The Economics of Prostitution, Belle Epoque Edition

A prostitute in the French Quarter, NO in 1912. (Photo: mo pie)

Two French economists, Simon Porcher and Alexandre Frondizi, have been working on a paper about the economics of Paris street prostitution in the late 19th century.

In 1878, there were an estimated 23,000 unregistered prostitutes and 3,991 registered prostitutes. Gathering data from 339 arrests, the researchers found that street prostitutes were generally young, unskilled, and well-paid:

They tended to work with pimps that were from the same area and clustered in neighborhoods where they could compete with regulated brothels. Street prostitutes not only generated profits for themselves but also for a whole bunch of actors, thereby switching the whole local economy to this industry, at the expense of the formal economy.

The authors also found increasing geographical concentration, a feature that bears resemblance to Steve Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh‘s research on prostitution in Chicago:

Highly localized prostitutes and outdoor prostitution probably created extensive demand for sexual services. This positive and more than proportional elasticity between prostitution and population was especially true in dense areas such as Paris, because of the geographic proximity of supply and demand, a feature observed in other informal market.

You can read much, much more about the economics of prostitution in Chapter 1 of SuperFreakonomics.

Eric M. Jones.



Now, going by that picture, *I* theoretically could have made big bucks in Paris in 1912! Not so much here and now :-(


As I see it, a prostitute is not so different from from other national and religious minorities excluded from positions of political influence, leadership etc. who are "driven into economic activity." (Weber, 1905). they tend to sell themselves short. That said, would you not expect the reverse upon inclusion into the political process. That has happened in so many different ways in recent years here in America. I cannot understand those who would wish for the situation to be reversed.


How are attractive 20-year-olds making a couple hundred bucks an hour selling themselves short? What else could they do at that age to make an equivalent amount of money?

But I guess you want to moralize.

Andreas Moser

I am a lawyer - - and I don't really see the difference to prostitution.

Michelle Rhoades

I would like to know if the authors have finished their analysis of the economic conditions surrounding belle epoque prostitution.


Prostitution worked for me In my early and Mid twentiess. It was better then working at macdonalds or being ceo of someone else's company. Sure it wasn't my ideal job. I would have loved to sing on the Broadway stage, Ofcourse. I made my own hours, worked when I wanted to, slept in when I wanted to. I never bought into those social constructs about body shame or the idea that a sexual woman, a woman In command of her sexuality, or a woman who slept with many men was somehow less worthy of love or less desirable the a woman of sexual chastity. If anything, i got a lot of practice and hav skills in the bedroom that would blow any mans mind.