Superfreakonomics Authors Ask: Why Aren't More Women Prostitutes?

Sure, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner acknowledge, streetwalking is tough work. But being a high-end escort is big fun, just like being a trophy wife without the marriage. So why don't more women do it?

In an excerpt from their new book Superfreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner profile two women. One, LaSheena, has "a beaten-down look in her eyes," and makes her money stealing and turning tricks on Chicago's South Side. She says prostitution "bothers me mentally," and she's not pulling down that much money either — street prostitutes in Chicago make about $350 a week. The other woman is Allie, an attractive blond who works about 15 hours a week having sex with men in her pretty bedroom for $500 an hour. Allie "genuinely likes the men who come to her" and "they treat her, in many ways, as men are expected to treat their wives but often don't." She's also building on the entrepreneurial skills she's learned as a prostitute by going back to school in economics. Life, for Allie, is good.

It's so good, in fact, that "the less she works, the more she earns," and she can charge ever-higher fees without scaring off clients. Levitt and Dubner write,

Although she views herself as similar to a street prostitute, she has less in common with that kind of woman than she does with a trophy wife. Allie is essentially a trophy wife who is rented by the hour. She isn't really selling sex, or at least not sex alone. She sells men the opportunity to trade in their existing wives for a younger, more sexually adventurous version - without the trouble and long-term expense of actually having to go through with it.

And:

Street prostitutes like LaSheena might have the worst job in America. But for elite prostitutes like Allie, the circumstances are completely different: 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.

Echidne of the Snakes takes Levitt and Dubner to task on several points. She points out that they don't delve at all into the reasons why women aren't all lining up to be hookers:

It's something about the mysterious women, refusing to supply sex for good money, when they should. They are probably too stupid to realize that they could do that instead of getting married as trophy wives. Which is just prostitution under another name.

She also thinks Levitt and Dubner see Allie's behavior — "She is happy to see you every time you show up at her door. Your favourite music is already playing and your favourite drink is on ice. She will never ask you to take out the rubbish." — as "the proper way for a wife to act." That may be true. But the whole analysis comes off as less sexist than flippant, uninterested in larger questions of why some women can make lots of money at prostitution but others can't. Levitt and Dubner imply that it's some combination of talent and business smarts. But the real issues here may be those of race and class.

Levitt and Dubner don't explicitly identify Allie's or LaSheena's race — in terms of physical characteristics, we know that the former is blond and the latter has "straightened hair." And we don't know all the details of their backgrounds either. The authors say nothing of LaSheena's upbringing or education, but we know that Allie "grew up in a large and largely dysfunctional family in Texas," joined the military, and became educated enough to get a job in computer programming. So at the time she became a sex worker, it seems that Allie had entered the middle class. Given that she makes her living as a street prostitute, thief, and drug lookout, we can assume that LaSheena has not. And this may be the biggest difference.

LaSheena probably doesn't have the resources to set up a nice bedroom where gentlemen can lay their $500 on the dresser. She may not be able to afford their favorite drink, or a stereo to play their favorite music. She may not have the education to engage in the kind of talk that Allie's clients want along with their sex. And most of all, by virtue of her class, she's probably not able to act like the kind of trophy wife Allie's clients — middle-aged white men with plenty of disposable income — think they deserve.

The fact that Levitt and Dubner ignore all this — in addition to whatever role race might play in prostitution opportunities, if any — is the biggest blind spot in their article. Yes, the comparison between wives and prostitutes is sexist and outdated and problematic. And yes, the question of why more women don't become sex workers ignores the fact that sex isn't just a commodity like any other. But what Levitt and Dubner really seem to be asking is why more women don't become high-end escorts like Allie. The answer is probably that they can't, but Levitt and Dubner apparently aren't interested in why.

Freakonomics Returns: Vice Work If You Can Get It [TimesOnline]
The New Career Choice For Women: High-End Prostitution! [Echidne of the Snakes]