Shame on America’s johns

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?

This post was published on 28/01/08 in Condomania, The sex trade.

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  1. Comment by mp, 30/01/08, 04:05:

    Perhaps it is because condom use is not as “top of the mind” in the USA as it is in countries with “real” AIDS/condom initiatives?

    We do not see billboards everywhere telling us to use them. We do not see ads on TV, we do not hear jingles on the radio. They can be expensive. How many programs do we have handing out free condoms to hookers?

  2. Comment by Lee Rudolph, 31/01/08, 02:42:

    mp writes: “We do not see billboards everywhere telling us to use them.”

    True; but we did used to see, in Los Angeles (maybe a dozen years or more ago), wonderful big billboards saying “USA CONDONES”. Which always made me do a double-take.

  3. Comment by Con Dom, 31/01/08, 12:15:

    In your comment comparing Indonesian and American sex work wages you are confuse total working hours with hours spent in the sex act. The text of the paper reads: “On average the
    prostitutes work roughly thirteen hours per week, performing roughly 10 sex acts total.
    Average revenues generated per week are about $340.” Most Indonesian sex workers spend many more hours on the job to generate that thirty dollars.

  4. Comment by elizabeth, 31/01/08, 01:08:

    Lee: I’m dreaming of the day that USA condones …(sensible public health policy, investment in disease prevention, good healthy sex, oh, any number of things).

    Con Dom: You are correct in assuming that I am not clocking the time spent sitting/standing around waiting for clients; we don’t have quant data on that, but many sex workers say they don’t think of that as “work” (this is especially true of girls who work the “lokalisasi” or red light districts, rather to my surprise. You get comments such as “I’d be hanging out with my friends anyway. Here or at the mall, no difference”. I note that Chicago sex workers have a very high client-to-hanging-out ratio. In many Indonesian settings it would be lower. But I still contend that there is a remarkably small difference in wages per client. In Chicago, US$ 34 on average. In Indonesia we have data for 10 provinces, and the price varies across the 10. It is highest in Papua, where women were earning US$ 35 per client (even before the dollar started competing with the peso). The lowest mean price is in central Java, at US$ 13 per client, and that’s including freebies. Many street and brothel-based workers say they spend half an hour or less with a client — for karaoke bars and clubs, where the price is higher, the time spent with each client tends to be longer, though the time in the sex act doesn’t.

  5. Comment by Caty, 28/12/08, 02:28:

    You’re ignoring the entire escort population. Me & my peers get $225 an hour, $150 for the half hour, & that’s in the boonies of Western MA. I’ve heard $300/400 a hour in NYC & SF.

  6. Comment by korski, 08/08/09, 06:37:

    These comments and comparisons are completely misplaced. In places like Thailand and the Philippines, it is common for the women to spend upwards of eight hours with one client, and she will be shagged two or three times by the younger guys; this does not change or increase the price. I would bet good money that condom use by expats in the Philippines does not exceed 50%, and it is probably not much higher in Thailand. And the percentages would be much much lower when considering Thais with Thais and Filipinos with Filipinas. You also need to take into account what the cost of living is in these comparisons. In all, then, the comments above are greatly misleanding, in fact meaningless.

  7. Comment by BSG67, 18/08/09, 09:53:

    It’s true that cross-country comparisons of sex-working income are somewhat meaningless, however the important point made, besides the condom issue, is that wherever you go, it pays more than other jobs openings.

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