A look at the economics of prostitution

Who’s Counting: Sexonomics — Prostitutes’ Incomes

Developing the consequences of their mathematical model, Edlund and Korn argue that the primary reason for the income differential [between prostitutes and other women] is not the risk sometimes associated with the practice of prostitution but rather that prostitutes greatly diminish their chances for marriage by virtue of their occupation. Men generally don’t want to marry (ex)prostitutes, and so women must be relatively well compensated in order to forgo the opportunity to marry.

Employing market concepts, doing some calculus and assuming that “women sell and men buy,” the authors also conclude that prostitution generally declines as men’s incomes increase.

Wives and prostitutes are competing “commodities” (in the reductionist view of economists, that is), but wives are distinctly superior in that they can produce children that are socially recognized as coming from the father.

Thus, if men have more money, they tend to buy the superior good and, at least when wives and prostitutes come from the same pool of women, tend to buy (rent) the cheaper good less frequently.

It’s always interesting to take an issue like this out of its moral framework and apply pure economics to it. I don’t know if the above analysis is correct but it certainly sounds compelling. And like with so many other issues, it suggests that if one wish to reduce it, the answer isn’t prohibition but rather raising the living conditions and financial opportunities of all involved:

Like any statistical model, this one ignores the diversity of real people and the complexities of love and pleasure, changing social mores, et cetera. Still, once all its equations have been solved, a simple fact remains: Most women enter prostitution for the money.

This being so, legalizing it, regulating it (strictly enforcing laws against pimping, child prostitution, public nuisance and so forth) and improving the economic prospects for women seem to me a greatly preferable approach to it than moralistic denunciation.

Of course, our society (read: the religious right) is too ass backwards to ever adopt such a common sense policy. It would be interesting to see some follow up studies on this logic in places where it is legal and regulated though, to see how well these predictions hold up in the real world.

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