could de-stigmatize prostitution without creating a bigger market I would be all for it, but I'm not sure that's possible.


I think what Dorothy is saying is that right now, prostitution is a temporary thing for most prostitutes. They know it's illegal, they're just doing it to survive, and that's an impetus to try and get a real job. They don't really think of prostitution as a career, exactly.

If prostitution is legal, it becomes a "real" job, and one of the drivers pushing prostitutes to other work is lost.


With regards to legalization, the price would go down because the risk involved in prostitution (a barrier to entry and an extra cost incurred by prostitutes) would be removed. Therefore, for those prostitutes who are currently willing to take the legal risk, it is more profitable to have the price inflated because of this added risk. However, this risk is also a cost -- there is a chance they will get caught, and get punished which has to be factored in to their cost/benefit analysis. This one woman clearly has decided that the price she is paying for the risk of getting caught is not as great as the extra money she receives due to the illicit nature of the job.


Will we not get any more answers?


Lawyers want to "defeat" opposing counsel? Well, the obvious joke here would involve proctologists.


@ Jason M. #8

Your source is from 1995. This is a source from your webpage that's ten years newer.

"There is strong indication from the interview, document analysis, and ethnographic data presented here that legal brothels generally offer a safer working environment than their illegal counterparts. Regulated brothels offer particular ways of dealing with pragmatic safety issues and minimizing actual violence... Nevada brothels offer specific mechanisms to protect workers via the ways transactions are organized, the ways technology is ordered, the visibility of customers, the bureaucratic relationships among customers, managers, and workers, and the cooperation with police based on the mere fact of their legality. All of these mechanisms work to eliminate systematic violence and to discourage an atmosphere of danger and risk..."

Jason M.


You said: "The problem for women of low intelligence is that they can't fall back onto physical labor (which is pretty well paid, in fact construction/mining/forestry workers tend to make as much if not more than graduates) and if they don't have a degree they are basically stuck with low-paying jobs like retail, waitressing, nursing, etc."

I find a number of problems with this statement... first, you assume that women who are/have been prostitutes are "of low intelligence". Also, what does having low intelligence have to do with an inability to fall back onto physical labor? I would think having low intelligence would make one more apt to work in a physically demanding job.

Second, you say "some people are just lazy". This is pretty blatant race-baiting and reinforces negative and unfounded stereotypes.

Your point about heroin, while also unfortunately founded on stereotypes, at least more accurately reflects the conditions and despair that leads some women to prostitution (esp. in declining/stagnating inner-city environments in the US).



If prostitution were legalized, demand is likely to go up (risk of getting arrested is gone, and with legislation, risk of contracting STDs are also likely to go down).

Increased demand is likely to drive prices up. Based on other countries+Nevada, I'm not convinced that supply would go up substantially if it were legalized.


Dorset (#6): "it is the task and intent of most employers at this level to extract the maximum production from its workers for the least possible compensation"

This is probably true. But in the converse, it is also the task and intent of most employees to extract the maximum compensation from their employers for the minimum amount of work.

And in a free market, employer and employee negotiate to find a happy medium where each is at least marginally satisfied with the amount he/she is exploiting the other party.

Carrie W.

I think it's important here to keep in mind that there is a pretty serious hierchy in the world of prostitution, and often researchers look at only one eschelon (usually the street walkers at the lowest level) and use that data to represent the industry as a whole. What bothers me is that there are many women in the higher levels (some escorts, independent call girls) that operate very well, weren't abused, are highly educated and feel very empowered. We do them no favors by constantly stereotyping all sex-workers as these poor poor abused, diseased, trapped victims. Are we threatened by the idea of a sex-worker that is truly free of stigma?

Jason M.

To Will, re: exploitation.

This link
gives a good summary of academic work on the topic of violence/exploitation in illegal versus legalized prostitution settings.

A quote from one of the articles on the page:

"Behind the facade of a regulated industry, brothel prostitutes in Nevada are captive in conditions analogous to slavery. Women often are procured for the brothels from other areas by pimps who dump them at the house in order to collect the referral fee. Women report working in shifts commonly as long as 12 hours, even when ill, menstruating or pregnant, with no right to refuse a customer who has requested them or to refuse the sexual act for which he has paid.... And, contrary to the common claim that the brothel will protect women from the dangerous, crazy clients on the streets, rapes and assaults by customers are covered up by the management."


Doug Rader

Most impressive are the number of comments focused on the issue of legalization. I am surprised.

pressing keys on my computer

m's belief that the price would go down ignores the fees and medical testing that legal prostitutes would incur. The regulatory costs alone will drive up the price.

Randy Drouin

It's interesting how, much like drug dealing in Freakenomics was shown to be a poor paying, unglamorous career, so is the case with prostitution. If selling your body, or selling illicit drugs can't make you more dirty money than even an average 'clean' paying job, then why does anyone bother?


I am a skilled tradesman in a blue collar job, and I can tell you, while one can quibble about the definition of 'exploitation', it is the task and intent of most employers at this level to extract the maximum production from its workers for the least possible compensation. An atmosphere of suspicion and tightly controlled workplace conduct helps to erode the sense of self worth, decreasing the chances that one will muster up the self esteem to ask for more generous compensation. These conditions also lead to a highly toxic political environment. Even though I am acutely aware of this dynamic, it is still a struggle to retain my sense of self worth under these conditions.

Is this exploitation? I don't know, but it sure feels like it.


I dated a phone sex operator and she told me most callers just wanted to talk about how they hated their jobs.