Celeb economist Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, has been drawing attention to the fact that women can earn more selling sex than in lots of other jobs — around four times more, at least in Chicago. In the UK, between two and three times more, if you add up hours worked over a week.
Two things in the study by Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh surprised me. One is that the raw hourly wages for selling sex are so similar in rich and poor countries. In Chicago, sex workers report earning US$ 25 – 30 an hour. That’s roughly the same as sex workers are earning in Indonesia (according to data from over 4,700 women in nine provinces). In China, too, even street-based sex workers are earning between US$ 20 and US$40 per client. That’s up to ten times as much in an hour as their colleagues in the factories earn in a day. The reward for selling sex over doing other boring, repetitive and sometimes unpleasant jobs seems to be a lot bigger in poor countries than it is in rich countries.
The other thing that surprises me is not that women in Chicago get paid a little bit more for sex without a condom (although we emphatically do NOT find this in any of the Asian data I’ve looked at). It is that three times out of four, women don’t use condoms with their clients. And I’m only talking in vaginal or anal sex, here. In CHICAGO, the fourth largest city in the world’s leading superpower, three quarters of johns are not using condoms. Even in Indonesia, which trails close to the bottom of the safe sex stakes in Asia, sex workers say they use condoms 60% of the time. In Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, large parts of India, China, Nepal, the Philippines and most other places I can think of, condom use in commercial sex tops 85%.
So here’s my question: What’s with johns in America?