SuperFreakonomics Book Club: Ask Sudhir Venkatesh About Street Prostitution


In the first installment of our virtual book club, Emily Oster answered your questions about her research (co-authored with Rob Jensen) which argues that the lives of rural women in India improved on several dimensions thanks to the widespread adoption of television.

That story appeared in our book’s introduction. Now we’re moving on to Chapter One.

We will probably feature a few Q&A’s with the subjects and researchers featured in this chapter, which is described in the Table of Contents like this:

1. How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?

In which we explore the various costs of being a woman.

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?

Today we concentrate on “a survey like no other,” and invite you to ask questions of the man behind that survey, Sudhir Venkatesh. He is a sociologist at Columbia University who did his graduate work at the University of Chicago and conducted years’ worth of valuable, fascinating field work there.

One chapter in Freakonomics was based on a series of papers Sudhir wrote with Steve Levitt about the economics of a crack-selling gang. (He did a Q&A on that topic here; and he wrote a book, Gang Leader for a Day, about that research.)

In SuperFreakonomics, we write about the field work that Sudhir conducted with street prostitutes in Chicago. There is a lot to be said about the findings of the research (mostly concerning prices and services) as well as methodology, the historical changes and context of street prostitution, and even how the prostitutes engage in what economists call price discrimination, or charging different prices for the same product.

Sudhir has agreed to field your questions about his research, so leave them in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post the answers shortly. For those of you who haven’t yet read this chapter, here are a few relevant excerpts:

Venkatesh, knowing that traditional survey methods don’t necessarily produce reliable results for a sensitive topic like prostitution, tried something different: real-time, on-the-spot data collection. He hired trackers to stand on street corners or sit in brothels with the prostitutes, directly observing some facets of their transactions and gathering more intimate details from the prostitutes as soon as the customers were gone.

Most of the trackers were former prostitutes — an important credential because such women were more likely to get honest responses. Venkatesh also paid the prostitutes for participating in the study. If they were willing to have sex for money, he reasoned, surely they’d be willing to talk about having sex for money. And they were. Over the course of nearly two years, Venkatesh accumulated data on roughly 160 prostitutes in three separate South Side neighborhoods, logging more than 2,200 sexual transactions.


During Venkatesh’s study, six pimps managed the prostitution in West Pullman, and he got to know each of them. They were all men. In the old days, prostitution rings in even the poorest Chicago neighborhoods were usually run by women. But men, attracted by the high wages, eventually took over — yet another example in the long history of men stepping in to outearn women.

These six pimps ranged in age from their early 30’s to their late 40’s and ‘were doing pretty well,’ Venkatesh says, making roughly $50,000 a year. Some also held legit jobs — car mechanic or store manager — and most owned their homes. None were drug addicts.

One of their most important roles was handling the police. Venkatesh learned that the pimps had a good working relationship with the police, particularly with one officer, named Charles. When he was new on the beat, Charles harassed and arrested the pimps. But this backfired. ‘When you arrest the pimps, there’ll just be fighting to replace them,’ Venkatesh says, ‘and the violence is worse than the prostitution.’


How do the Chicago street prostitutes price-discriminate? As Venkatesh learned, they use different pricing strategies for white and black customers. When dealing with blacks, the prostitutes usually name the price outright to discourage any negotiation. (Venkatesh observed that black customers are more likely than whites to haggle — perhaps, he reasoned, because they’re more familiar with the neighborhood and therefore know the market better.) When doing business with white customers, meanwhile, the prostitute makes the man name a price, hoping for a generous offer. As evidenced by the black-white price differential in the data, this strategy seems to work pretty well.


Of all the tricks turned by the prostitutes he tracked, roughly 3 percent were freebies given to police officers. The data don’t lie: a Chicago street prostitute is more likely to have sex with a cop than to be arrested by one.

Another David

On the standard 1-10 scale, how hot is the average street prostitute? Standard deviation?


Have you shared the results of your study with top CPD officials and what has been their reaction?

Alex Churchill

The Internet has revolutionized prostitution. In short, is street prostitution a nearly dead industry? Also, what will become of pimps? I realize there will always be a certain base level of street prostitutes to serve addicts and thrill seekers, but certainly the sample size must be getting smaller every day.


Were there any common traits to the part-time "patriotic" hookers? (Age, marital status, children, employment status,etc...)


Hi Sudhir,

I really enjoyed your book, Gang Leader for a Day.

How would legalization of prostitution affect the sex trade, in terms of economics (supply, demand, price) and safety (health, violence)?

What proportion of the sex trade involves women being forced into it, versus choosing the profession?

What proportion of sex trade workers are drug users, and is that something that tends to preceed entering the drug trade or vice versa?

Keep up the fascinating work.




