The Sexist

Sexist Beatdown: The Happy Hooker, Or Why Doesn’t Steven Levitt Suck Dick For a Living?

Say, ladies. A couple of economists—Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics—have unearthed a most satisfying and lucrative career option for us all: Prostitution! There's only one problem: even though our two Steves are really brilliant economists, they just can't figure out why most of us women don't want to have sex for tons and tons of money. Why aren't more women successful prostitutes?, Levitt and Dubner ask. Is it because:

a) They don't like sex;
b) They hate men;
c) They're kind of dumb;
d) All of the above.

If you guessed D, you are probably either Steven Levitt or Stephen Dubner. (Thanks for reading, guys!) Yes: according to Levitt and Dubner, the main obstacle standing between a woman and loads of sexy cash is her dislike of sex, her disinclination to make men happy, and her failure to understand simple economic principles. So while the world's enthusiastic, man-loving, smarty-pants sex workers are rolling in millions from the comfort of their own homes, the world's poorest street prostitutes get the short end of the sex-work stick—only because they hate men, hate sex, and are—from the way the Steves tell it—kinda dumb.

Now, I'm no economist, but I'm betting that the overworked, underpaid sex worker who turns tricks on the street has got deeper systemic problems to deal with than not enjoying the work enough. But I digress: Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown has already laid the groundwork on this shitstorm in her excellent piece on the Guardian. Take it away, Sady:

Levitt and Dubner build their piece around a comparison of two prostitutes: Allie, who works from her bedroom and makes between $350 and $500 an hour, depending on the client, and LaSheena, who works on the streets and probably makes about $350 a week, based on statistics. . . . LaSheena and Allie are the Goofus and Gallant of sex work, at least in the warped little scenario laid forth in the Superfreakonomics excerpt. Arising, as Levitt and Dubner seem to assume they do, from absolutely no context whatsoever (the fact that Allie is probably white, and that LaSheena is probably not, is never once addressed, for example; neither is the personal history of LaSheena explored in any detail, though we hear about Allie at excruciating length) they are not actual women so much as they are flattened-out, hollow caricatures of Success and Failure. Allie is a good prostitute; she has succeeded. LaSheena is a bad prostitute; she has failed.

What has LaSheena done wrong, you ask? Simple: She doesn't like being a prostitute. "I don't really like men," she is quoted as saying. This is an interesting statement, which the authors fail to follow up. Why doesn't LaSheena like men? Has she been beaten? Has she been raped? Is there a man taking a cut of her money? Was she forced into this job as a child by a man, by a boyfriend she loved, by sheer poverty? And has she seen the ugly side of men too often in this job to trust any? . . . We'll never know, however, because Dubner and Levitt don't ask. They don't care to humanise her. She's the Goofus in the scenario. Her poverty—which is assumed to be entirely her fault—is only there to provide a counterpoint to Allie's shining example.

Boy, oh, boy, does Allie ever love being a prostitute!

Anyway: I highly suggest you read the whole thing. But enough dilly-dallying. Let's dive right in to every woman's second favorite pastime, after prostituting—chatting!

SADY: yo lady.

AMANDA: hello! wait ... shouldn't you be out, earning money for sex?

SADY: i know! i thought about it! but then i realized: i am probably not chipper enough for it. as per superfreakonomics, my disinclination to put your favorite song on the stereo and mix your favorite drink and smile gleefully about how awesome you are for paying someone to help you cheat on your wife would hurt me, probably, in the long run. PROFIT-WISE, that is!

AMANDA: right. which is why us curmudgeons have chosen a life of blogging, instead of the more obvious choice.

SADY: exactly. it's a wonder more women aren't out sexing for cash instead of blogging for dollars! oh, except that there are various disincentives to do that, actually? like, i am pretty sure there are women that choose to do sex work and like it, but what with the social marginalization, lack of protection by the law, health risks, etc. it is actually NOT a wonder that more women do not choose it.

AMANDA: there are so many things wrong with the treatment here, i can't even begin. you did a lot of the work in your piece, but i wanted to start off with this one sentence from the freakonomics excerpt: "There is one labour market women have always dominated: prostitution." hmm. really? i mean, i get that perhaps this is meant to be some sort of play on words, but given the amount of money men have made off of pimping out or trafficking prostitutes, i am not exaaaactly sure this is the case.

