The Freakonomics of Prostitution

The Freakonomics of Prostitution

superfreakonomicsThe authors of bestselling book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, released a segment from their new book SuperFreakonomics in last week’s The Sunday Times. And what was the topic? The economics of prostitution.

The article was presented under the guise of moral neutral, by focusing primarily on the reasoning behind the pay discrepancy between a high-class, high-paid prostitute named Allie, and a low-paid prostitute named LaSheena. The authors argue that Allie is making $500 an hour for her services, compared to LaSheena’s $27, by providing more than simply sexual services. They argue:

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.

They then go on to conclude: “So the real puzzle isn’t why someone like Allie becomes a prostitute, but rather why more women don’t choose this career. “ So what began as a morally neutral economic explanation of prostitution becomes a more or less veiled promotion of the profession for women.

The excerpt from the upcoming book has obviously stirred up a fair amount of debate about both the morality and economics of prostitution. But I cite the article here as an example of the intellectual dishonesty and moral bankruptcy that surrounds debates over the legalization of prostitution. For believe it or not, these debates are very real and very present.

In Britain, for example, where prostitution is currently legalized, this debate was recently revived as Nick Davies of The Guardian wrote an article last week attacking the opposition to legalized prostitution by arguing their numbers on sex-trafficking were inflated and inaccurate. He concludes this study of the numbers on sex trafficking with the traditional argument for legal prostitution: prostitution should be completely legalized without limitations in order to ensure the safety of women who choose to be in the trade.

However, what both of these arguments fail to recognize is the unseen social, moral, and economic costs of legal prostitution. It has been repeatedly shown that legalized prostitution:

  • increases sex trafficking (although that number may be open for debate),
  • disproportionately victimizes the most impoverished and vulnerable women,
  • submits women to exploitation, sexual harassment, disease, rape, and frequently homicide
  • encourages corruption and crime
  • incentivizes the government to draw tax dollars from the exploitation of women and children.

If they want to talk about the economics of prostitution, let’s look at simple supply and demand. Legalizing prostitution increases the demand for prostitution. And anyone who is intellectually honest will admit that those who select prostitution as a profession are 99.9% of the time the most economically and socially vulnerable. Most of the time, only those who see no better alternative would choose the exploitation of their bodies as a profession.  The examples of happy prostitutes such as Allie are grossly misrepresentative of the actuality of those subjected to prostitutions brutality. In truth, legalized prostitution is essentially no different than legalized slavery—it rips profits from the bodies of those who most often than not are the most oppressed, impoverished, and brutalized.

The threat of legalized prostitution may seem distant and unreal. But it is clear from these two articles that the mentality that supports the legal brutalization of women is widespread and intellectually fashionable. This is not a threat to be dismissed.

1 Comment
  • Happy Endings
    Posted at 16:11h, 28 October

    You should check out Happy Endings? A documentary on Asian massage parlors in RI where prostitution is legal. The debate was all about human trafficking and not economics, but how can you believe that you are freeing the women by putting them in prison?

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