Freakonomics to Women: Sell Sex!

Best-selling economists give advice on the world's oldest job

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Superfreakonomics, the not-so-cleverly-titled sequel to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's best-selling book Freakonomics, is winning the authors few friends. (The Wire already covered the brouhaha around its discussion of global warming here.) Now Levitt and Dubner's theories on prostitution are under attack. The chapter in question features conversations with one highly paid and one poorly paid prostitute. Reviewers slam the authors for suggesting that the poorer prostitute has not succeeded because she dislikes men. They also attack the suggestion that prostitution is a fairly decent way of making a living.

Here's what the critics have against it:

  • Odd Idea of Labor Market Finance blogger Mike Konczal latches on to a particular sentence in Superfreakonomics: "There is one labor market women have always dominated: prostitution." That's ridiculous, he says.
To say that Playboy is female dominated because only naked women appear in it is incorrect. It's like saying Girls Gone Wild is female dominated; or that the diamond industry is African child dominated. It's true, in one sense, not true in most though.
  • Mischaracterization of Prostitution "I also find odd," continues Konczal, "the idea that the historical trade and exchange of women's bodies was an early form of 'Girl Power!'" He points out that "[a] more realistic version would take into account that the exchange historically has been done by men, for the strengthening of relationships between men." The Guardian's Sady Doyle has another problem with the depiction of prostitution, finding it curious that Levitt and Dubner thought it "sane and intelligent" to say that "Allie's clients 'treat her, in many ways, as men are expected to treat their wives but often don't'." Finally, gender blogger Amanda Hess takes issue with the authors' idea that the difference between their two subjects--one well-paid prostitute and one underpaid prostitute, was in enthusiasm for the work: "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."
  • Offensive Thoughts on Marriage Sady Doyle offers a recap on her blog: "Prostitution: it is just like being someone's wife, as long as you believe that wives are basically service employees for dudes also!" Blogger Echidne also follows the authors' thoughts to their logical conclusion: "ultimately Levitt and Dubner are arguing that women sell sex and men buy it, even when we talk about marriage. That means that if you pay a woman enough, she will act as a proper trophy wife. Or she should act that way. Or something like that."
  • Perhaps Some General Misogyny Outraged, Hess argues that, "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." That's not all, writes Jeff Poor at conservative media site NewsBusters. He points out that the two men also "blame women's ... liberation, for the rise of high-end prostitution in America and a failing public education system."
  • And Maybe a Misunderstanding of Biology  Doyle notices that Levitt and Dubner "praise prostitution for allowing men to have sex without the 'the potential costs of an unwanted pregnancy.'" She points out the absurdity of the statement: it would not "carry the potential costs of an unwanted pregnancy, for men. In fact," she continues, "I've noticed that very few men tend to get pregnant as the result of sex, whether with prostitutes or with anyone else. Perhaps Levitt and Dubner can take some time, in their forthcoming book Superduperultrafreakonomics, to puzzle that one out for us." She closed with the withering summary, "Freakonomics, of course, is the science of choosing an appropriately wacky or controversial subject (sumo wrestlers, abortion), applying a little economic analysis to it and coming up with a shocking conclusion that will make people blog about you."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.