SADY: right? i mean, to frame the sex industry—not just prostitution, but other varieties of sex work in general—as "female-dominated" is just absurdly wrong. it's like calling starbucks "cashier-dominated." there are more women on the front lines, but management is by no means primarily or exclusively female. and given the exploitative relationship management has traditionally had with the service employees, that's something to worry about. not that there aren't exploitative female madams, etc. but you get where i am going, i hope. i think the entire article is so infuriating largely because it aims to present an "economic" analysis of prostitution by... talking to one sex worker, basically? and reading the work of one other dude? this stuff is insanely complex, and people have been fighting about it and studying it forever, and it DRIVES ME INSANE that people are going to read this fluff and confuse it with an actual analysis.

AMANDA: yeah. here's another little pet peeve of mine: pretending that "prostitution" is the same as "sex." I understand that prostitution is a lot different than it was 100 years ago, and a lot of that has to do with changes in attitudes toward sex. but when these researchers say that prostitutes now see competition from "any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free," they're implying that tons of women are actually performing the work of a prostitute on a daily basis, which is absolutely not the case. the reality is that many prostitutes are not being paid to "have sex." they are being paid—as the researches note with the high-class prostitute—to have the kinds of sex that men can't get on a daily basis. and in reality, that doesn't mean "interesting sex" or "anal sex" or "enthusiastic sex" that these dudes just can't get out of their wives. it also means degradation. prostitutes are popular, to some men, because they can do whatever they want to them, and the appeal isn't in a particular sex act that they can't get at home, but rather in the experience of paying someone to be their sex partner. when these researches say you "have to like sex" enough to be a prostitute, that's bullshit. plenty of women like sex. you have to like PROSTITUTION enough. or ... be poor! and according to them, poor prostitutes are kind of fucking idiots.

SADY: well, this was somewhere i was heading in the piece i wrote for CiF, but there just wasn't room to talk about it there; even if we don't assume that all men are hiring prostitutes specifically to "degrade" them—and i don't know what goes on in all circumstances, i do assume that a lot of guys want to degrade women because they get off on the power imbalance and others do it for other reasons, from all the first-hand testimony I've heard—the nature of the transaction is fundamentally different than the nature of the transaction that is casual sex. at the risk of oversimplifying: in prostitution, a woman does what you want her to do, for money. in sex—even casual sex—a woman does some of what you want her to do, or maybe even all of it, but only in exchange for you doing what she wants as well. in casual sex, there is (unless you are a huge asshole) the expectation that you will be dealing with the desires and needs of the other party. female desire enters the picture. and i think THAT, we can say, is probably a big part of the "sex" vs. "prostitution" thing. even if the guys don't want to HURT the prostitutes, they're paying them to have sex that has nothing to do with their desires and everything to do with the desires of their clients. the only way you can miss that is if you don't acknowledge that women have desire.

AMANDA: right. so these economists are stumped—stumped, i tell you!—as to why more women don't spend their entire lives pleasing men and receiving no pleasure in return. they can't understand why this is, because outside of prostitution, women are lining up in droves to have sex! but instead of working through their obvious miscalculations here, they decide to tell imply that women are probably just kind of dumb. the kicker is when, at the end of the piece, this is how the researchers leave Allie, the "high-class" prostitute who ended up becoming an economist: "Several students said this was the best lecture they had in all their years at the university, which is both a firm testament to Allie’s insights and a brutal indictment of Levitt and the other professors." As if it's some kind of joke! when, in reality, these guys actually don't understand wtf they're talking about, and they're actually seemingly amused that a prostitute could not be a dumbass. so: why didn't she write this?

SADY: RIGHT! and that's the thing; i don't want to discount her insights or experiences—or those of LaSheena, the less privileged sex worker they interviewed for five seconds and then apparently forgot about because she wasn't smart enough to be a billionare sextrepreneur—but I think Levitt and Dubner kind of effectively discounted her already, by using her as a subject even though she IS GETTING A DEGREE IN ECONOMICS and simplifying her story, which has GOT to be more complex than the one we're reading, into this wacky quirky Happy Hooker stereotype.

AMANDA: yeah. and thank god she is getting an economics degree, because this is Exhibit A as to why more women need to be represented in the sciences. I'm sure that these guys are brilliant economists, but when you're attempting to form a theory as to why HALF OF HUMANS choose not to be prostitutes for a living, perhaps your own experience will be insufficient.

SADY: right. oh, and the lazy dumb hooker is getting a DEGREE IN ECONOMICS now! wacky twist! did you catch the part where they said she became a prostitute because she "just didn’t like working all that hard?"

AMANDA: oh yeah. i caught that part. the weird thing is that the premise of their investigation is: why don't women prostitute themselves out for cash, when the pay is so good? and they entirely fail to even begin to answer that question. they don't come up with one reason why she wouldn't! oh, they come up with one reason: maybe she's married. but i don't see another one!

