The kind of girl you read about in new-wave magazines

Having read the Superfreakonomics climate-change chapter before it was taken down, I’d have thought that, surely, it must be the book’s stupidest chapter.  Perhaps not.  Dubner and Levitt also take a courageously contrarian view on high-end prostitution.

Allie was smart, capable, technically sophisticated, and she also happened to be physically attractive, a curvaceous and friendly blonde whose attributes were always well appreciated in her corporate setting. But she just didn’t like working all that hard.

So she became an entrepreneur, launching a one-woman business that enabled her to work just 10 or 15 hours a week and earn five times her old salary.

Well, good for her.  I hope she meets a nice governor one day.  But Dubner and Levitt are not, of course, columnists for Elle.  There must be an economics lesson in this fairy tale.  Allie enjoys

high wages, flexible hours and relatively little risk of violence or arrest. So the real puzzle isn’t why someone like Allie becomes a prostitute, but rather why more women don’t choose this career.

That is puzzling.  I look forward to reading the entire chapter, so I can find out why more men don’t choose to become high-end gay escorts.  It has to be much easier than waiting tables or accounting or laying pipe.

48 thoughts on “The kind of girl you read about in new-wave magazines”

  1. Is one reason that more men don't choose to become high-end gay escorts because there isn't in fact significant demand for high-end gay escorts?

  2. There is a case currently before the Superior Court in Ontario in which a number of prostitutes are arguing that the Canadian law on prostitution is unconstitutional because it does not allow sex workers to protect themselves against the risks of violence. Canadian law does not criminalize prostitution but it does criminalize communications for the purpose of prostitution (so those conversations on the street are illegal) and living off the avails of prostitution (so the person hired to protect the prostitute may be charged – not just pimps (the clear target) but any service people. The government takes the position (in open court) that the job is inherently risky, and the law aims to protect women by making it difficult to get into that line of work.

    The danger, even of the higher-scale courtesan, is I suspect one reason that more women (and maybe men, subject to the demand, as noted above) don't go into that line of work. The yuck factor, or even a certain morality, might also be relevant.

  3. Thomas, I fear you do not know your industry here. Sex work is, true, almost entirely consumed by men. Some men are gay. Having once-upon-a-time lived kitty corner from an old victorian in Oakland whose tenants mostly all, male and female, did sex work, I can assure you: there is significant demand for high-end gay sex work. That said, there is a simple rule of thumb in that world: it is the only one I know in which men get half as much for a given day's work.

    Me, I think Dub/Lev once again are being good provocateurs, and really terrible at their actual day jobs as journalist/economist. My onetime neighbors left their fine profession quickly (with one notable exception; I won't bore you with the details, but you've seen her current paramour's films) because for a profession that ends at a very young age it pays terribly: worse than baseball, worse than boxing, worse than the NFL.

    But thinking of that wouldn't be very provocateur-y, so it didn't happen here.

  4. The point, presumably – I haven't read the book –, is to defend a libertarian policy toward prostitution. And to that end, to point out that there are People Like Us – smart, capable, sophisticated, affluent, curvaceous – who freely choose to work as prostitutes, who the law should stop pestering. (It's true, there are people who deny that such women exist, or don’t want the cops leave them alone.) But how they get from that to puzzlement why more women don’t choose prostitution, who the Christ knows. It's hard to believe either that they're too stupid to imagine why people might find it unpleasant, or that they can’t understand why workers might not maximize their income w/o regard to the unpleasantness of the work. More likely, they just couldn't find a good contrarian hook to hang their political point on, & settled for a lazy & morally obnoxious formulation.

    While we're on the general subject, I'd add that there a lot of women in prostitution who have crummy lives, & need help & solidarity, not glib libertarian just-so stories.

  5. The climate nonsense was just unprofessional, this one belongs in the "geeks with high-school mentality regarding female sexuality" file. That's a lot of words, but it's a big file.

  6. I can imagine a charitable interpretation in which we focus on the words "So the real puzzle is[] …". If your model says X and the real world says Y, it's fair to state that and to pose the "real puzzle" question (almost rhetorically) before concluding that the model is wrong; you can get from here to "this has been a lesson in how not to use economic reasoning" as well as to K's lesson in " … so logic demands that we legalize prostitution". So the quoted text isn't by itself damning, unlike most of the quotes I've seen from the anti-GW chapter.

