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In last month’s “Capital Ideas,” a publication of the Chicago Booth school of Business, Steven Levitt gives the Freakonomics treatment to Chicago-area prostitution. The conceit of “Trading Tricks,” as with Levitt’s examination of the inner-city drug trade [PDF], is that prostitution is a market like any other.

Levitt, along with Columbia University professor Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, reveal that prostitutes “want to be where their customers can easily find them”—-just like “stores do in shopping malls.” That the price of a trick “increases with the risk associated with a particular sex act”—-just like in construction work. And that pimps increase the wages of loyal prostitutes in order to “effectively raise the penalty associated with being fired, which will hopefully induce better behavior on the part of the prostitutes”—-just like with any employer.

But prostitution is not a job like any other:

Levitt and Venkatesh found that condoms are used in only one of every four tricks, making the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection very high. These women face other perils as well. Prostitutes report that they are violently assaulted about once every month. Compared with jobs outside of prostitution, such as a daycare or babysitting job, prostitutes earn far more at about $25 to $30 per hour, or, roughly four times what they would take home otherwise. But because prostitution is such a dangerous, unpleasant, and stigmatizing job, are these women really earning enough to compensate them for the risks they bear?

How does Levitt account for the “unpleasantness”? By asserting that prostitution is—-except for that!—-a job like any other:

Levitt says that from the prostitutes’ point of view and given the menu of options they have, they must believe that it is a fair compensation because they have chosen this profession. Many of them will do other work as well and prostitution is just part of a portfolio of ways that women get by in these communities. “Prostitution doesn’t seem to be a stark moral choice,” says Levitt. “It’s like a job. When it pays better, women will quit other jobs to do it.”

Levitt asserts that prostitution is not a “stark” choice because street prostitutes do choose to be street prostitutes. (I won’t count escort services here, where I’m betting the “unpleasantness” of violent physical and sexual assault comes more infrequently). What Levitt fails to provide is at what age, education level, and economic status these women make that choice—-and what other jobs are on this “menu of options,” particularly at our current unemployment rate.

Sure, prostitution is a choice. But it’s an illegal choice, and that’s a problem. As long as prostitution goes unregulated—-or is regulated by police officers who trade sex for a blind eye, pimps who have no legal oversight to keep them from beating prostitutes to keep them in line, and clients who know the prostitutes won’t call the (corrupt) cops on them when they act too rough—-it is astark choice, and not in the way that “any other” job kinda sucks. A lot of jobs on Levitt’s “menu” are “unpleasant”—-but when you work as a waitress, or cashier, or stripper, there are at least protections in place to prevent your boss from beating the shit out of you, and prosecuting him if he does. Brushing violent crime away because prostitutes “choose” to endure it is misleading and damaging—-just as women “choosing” to stay in abusive relationships doesn’t make that abuse “fair.”

Women can make money as prostitutes, and I think that’s a fine choice. It doesn’t excuse the government from keeping it illegal—-and dangerous.

Photo by dreamsjung