SADY: i can't think of a single one! there's, like, one line where they acknowledge that it's ILLEGAL (being harassed, jailed, and potentially raped by cops: A DISINCENTIVE???) but that's only in the service of pointing out that its illegal status allows Allie to charge high fees.

AMANDA: haha right. now, i dont' know if Levitt and Dubner are heterosexual males, but let's assume they are.

SADY: assumed!

AMANDA: the only appropriate response to the ridiculous question posed in the article would be, "I don't know, why don't you suck cock for a living?" Why don't you suck cock, out of your fancy house, instead of being a famous economist? I'm sure that will be the pertinent question in "SuperDuperFreakonomics: The Freakiestonomics Yet"

SADY: yes, at some point. WHY AREN'T LEVITT AND DUBNER JOINTLY FELLATING YOU RIGHT NOW: A FREAKONOMIC ANALYSIS.

AMANDA: probably because they don't like sex?

SADY: i mean, jesus. sex work is complicated. i'm so sure—and i have to keep reiterating this, because i feel bad for assuming that allie's "i just happened to go on an online dating service and tell people i was an escort because, tee-hee, i just love sex" narrative is a Pile O' Poopy—that there are women who are very fulfilled in their sex work, or at least prefer it to the other jobs they could have. i'm SURE of this. but asking THAT ONE LADY to tell you what prostitution is like—hell, even what the MONEY side of prostitution is like—is massively misguided.

AMANDA: i mean honestly. LaSheena straight-up tells them that she "doesn't like men." And somehow, because Allie says that she LOVES men, this sample size of 2 indicates that women who like men make tons of money doin' what they love, and women who don't like men are poor street hookers. so really, women don't cash in on the obvious benefits of prostitution because they're ... bitches?

SADY: that's what irked me so much – they're so invested in this Ayn Rand fantasy of the fulfilled sex-liking happy safe rich sex worker that pretty much everyone else is left out of the picture, or else shamed as inadequate. Allie is like the John Galt of professional sex, in this equation.

AMANDA: hahaha

SADY: i also liked the fact that their response to LaSheena's statement of "I don't like men" was... what if there was more money in it for you? and she's like, "yeah! sure! what's that you say? I can get my degree from home in my spare time? And it includes a course in Air Conditioner Repair?" it turns into this weird sales pitch for sex workers.

AMANDA: right. it's like, why do you think she is doing this? because she DOESN'T want money?

SADY: yes. and even though we know pretty much everything about Allie up to and including what she ate for breakfast this morning and whether there is corn in her poo, we know nothing about LaSheena. none of the factors that have led to her having four more or less illegal, low-paying jobs, at least one of which she hates, all of which are dangerous. and am i wrong for thinking her story might be the more interesting of the two? then again, maybe she just didn't want to talk to the Freakonomics guys. can't say I blame her!

AMANDA: i'm pretty sure that she didn't want to talk to the fucking Freakonomics guys. They admit that they had to pay her in order for her to talk to them, which they think says a lot about how desperate for money she is. but i think it just shows how unpleasant it is to be recast in the lens of the Freakonomics guys.

Photo by otisarchive3

  • Joe Schmoe

    The Freakonmics dudes actually sort of suck as economists. What they're doing is actually sociology, much, much lower in the nerd hierarchy.

  • Magnetic Crow

    I'd heard about the Climate change denialism in 'Superfreakonomics', but I hadn't yet heard about this pile of fail. :(
    Yeah, follow up a popular book about a subject you're well-informed in with a heap of ill-researched drivel?
    I hate to think that people will believing this shit, either based on their own internal misogyny, or on their faith in the authors.

  • alex

    i sure hope you sent this to the authors. really gets to the point. thanks!

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  • http://crankosaur.wordpress.com crankosaur

    I think what Joe Schmoe meant is that they are economists doing a shitty job at sociology, a far superior social science, at least in this book. The first one was actually, as Magnetic Crow said, pretty well researched, with lots of fancy-pants statistical analyses that teased out some really interesting relationships. I guess they've abandoned that in favor of convenience samples of two. This is pretty atrocious.

  • http://myblackbrick.com doctorjay

    I was ready to give the Freaky guys the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were doing an analysis on why some prostitutes make more than others, and I assumed they would extrapolate in their book. But at this statement they lost me:

    "Who poses the greatest competition to a prostitute? Simple: any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free."

    Sorry Dubnerlevitt: Don't use the words "have sex" when what you really mean is "bring a guys cock to orgasm". Because that's what you're really talking about.

