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When Is a Prostitute Not a Prostitute?

Do anti-prostitution laws discriminate against women near the bottom of the income distribution while ignoring similar behavior by women near the top?

When I was much younger, and sufficiently ill-informed that I didn’t have to think about the harsh realities of life, I was very much in favour of the legalization of prostitution. It wasn’t because I believed that a woman has a right to sell her body, in fact I saw little difference between protecting a woman’s right to sell it and man’s right to buy it, it was because I didn’t think it was fair to punish some women for doing explicitly what so many other women were doing implicitly. 

I was particularly concerned that anti-prostitution laws discriminated against women near the bottom of the income distribution while ignoring similar behaviour by women near the top. What kind of fifteen year old thinks like that? (One who grows up to be an economist specializing in sex and love, that’s who.)

This issue still concerns me enough that when we talk about prostitution in my class I always start with an exercise to get students about what it means to sell sex. It goes like this:

If woman meets a man and asks for $20 in exchange for a blow job, is she selling sex? (All heads nod)

If a woman can’t pay her rent and gives her landlord a blowjob instead, is she selling sex? (All heads still nodding)

If a woman gives a man a blow job so that he will take her on all expense paid trip to New York, is she selling sex? (General confusion and a serious decline in nodding)

If a woman gives a man a blow job so that he will marry her and buy her an expensive house, is she selling sex? (No nodding of heads)

The problem is that we all know what it means to sell sex when the provider is paid in cash or drugs. The poor desperate woman who can’t pay her rent is selling sex because she gets off paying the rent, which presumably is equivalent to cash. The women who gets a suite at the Ritz-Carlton though, or the woman with the expensive house instead of a room in a dilapidated apartment building, apparently isn’t selling sex.  Maybe she is selling something else.

One of the first economics papers on the sex trades, by Lena Edlund and Evelyn Korn, deals with this somewhat touchy issue of how we define the term “prostitution”. * The authors recognize the problem in simply saying that prostitution is the act of selling sex; there are a variety of ways to define the act of selling sex and somewhere along the way prostitution stops and other forms of relationships, like marriage, begin.

Edlund and Korn define prostitution as the explicit selling of non-reproductive sex. Reproduction may take place, but there is no expectation on either side that men are buying the right to paternity of any resulting children.

They define marriage, on the other hand, as the selling of both non-reproductive and reproductive sex. Sex within marriage is not just for procreation, but if there are children produced the man has an expectation to claim the paternity of those children.

In this particular paper, the reason for making a distinction between marriage and prostitution is to explain the high wage premium paid to female sex workers over other, equally low skilled, occupations. The paper argues that the wage paid to sex workers has to be sufficiently high to draw women into a market that will exclude them from entering another, potentially more lucrative, market later on – the marriage market.

It’s a good story, but it does seem to have one flaw: women who are sex workers are often wives as well. In fact, according to research using data from Mexico and Ecuador, women who are sex workers in certain age groups are more likely to be married than other women.** For example, in Ecuador 33% of sex workers between the ages of 12 and 17 are married compared to only 2% of non-sex worker women. Twenty-nine percent of sex workers between the ages of 18 and 23 and married, compared to 18% of other women.

These numbers decline with age though, and for all women over age 24 sex workers are less likely to be married than non-sex workers. Over the whole populations, sex workers are less likely to be married (29% in Ecuador and 20% in Mexico) compared to non-sex workers (45% in Ecuador and 39% in Mexico).

The authors of this study argue that this evidence on marriage rates, and evidence that male workers (who do not suffer the marriage penalty) are paid an even higher wage premium for sex work over other men in similarly skilled occupations, disproves the Edlund and Korn theory of the wage differential for prostitution.

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I respectfully, disagree. We all know that there are marriages, and then there are marriages. Just because a sex worker has a husband does not mean that she has the same benefit to being married as other women. To say she has not had to forgo the benefit of marriage in order to enter the sex trade seems, to me, to be blindingly naive. 

I can only imagine the status within a marriage of a 15-year-old girl who is selling sex to other men.

By the way, if you think it is a challenge to define prostitution, wait until you see how difficult it is to define marriage. Dollars and Sex is going to take that challenge on later this week.

* Edlund, L., & Korn, E. (2002). “A theory of prostitution.” Journal of Political Economy, 110(1), 181-214. 

** Arunachalam, R., & Shah, M. (2008). “Prostitutes and brides?” American Economic Review, 98(2), 516-522.

Image courtesy of Flickr user cherie6c.


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