Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Sloppy Scholarship

In my most recent booklist, I mentioned the book Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, which I have since read, and it's very interesting. I have also discovered that Mr. Levitt has a blog, which is also home to some thought-provoking discussions why we do the things we do.

However... I have one major beef with the authors, and it lies in a paragraph on page 106 of the book. The discussion is about why certain jobs command certain wages, and the authors decide to explain why prostitutes earn more money per hour than architects...

"It may not seem as though she should. The architect would appear to be more skilled (as the word is usually defined) and better educated, (again, as the word is usually defined). But little girls don't grow up dreaming of being prostitutes, so the supply of prostitutes is relatively small. Their skills, while not necessarily "specialized" are practiced in a very specialized context. The job is unpleasant and forbidding in at least two significant ways: the likelihood of violence and the loss of opportunity of having a stable family life. As for demand? Let's just say that an architect is more likely to hire a prostitute than vice versa."

Uh, Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner? You two gentlemen did a nice job with the rest of the book, but you both have your heads way up your butts here. Did you do your research on prostitutes by watching old TV cop shows or something? Let me break this down for you.

Incorrect assumption number one: "...little girls don't grow up dreaming of being prostitutes..."
Actually, I did know I was going to be a sex worker when I grew up. I mentioned in it a column once, here. I don't know about "dreaming" since I wasn't a "dreaming" kind of kid. But I definitely thought it was cool idea.

Incorrect assumption number two: "The supply of prostitutes is relatively small."
Guys, have ya been on Craig's List lately? The supply is not small. It's huge. Compare: The on-line version of the Seattle Yellow Pages tells me that there are about one hundred and fifty architects in Seattle. On just one Seattle escort-review board, I counted listings for almost sixty independent call girls, and five major agencies, with between seven and fifteen ladies each. I feel quite sure that there are more prostitutes than architects in Seattle.

We'll pass over the skills remarks, because to some degree, that is a matter of taste. (But I do know some call girls with skills so "specialized" they could make John Ashcroft do the lambada.)

Incorrect assumption number three: The job is unpleasant and forbidding in at least two significant ways: the likelihood of violence and the loss of opportunity of having a stable family life.
Oh wow, you really annoyed me here, boys. As brainy as you are, Mr. Levitt, I expected better from you than this. This is such a sloppy assumption, the kind you seem so dedicated to breaking up in other parts of the book, that it's quite jarring here. Yes, some prostitutes get hurt and killed. So do some high school students. But lots of them don't, and it's either careless or deliberately manipulative to throw out that kind of statement like it's just so much a given that it needs no questioning. I've never been harmed by a client. None of my sex-working friends have been harmed by clients. Your assumptions don't tab up with my real-life experience.

And what the hell is this about not having a stable family life? You're so far off base here, and I have no idea where you gleaned such a notion, unless, as I suspect, you researched this by watching episodes of Jerry Springer.

You don't specify what you mean by "family", and I'm going to generously assume that you don't hold heterosexual-monogomy+ children to be the only model of family life, because that in itself is such an egregiously offensive idea that I prefer to ignore it. Let's assume you mean, "happily partnered in a generally functional relationship". (Although we could pick apart what that looks like, too.)

Working from this model, I would argue that, once again, some prostitutes have unstable lives. But I'd argue that just as many (or more) have what I would consider happy and stable lives, and aside from my real-life experiences, I bet I've done a lot more reading and research about this than you have. If you two gentlemen think you know something about this topic that I don't, then I'd really like to see you back up your scholarship, because I checked the endnotes in your book and you didn't cite any sources.

Okay, school's out - but as your homework, I think you both should read these two excellent books on the sex industry:
Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry by Frederique Delacoste (Editor), and Priscilla Alexander (Editor)
Whores and Other Feminists by Jill Nagle (Editor)

Neither of them sugar-coat the ups and down of working in the industry, but they will open your eyes a great deal about the false assumptions that you're making. Since you claim to be challenging conventional wisdom and exploring the hidden sides of life, you'd better be consistent about it.

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