    Let's see how the substitution works here:

    "Certainly, prostitution isn’t for every woman. You have to like (bringing a guys cock to orgasm) enough, and be willing to make some sacrifices."

    Because the original use of the word "sex" seems to imply that any woman who enjoys sexual intimacy with someone they know and love shouldn't have a problem pleasuring a strange man until they cum in exchange for cash.

    Indeed, why doesn't Dubnerlevitt just suck cock for a living? What, do they just not like sex enough?

    Great blog post and dialogue.

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  • sglover

    "The Freakonmics dudes actually sort of suck as economists. What they’re doing is actually sociology, much, much lower in the nerd hierarchy."

    I disagree. I'd say the "geniuses" who produced "Freakonomics" represent the very pinnacle of the "science" of economics. Which is why that "science" has been completely, utterly blindsided by the real-world events of the last few years.

  • bumble1984

    sglover has it right. All the economists said things were going along perfectly until the world economies went fully down the toilet. At what point should we all have realized that they were totally full of it?

    Trusting economists is every bit as stupid as all these big companies being run by the bean counters. Accountants should be moved back to the basement with the leaky pipes where they belong. Short term thinking makes for good quarterly profit today but total failure tomorrow. American companies need to plan and act for the long term.

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  • Don Kong

    I thought the first Freakonomics book sucked, and so was not surprised that the second book is sucking in exactly the same way. For starters, the fact that a UChicago economist presents himself as somehow outside the mainstream, poking holes in conventional wisdom, was absurd enough. That he presents his scientific approach as being positivist and without value judgements (I use math to learn the truth!) is made only the more absurd by the fact that most of his research choices seem to be driven by the pubescent wet dreams of a Caucasian wanna-be frat boy. Simply put, he is among the intellectual vanguard of the libertarians, and his humor and jokes fit perfectly with that particular class of humans.

    I am very glad, though, they decided to write and market a second popular press book. One can only hope for the soul of this nation that the backlash against their particular style of horseshit will be sufficient to smear the reputation of that earlier book. Go back and read it, if you can, and consider the subtext of nearly every chapter. Much of it comes from a white libertarian perspective.... abortion is racist genocide perpetrated by Planned Parenthood (abortion leads to lower crime rates) black people undermine their own success (why name a kid Roshanda?) government is stupid (car seats kill people), rich people have smart kids (no need to read to them). All of this served up with a heaping helping of smirking fatuousness that would make most adults want to barf. I didn't just think the first book was not to my liking, it was a waste of a tree. A better use would have been toilet paper. But, hey, there is a huge market for watered down conservative smirk. Kudos to the dipshit twins for tapping it.

  • http://votingwhileintoxicated.wordpress.com Bondo

    Sorry, but it is ignorant to object to the quote that the primary competition with prostitutes is women who will have sex for free. If the "good" in question is physical intimacy, a woman who consents to sex voluntarily is directly competing against someone who will only consent for a fee, with the volunteer being generally preferable (for many reasons beyond cost).

    Trying to draw some solid line between prostitutes and other women is not entirely proper. Women who voluntarily consent to sex are gaining utility from the act (sexual pleasure, maybe strengthening a relationship that contributes to emotional or financial security, etc) just as prostitutes do, it just happens that prostitutes gets the most concrete form of utility (money). It isn't demeaning to women observe that they might be having sex because they feel it makes them better off.

    Economics can certainly be accused of translating things into very sterile language, but that doesn't make it incorrect. I read Superfreakonomics and I think what this blog post does is a blatant misrepresentation of the chapter. The post is basically blaming an economic analysis for failing to be a sociological analysis.

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  • Mona

    I'm an independent escort, and have been in the business for about four and a half years now.

    And I just wanted to say to you ladies, that you have remarkable insight into some of these oftentimes very misrepresented issues in the sex industry and after reading this I was both impressed and comforted. It is nice to know that there are other women outside of this type of work who are emotionally and intellectually evolved enough to understand so much and have the compassion (and humor) that you do. Thank you.

  • Ummm

    I kind of agree with Bondo. As eceonmists they did their job. They reduced prostitution to a purely "does it make money" position. It was never supposed to delve into the history of of the women, nor be politically correct or socially responsible. It does make sense from an economic standpoint.

  • Beth

    Saying women who have casual sex are competition for prostitutes is like saying that edible plants that grow in your yard are competition for restaurants. Not that there's anything wrong with women who have casual sex. And gardening is a great hobby that's seeing a new popularity boom. But it's a lot more work for a lot less physical gratification than is going to a restaurant.

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