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Muddy Drawers: Sexonomic

Opinion | November 15, 2010

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s book Superfreakonomics examines a social phenomenon with which the typical economist doesn’t concern him- or herself: the wages of prostitutes. Prostitution — “the oldest profession on earth” — is historically and culturally ubiquitous, permeating almost every society and culture in one form or another. In ancient Greece, both women and young boys commonly practiced prostitution, and in the Roman Empire, aristocrats regularly bought and sold female and male prostitutes, who were usually foreign slaves. Some Shia Muslim sex workers used Nikāhal-Mut‘ah, or “temporary marriages,” to justify their profession. On the international scene, prostitution is legal in many European and South American countries, including France, Germany, and Brazil, as well as in Australia and Israel. But we don’t have to look to other cultures to see the prevalence of prostitution; it was legal and quite widespread across the United States until the prohibition movement of the mid-1910s, and it remains legal in Nevada today.

Superfreakonomics concentrates on the sex trade in the modern United States, more specifically on what the authors dub the “declining salary of prostitutes.” According to the authors, even the lowest-rent prostitutes in the 1910s made what amounts to $25,000 a year in today’s dollars, and women working at the most expensive brothels made over $430,000. Much has changed over the past century, and the average wage of prostitutes today “pales in comparison to the one enjoyed by even the low-rent prostitutes from a hundred years ago.” The book tells the story of a low-rent prostitute today, “LaSheena,” who makes about $350 a week working the streets in Chicago. This, according to the authors, is typical pay for prostitutes in America today.

Why the sharp decrease in salaries of prostitutes? Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, attributes this steep decline to a fall in demand. So why has the demand for prostitutes fallen? Are men today less horny than they were a hundred years ago? Probably not. Instead, Levitt attributes this decrease to something else: competition. It is no secret that sexual norms have evolved substantially, especially in the last couple of decades. The Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and the proliferation of contraceptive methods during the 1970s (especially the condom and the birth control pill) led to the “sexual revolution” of the United States. The sexual revolution was a period of loosening sexual norms and increasing sexual liberation. What does all of this have to do with prostitutes? When there are less stringent social norms, women are more likely to have sex before marriage. And when more women are having sex before marriage, men are less likely to seek out prostitutes. As Levitt puts it: “Who poses the greatest competition to a prostitute? Simple: any woman who is willing to have sex for free.”

Superfreakonomics paints a picture of a young man, just out of college, who isn’t ready to get married but is down to have sex. Twenty or thirty years ago, a man in this situation would probably have hit up a whorehouse or solicited a street prostitute. But in today’s world, he would probably be just as successful going to a bar. According to Superfreakonomics, at least 20% of American men born between 1933 and 1942 lost their virginity to a prostitute. Amongst men born twenty years later, our fathers’ generation, however, this number fell to 5%. The numbers, taken with the historical context of the sexual revolution, seem to suggest that premarital sex emerged as a  stronger substitute for prostitution. And, as anyone who has suffered through Principles of Economics will recall, if the demand for a service decreases, the wages of those who provide it decreases as well. Consequently, as the demand for paid sex has decreased in recent history, so has the salary of the women who provide sex for money.

However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t still well-paid prostitutes today (think Eliot Spitzer’s call girls). In fact, according to Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, the sector of high-priced prostitutes has actually been booming despite — or perhaps due to — the flailing economy. He reports that, in general, high-end prostitutes see a “pattern of increased activity following an economic downturn, which lasts about six to eight months,” the current recession being no exception. When high-powered men lose income and influence during recessions, and their domestic lives become insufferable, they turn with greater frequency to high-priced call girls for encouragement and comfort.

Regardless of the booming specific call-girl sector, the wages of everyday prostitutes are sharply declining. As previously discussed, this is due to their viable substitutions: “sexually liberated” women who are willing to have sex for free.
I want to extend this logic to a topic more relevant to Tufts students: dating versus hookup culture. Whenever I chat with women in their late twenties, particularly my older female cousins, they always seem surprised at the amount of casual sex that happens on college campuses. These women were undergraduates less than ten years ago, but even that recently,   the phrases “friends with benefits” and “booty call” had not achieved prominence, nor were the concepts they endorse socially accepted. Though my cousins were aware of a good amount of premarital sex in their college years, it was almost always in the context of exclusive, boyfriend-girlfriend relationships (at least among the people they knew). Additionally, my cousins and almost all of their girlfriends were in serious, committed relationships during college, and some of their friends ended up marrying people they met in college. At least at Tufts, guys asked out women on formal dates more frequently than they do today.

Things seem to have changed since then. As sexual mores have continued to evolve and college students become more and more liberal, many more women are willing to have sex outside the context of exclusive relationships. Much of the hookups that happen on our campus are casual, with little emotional attachment and even less commitment. Exclusivity seems too serious, a huge step to take, and passé. College-aged men in particular seem reluctant to enter into committed relationships, opting instead for casual and random hookups.

Could it be that the same loosening of sexual mores that caused prostitutes’ salaries to drop has caused this decrease in serious relationships amongst college students? Are the same women that are viable substitutes for prostitutes also viable substitutes for girlfriends? It makes sense logically; if young men can have sex without the commitment and effort that having a girlfriend demands, then having one becomes less valuable. In my opinion, this is also why guys are less likely to put in the effort to asking and taking girls out on dates, and opt for the sleazy “come over and watch a DVD” route instead.

I’m not an expert, and my observations about relationship prevalence and sexual behavior on college campuses come from personal anecdotes, not the professionally administered surveys that were used to collect data about prostitutes in Superfreakonomics. And obviously not all college-aged men behave like this — I know some happy couples and some loving boyfriends. But very few of my friends, guys and girls, are in committed relationships. I don’t think it’s a stretch to attribute this to the availability of substitutes — girls who are willing to have sex outside of relationships. If college girls suddenly decided to stop hooking up with boys that weren’t their boyfriends, would guys stop dragging their feet and start taking us on dates? Would there be more couples on campus? Though I can’t be positive, it seems likely.