Dubner and Levitt have recently irked the hell out of me and many others by coming out as climate-change deniers - and Paul Krugman, the far superior economist, recently tweaked them by entitling one of his recent blog posts Freakout-nomics.
But before the climate issue, I was becoming extremely annoyed by their absolutely clueless take on prostitution - back in December 2008 when I asked How big a douchebag is Steven D. Levitt. Levitt compared the price of prostitute services to the price of rice in a stunning display of reductionism.
So in October 09 the Freaks were using their same sociological skills to look at why some prostitutes are so successful. I'll let Amanda and Sady take it from here:
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 don't know if Levitt and Dubner are heterosexual males, but let's assume they are.
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.