Sunday, October 11, 2009

How Much Money Do Prostitutes Make? Part I

Lena Edlund and Evelyn Korn seem to know. They're a pair of economists who've written "A Theory of Prostitution," which was published a few years back in the University of Chicago's Journal of Political Economy. The theory was that prostitutes make "so much" because they are required to forgo the economic opportunity of becoming wives. As support for the "so much" money prostitutes make, Edlund and Korn cite to some newspaper articles claiming that prostituted women "can make as much as" various large amounts, and they cite to a study purporting to show that street prostitutes in Las Vegas make a few thousand dollars a year more than unskilled laborers. This study was based on asking women how much they were paid -- and then assuming that they wouldn't hesitate to tell a stranger just how little they would take to have sex.

It doesn't seem like much support for a very long paper -- filled with impressive-looking charts and equations and reaching some rather grandiose conclusions as to why all women aren't out hooking -- but I'm guessing that the authors didn't think they really needed any support. Doesn't everyone already know that prostitutes make the big bucks? "Why do prostitutes make so much money?" is a question that's all over the internet, and not many people dispute the premise. Here's what I know about actively prostituting women in Baltimore:

A lot of the time our women can't scrape together enough money for a pack of cigarettes. They buy singles. They bum them. They split a cigarette with a friend. Sometimes they pry butts out of the cracks in the sidewalks.

They line up to get the little hotel soaps and mini bottles of shampoo our donors give us. If they can get a pair of nice socks, they're thrilled. Getting a sanitary napkin or a new pair of underpants is even better.

The older women go without blood pressure medication because they can't afford the few-dollar co-pay. They don't get enough to eat. A slice of pizza can be a pretty big treat.

Often, they've never gone on a vacation. Nobody has ever taught them to drive. They beg for something to give their grandchildren for Christmas.

They are homeless. Whether they're in a shelter, or under a bridge, or at the mercy of somebody who's given them a temporary room, they almost never have a place of their own.

And yet they're selling sex. And not just any sex, but, sometimes at least, the freaky stuff that's hard to get anywhere else. You'd think that would be worth a lot of money. I'll bet our friends Edlund and Korn could prove that they make a lot of money with their opportunity cost graphs. I have my own theory -- not likely to be published by U. of Chicago -- as to why anyone selling something that desirable might not be getting rich. I'll tell you about in Part II.

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