Jeune et Jolie is a new French film about a luscious 17 year-old bourgeois girl who discovers that she can get paid handsomely if she does a bit of classy dressing up and then meets older men in expensive hotels to have sex with them. She seems to mostly have a fine time and makes wads of cash. I went to see the movie at the weekend and it got me thinking: Why wouldn’t any attractive young woman do it?
Having sex for money is a very good earner compared with most jobs a young person could do but most of us, including me, tend to have a strong moral aversion to selling of sex and we don’t much like our partners buying it either – even if it was in the past. Anyone who saw last Saturday’s episode of the Danish TV drama Borgen will know what I mean. The storyline was about a political debate over whether or not to ban prostitution. At one point party leader Birgitte Nyborg asks her boyfriend if he’s ever been to a prostitute. When he says actually yes, Nyborg’s facial expression becomes a priceless mix of disgust, jealousy and just a hint of excitement.
From a biological perspective it’s clear why the demand for prostitutes exists – one way men can potentially maximize their representation in the future gene pool is by having lots of sex and with lots of different women, hence the desire in some guys to do so. A woman’s reproduction on the other hand can be limited by access to stuff she needs for raising kids, hence the desire for money. Et voila, we have female prostitution.
But why the big stigma? You can see why, in the old days, it was such a huge taboo; By having sex with a lot of different men, women would render themselves unmarriageable since men would avoid getting hitched to someone who might be carrying another man’s baby. And way back, women depended for their livelihoods on being married. And then there’s the issue of STDs.
But in these days of contraception and good health care, when people are relatively liberal in their sex lives and virgin brides are as rare as fairy dust, what’s the big deal?
Obviously I’m not talking here about issues of people trafficking, sex slavery and dangerous street prostitution – clearly people are being exploited drastically and this needs to be dealt with.
But at the top end there is a lot of money to be made; the highest earning escorts charge hundreds or even thousands of pounds an hour. Girls don’t even have to spread themselves around lots of men – they can get a sugar-daddy with whom they might even get on well. Or not. But anyway, there are plenty of websites out there ready to match rich sugar-daddies up with young sugar-babies.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that women should aspire to life on the game, just asking the question of why more women don’t do it as there are clear benefits. Something pretty major must be stopping them.
Economist Alison Wolf asks the same question in her book, the XX Factor and suggests a couple of possibilities. (A) it’s against the law and having a criminal record wouldn’t be great, and (B) the work may be unpleasant and potentially dangerous. She points out that for prostitutes working at the lower end of the market, typically selling their wares on the streets, violence is a common experience, but things are somewhat less frightening and a lot safer for high-end prostitutes working in hotels or apartments – still not danger-free however. And although fear of a criminal record might put some off, in countries like the Netherlands or Australia where prostitution isn’t illegal, escorts can earn just as much as elsewhere. However, still mostly women don’t, so something else is stopping them.
There seems to be a lingering moral repugnance somehow that doesn’t want to shift, even in the face of logical argument. The idea is entrenched that having sex for money is degrading. This was nicely dealt with in the aforementioned Borgen episode: When talking to a contented prostitute, the party PR executive Katrine, couldn’t help asking her;
“Don’t you feel used?”
“No, my customers are happy and I’m good at my job… I feel strong and desired,” replies Helene.
But Katrine says she herself wants to have love as well as sex in a relationship, and so Helene asks her:
“Haven’t you had one night stands?”
“Sometimes,” says Helene, “sex is just sex.”
But there must be a reason people have this persistent aversion, and it might yet be to do with our standing in the eyes of others rather than ourselves.
In an analysis of data from 40,000 escorts in North America, economist Lena Edlund of Columbia University and her colleagues come to the conclusion that a major deterrent to taking up prostitution is, even today, the effect on marriage prospects. Edlund works on the basis that the smaller the supply of escorts, the higher their going rate will be and she finds that the peak in escorts’ earning power occurs when in their mid to late 20s, the age at which marriage rates also peak for women in this area. Other issues you might think would deter prostitution, like the danger involved, don’t explain this pattern of earnings, she finds.
Prostitutes are pretty much eliminated from the marriage market while doing business and most men don’t even want to marry ex-prostitutes. It’s one thing getting hitched to someone who has had plenty of previous lovers, but quite another going for someone in the habit of having several sexual partners simultaneously – the implication being that they might carry on behaving like that even after marriage. Significantly Edlund finds that escorts earn less in US cities commonly hosting large conferences, “convention cities”, where women are better able to hide their experience of selling sex.
Clearly plenty of women don’t aspire to marriage, or indeed prostitution, but it seems feasible that an aversion to the selling of sex across society in general could still stem from the effect on marriage potential.
This then begs the question; With marriage rates dropping like a whore’s drawers, does this mean that prostitution will increase? – Well, this seems to be the case for the poorest women, and this is the group with the lowest marriage rates – this is where the exploitation is going on and rates for a ‘trick’ are very low. At the top-end though, where the real money is to be made, the supply of escorts is still short and well-educated middle-class women are still mostly getting married, and in fact marriage rates are increasing (also see here) for those with the highest incomes. So perhaps that will remain a deterrent to a career as a call girl, Belle de Jour notwithstanding.
And anyway, highly educated women obviously have other ways to make good money. And where women are top earners, what do you think happens? Yep, they often start paying for sex themselves. Enter the age of the sugar-mummy – more in a post coming soon…