Friday, May 12, 2006

The Economics of Prostitution

John Allen Paulos at the Who's Counting? column on the ABC News website has an interesting article on the economics of prositution:

Making simplistic but more or less plausible assumptions and applying the tools of economic model-making, they searched for the answer to a puzzle: Why is it that prostitution is so relatively well-paid?

Before getting to why this is, they document that in diverse cultures and over many centuries, prostitutes have indeed made much more, sometimes several multiples more, than comparably (un)skilled women would make in more prosaic occupations. From medieval France and imperial Japan to present-day Los Angeles and Buddhist Thailand, this income differential has persisted, although its size depends on various factors....

[I]f wives are valued highly, would-be prostitutes are giving up a lot by becoming prostitutes and will require more money to do so. And if wives have few privileges, would-be prostitutes aren't giving up much to become prostitutes and thus need less inducement to do so.

I had never thought of this before I read the article, but perhaps some of the stigma of prostitution is because it makes the women who participate less marriageable.

From both an economist's and biologist's point of view, I suppose, part of the value of having a child is in the likelihood that the child will pass on her (and therefore your) genes. Anything that severely curtails her chances, like prostitution, would then be a Bad Thing. (On the other hand, your self-interest would encourage other people's daughters to become prostitutes, so that yours has pick o' the gene pool.)

Of course, this presumes that prostitutes have less children than the same women would have were they not prostitutes, which may or may not be true. I suspect that the children of prostitutes, however, tend to lead shorter and less, uh, fruitful lives, so encouraging prostitution my not have an effect on the number of grandchildren, but on the number of great-grandchildren.

An alternate idea is that prostitutes have just as many, or slightly more, children, but that their mates are of lower genetic quality. The main problem with this idea is that it assumes that men who patronize prostitutes are unable to have sex otherwise, meaning that the process of sexual selection is, to a large degree, pushing their genes out of the population, rather than being otherwise acceptable but more promiscuous men.

I am almost certainly over-simplifying. It's fairly obvious from the declining birth rates of post-industrial countries that, on aggregate, people prefer to have fewer children lead more comfortable lives, even to the point where reproduction is below replacement level. This is a broadly true finding, and appears independent of many cultural attributes: Japan, Australia, Russia, Germany, Italy, France, the U.K., Canada and the U.S. all have birth rates below replacement level, meaning that they rely (or don't) on immigration to keep the population constant.

The value of a child, then, for long-term gene survival purposes seems fairly low, once it's clear that the genes are likely to survive the next generation. That is, post-industrial economies are fairly safe, with a few exceptions, so the chances that a child will survive long enough to reproduce are very high. There is consequently little value in having more children, past the one (or two for the cautious) to continue the bloodline. If this is true, my initial thought about prostitution lowering the "value" of a woman would be false today, though not historically.

Of course, the most important factors could be things I haven't thought of. I'm probably also conflating the value of marriage and of children in amateurish ways. But I'm an amateur everything, so it's allowed. I don't have the skills or specialized knowledge to properly explore this, which is unfortunate because there's a lot of inherently interesting material here.

Article via 3 quarks daily.

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