Search the Site

Do High-End Sex Workers Have it Easier?

I have been researching prostitution markets since the mid 1990’s. Much of my work has been in based Chicago, New York, and, more recently, Paris. Steve Levitt and I recently prepared a paper on the low-wage prostitution market in Chicago that received a lot of press. I’m hoping that the final version will provide some hard numbers on a difficult-to-reach sector of the American economy.

We know fairly little about the high-end pay scale. There are memoirs and scandals, but researchers tend to focus on the streets, in part because of difficulties of access to higher-income sex workers. (Freakonomics readers might recall that Dubner recently blogged about one of their contacts who works in the high-end.)

In New York, I have been interviewing women who decided to enter the “indoor sex trade,” a part of prostitution that I argue exploded after Giuliani shut down the open-air street markets in Manhattan. In 2006, I published a paper on this with Alexandra Murphy (now a sociology grad student at Princeton), but the media didn’t think it was newsworthy at the time. We interviewed high-end sex workers with the help of the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group that provides services and support for men and women in the trade.

Alex and I wanted to disrupt the glamorous view of women at the higher-end. “Kristen,” of Spitzer fame, was a typical sex worker who catered to the elites: she came to the city to get away from family problems; she was forced to engage in dangerous work with little assistance if things went wrong; and she received only a fraction of the money her employer (the escort service) obtained from the client. I’ve found the higher-paid women are abused about twice per year by their clients. I define “abuse” as suffering physical pain that prevents them from working and that includes visits to the hospital. Of course, no one is going to feel sorry for people earning thousands of dollars, but that doesn’t mean women avoid exploitation, violence, and danger altogether by making more money than they would on the streets.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of high-end sex markets was the motivational structure of the john. For example, I kept hearing reports from the women that men would not always demand sex — in fact, my surveys revealed that 40 percent of the meetings involved only light petting or kissing. Men often wanted comfort and a conversational partner.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: this is either anecdotal or these women told me lies. I felt the same way. So, I asked the women to help me find johns to interview. I ended up speaking to numerous clients who confirmed this basic fact: sex was only one part of what they wanted.

I thought you folks might want to send a few queries to women who know a lot about the high-end (and low-end) sex trade. I lined up two women who agreed to take your questions (and comments):

Mindy is a 43-year-old white woman who was a sex worker until 2007, when she decided to retire. (She typically retained a clientele of 12 to 15 men, all of whom paid a “per-session” fee of $5,000 to $7,500.) She made enough to buy a house and she is currently preparing for a career as a nurse.

Dorothy is 55, African-American, and lives in Chicago. “Dot” was a subject of my documentary (see my website). Although she was never a prostitute, she knows the streets and hotels of Chicago, and she has helped me to interview over 250 women.

They are happy to reply to your questions, but they also wanted to field a pop-quiz to Freak readers.

So, readers, you may opt to:

1. Ask Mindy a question or take a guess at hers:

I slept with many lawyers. What do you think was their most common fantasy/role play?

2. Ask Dorothy a question or answer her queries:

I have seen a lot of women break into the high-end [sex market]. They always ask me, “Should I try and help the
man with his marriage problems or should I tell him not to talk about it?” What do you think is the best way to keep the john around for a long time?

Fire away.