  7. I was going to write something longer, but mostly I am interested in their thoughts on whether the kind of man a well-educated and bright woman might like to have a permanent relationship with would ever be interested in a long-term relationship with a woman whose economic prospects are based on having sex with other men.

    High-class prostitution: The long-term family prospects of a nun, but without the virginity and a lot better paying.

  8. Barbara: For the admittedly tiny sub-group of folks who have 'open' marriages, it could be an excellent way to increase revenue if the prostituting spouse isn't qualified for work that has similar income potential. Because, you know, the rational choice is always the one that maximizes revenue.

  9. WCW, as I read you, your response is that so many men are willing to be high-end gay escorts that the market price is half what women get. I don't know why you think that's a response to me and not to Jonathan.

  10. == Is one reason that more men don’t choose to become high-end gay escorts because there isn’t in fact significant demand for high-end gay escorts? ==

    Supply-side economics says if you bring it they will come.

    BTW, do they not mention the other great conservative benefit of being able to easily hide income and avoid taxes?

  11. Barbara, there is this blowsy passage in the Sunday Times article: "Certainly, prostitution isn't for every woman. You have to like sex enough, and be willing to make some sacrifices, like not having a husband (unless he is very understanding, or very greedy)." Other economic analyses of prostitution (e.g. Lena Edlund & Evelyn Korn, "A Theory of Prostitution," JPE 110 [2002]: 181-214) assume it hurts long-term marriage prospects, w/ bad economic consequences. Levitt & Dubner don't say whether they would've married their wives if they'd been sex workers. (And they don't say "the real puzzle" is if they wouldn't.)

    I've read the linked article now. (New rule: read first, comment after.) It's even worse than I'd gathered. The economic analysis is trifling & almost beside the point: incomes decline when other women give it away for free, it helps to be able to spot & charge more for a chump w/ money, it's rational to be wary of nuts who won't wear condoms, a high-end prostitute is like "the ideal wife" [!], etc. Their main interest is plainly nonanalytical, in encouraging a certain kind of positive evaluation of (high-end) sex work & of the circumstances of (high-end) sex workers. To this end, the prose has all the insight of an advertising brochure. (For example, Allie rarely just speaks; she speaks "with a laugh" or "with a smile.") It really is hard to sustain a charitable interpretation of all this, even – or especially – if you think attitudes toward sex workers need to change. They do, but these nullities aren't the ones to make it happen.

  12. If I were them I wouldn't say whether I would have married someone if they had been a prostitute either! Not good for domestic felicity, no matter how you answer.

    I have read accounts of high end prostitutes in places where it is legal, like Nevada. I read the account of a woman who chucked her early education career and moved to Nevada when she was around 24. She had worked as a prostitute for about five years and told the magazine that she really wanted to get out within a year or two, notwithstanding that she was dating the owner of the brothel. She had saved money and was considering opening some kind of business, where, presumably, she would work a lot harder (though I think they understate the time commitment involved, because you are at the mercy of other people's schdules and therefore, not the master of your own).

    Even if the stigma of being a sex worker were to magically lift, what does it say to prospective employers that being a sex worker was the best use of your skills?

  13. But here's the twist that they don't consider (in addition to the risks, stigma, personal discomfort blah blah): if any significant additional number of people did enter the sex-work sector, classic micro says wages would go down. So the wage you have to impute is the wage that would prevail if the occupation weren't stigmatized and thus had a larger workforce.

    But geez…

  14. I suspect more women don't become high-end prostitutes because they aren't willing to engage in sex for the amount of money that high-end prostitutes charge.

  15. My problem with all this, and no I am not going to bother reading the article, is that wherever you come out on the "issue" of highly paid prostitutes, it is an injustice that we put prostitutes in jail at all.

    Are their lives not hard enough already?

    If anyone should go in the clink, it ought to be the john.

    And I'd rather just put their photos on the web! So I won't accidentally date one.

  16. If anyone should go in the clink, it ought to be the john.

    This is called the Swedish model. There's a (fairly acrimonious & unproductive) debate about whether it's preferable, from the point of view of sex workers, to complete decriminalization (or legalization) of both sides of the transaction. As a practical political matter, the Swedish approach might be easier to enact in most places.

  17. It's also worth pointing out that any insurance company that refuses to insure a domestic violence victim will, a fortiori, run like hell from insuring a former prostitute.

  18. This is a stupid piece. Titillating with a veneer of intellectualism, it belongs in the likes of Slate.com.

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