Here I was, thinking there wouldn't any South Asian angle to the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. But the Desi Spotter in me was excited to find something, after all. Turns out Sudhir Venkatesh, the Columbia University sociologist and expert on Chicago gangs (and author of "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets") has done research with "Freakonomics" co-author Steven Levitt on prostitution, too. From Emily Bazelon's piece in Slate, "Why is Prositution Illegal?":
Shouldn't prostitution laws come down to working conditions—and the laws that would lead to better ones for sex workers? According to a recent working paper (PDF) by economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, despite all the fighting and all the preaching, we apparently don't know that much about the specifics of the structure of the sex market—how much prostitutes make on average, how many tricks they turn a year, how frequently they and their pimps and johns actually get arrested.
To start filling in the gap, Levitt and Venkatesh looked at data from the Chicago Police Department. They found that women working the streets were making $27 an hour but less than $20,000 a year (they don't log a lot of hours). The risks of the trade were serious: "an annual average of a dozen incidents of violence and 300 instances of unprotected sex." There was also a "surprisingly high prevalence of police officers demanding sex from prostitutes in return for avoiding arrest." That looks like another argument against the bans on prostitution—presumably women wouldn't be caught in this particular trap if they weren't worried about going to jail in the first place. Levitt and Venkatesh also offer up this statistic: Prostitutes get arrested about once per 450 tricks, and johns even less frequently. Two lessons here: 1) A law that isn't being enforced much may not be worth having; and 2) Eliot Spitzer looks really, really unlucky.
[Listen to Bazelon discuss the story on NPR.]
Download a PDF copy of the Levitt/Venkatesh study: "An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution" ("September 2007; Extremely Preliminary and Incomplete; Comments Greatly Appreciated").
Venkatesh has written a Slate piece himself, that asks a counter-intuitive question: "Did Spitzer get caught because he didn't spend ENOUGH on prostitutes?" From Skinflint:
The first thing that grabs your attention about the sex scandal involving New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is, of course, the client. But, there's another aspect to the story that should raise eyebrows: $4,300. That's the bill Spitzer incurred for his dangerous liaison at the Mayflower hotel. Who would pay that much, and could you ever really get your money's worth?
In fact, $4,300 is not an altogether alarming sum of money in the high-end sex market. Spitzer got a bargain—and that may have been his downfall.
Listen to a SAJA webcast interview with Venkatesh about his book, gangs, life as an academic and more. The prostitute research, somehow, never came up.
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