In the book, Levitt and Dubner estimate the size of the "pimpact" - the added value of pimp management - using variation over time in working for a pimp and prostitute's earnings. What typically is happening in a street prostitute's life that might cause her to leave employment with a pimp? Is she usually fired for some reason (and if so, what are typical violations that would get her fired), or does she leave for her own reasons?


In the recent battle to get prostitution re-criminalized in the state of Rhode Island, many people involved, such as Donna Hughes, argued that prostitution in Rhode Island was intimately related to the global sex trafficking network. To what degree do you see sex trafficking (involving non-consensual prostitution) as an "industry" related to the underlying markets for consensual prostitution? Are they segmented, or are they connected, and if they are connected, how? Do clients of sex trafficked women in the United States, for instance, realize they are seeing a trafficked woman? Just how bad is this problem, and what should the United States do to combat it?


What insights do you have into trafficking and prostitution in the US?


The story of Allie, a high-end escort, as well as the recently outed Belle de Jour (a highly educated prostitute in London) suggest that escorting is a rational choice. But to what degree would you say that street prostitution is a rational choice? Numerous studies suggest that street prostitutes are more likely to be runaways and drug addicted women who engage in high risk behaviors, like injection drug use and unprotected intercourse. Many of them, when interviewed, will not talk about their line of work as being a choice - but rather, talk about it as though it was the inevitable consequence of many other previously made choices which ultimately placed them on the street. As a result, how responsive are these women actually to incentives, like probabilities of arrest, changing technologies, etc.?


Do you think prostitution should be legal?


With condoms being used less than 25 percent of the time, are the effects being seen elsewhere? I would think this would cause a lot of abortions. In areas where there is a lot of prostitution, does the abortion industry see the benefit? How many keep the kids?

Not to get too crass, but is there a lot of "pulling out"? Generally regarded as an unreliable method of birth control, has a study been done to prove it either way based on the population of prostitutes as the sample?


What are the primary factors in the success for a prostitute -- and in what general proportion? Quality of Services (looks & abilities)? Location (the corner)? Marketing (the pimp)?


"If they were willing to have sex for money, he reasoned, surely they'd be willing to talk about having sex for money."

Are you really comfortable making such generalizations about people? If they're willing to have sex for money, what else can we assume they're willing to do for money? Is anything off limits? You write books for money. Is it fair for me to reason that you'd be willing to write my book reports for money?

science minded

People refer to prostitution as the "oldest profession" but as you may or may not know, the oldest profession is the magician. (Joe Bensman) I can relate to the wizard of Oz story, but I do wonder whether the witches of old subsequently became the prostitutes? Just a thought? It actually was Max Weber's idea that members of minority groups tend to go into business and not politics-- so from the standpoint of prostitution as a business that women go into, I can see how this might have come about-- I also think that women often sell themselves short. Men give themselves too much credit. The trouble then with this kind of thinking, as far as I am concerned, is that it leads to one and only one general conclusion- and I find the two sides offensive and not funny at all.


How do you deal with them when you think they're holding out on you?


Many illicit activities and communities develop language to keep outsiders at bay and confuse authorities.

What type of slang is used by prostitutes to verify people's "in" status, keep authorities confused, or avoid the shame (maybe embarrassment?) of using certain words?


Is prostitution an inferior, normal, or luxury good?


What do the women do with the money they earn? Do they save any of it? What do they spend it on?


1) What's the most common demographic (age, social status, family, education etc) of the women who do not do this for a living, but nevertheless engage in the act from time to time for money?
2) Have you done any research on prostitutes in the red-light districts of Calcutta? If you have, could you please share some of your insights on this?
3) What effect do you think legalizing prostitution would have on the profession?
4) What about all the social stigma that is associated with being a prostitute? How do they conceal their profession from their kids, husbands etc? Or do they even hide this at all?

Thank you.


Indian Devadasi system , which I am sure Sudhir would be familiar with, and its various related and distant relatively modern forms like ' Ammachiveedu' of travancore, 'Chinnaveedu' of TN etc had a differentiating aspect compared to modern day prostitution, that of relatively high respect to the people in the trade. Power of discretion they had in selecting clients was qualitatively different from any such discretionary powers modern prostitutes enjoy. This respect and legitimacy of the trade is evident from the practice of nepotism ( if one may call it !) in the industry. Mothers wanted girl children to take up their profession and training started at a very young age. A whole chapter on Kautilya's arthasasthra was on skills required of a prostitute and Prostitution was considered as the highest form of entertainment according to kautilya. In short prostitutes enjoyed respect and legitimacy in traditional societies. I am not sure how much of this can be attributed to the legal/illegal status of the trade. My understanding is that even in countries where prostitution is legal as in Germany, the status of the women in the profession is very low. So, according to me, we are missing a more profound factor in the analysis of the profession.

Given this context,

Do what do you think would incentivise any prostitute in modern societies to train their daughters to be future prostitutes.

In other words

What should be done (or should not be done) to make prostitution a profession with respect that any profession in the entertainment industry deserves.