Sex Trade Economics When major cities cleaned up urban neighborhoods in the 1990s, the market for prostitution moved off the streets, Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh says. In large numbers, sex workers began catering to wealthier clients who were looking for more than sex, and paying hundreds and thousands of dollars more for such services.
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Sex Trade Economics

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Sex Trade Economics

Sex Trade Economics

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Eliot Spitzer case has brought new attention to what is still sometimes called the world's oldest profession, which is in addition to being illegal in most of the United States, often a dangerous and demeaning way to make a living.

Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh has been studying the rise of what he sees as a new more gentrified kind of sex trade in major cities. Professor Venkatesh, who was on our show just a few weeks ago to talk about his time with a street gang in Chicago, wrote about his findings about prostitution for Slate.com this week. He joins us from the studios of the Columbia School of Business. Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor SUDHIR VENKATESH (Sociologist; Sociology, Columbia University): It's great to be here.

SIMON: You looked at prostitutions in Chicago and New York from the mid to late 1990s and what did you determine?

Prof. VENKATESH: I think the big story is that there is a new kind of indoor sex trade that has emerged in many of the cities that we've all visited and seen as revitalized: Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Washington, the so-called global cities. And just as you can get a personal chef and a yoga trainer for the middle and the upper classes, they can also find an escort, a sex worker And so you see the rise, really, of a professional class of sex workers who see themselves as career sex workers, not the survivalists who are just making part-time money, but the folks for whom this could be their primary job.

SIMON: When somebody pays $1,000 or more for sex, what are they getting? What is that fee for, confidentiality?

Prof. VENKATESH: Well in my surveys of both the johns and the sex workers in this new indoor market, this upper-end market, I think a lot of folks might be surprised to find that 40 percent of the cases, the clients are actually not paying for sex in the sense of a physical act.

They're paying for comfort. They're may be paying for attention. So in a lot of cases, what's happening is that the client is paying for a relationship.

In the old days, you might visit a prostitute, and the next time you go, it might be a different person. Now we're seeing actually people who have sex workers on retainer, if you will, so that they're paying for a second partner, a second spouse, a second wife, a person who you might not be developing the same kind of relationship at home.

So it's really a fundamentally different relationship in which sexual services are just one of a number of other services that the, in most cases, woman would provide.

SIMON: Are people kidding themselves about this? I know I've got a hard time with the term relationship.

Prof. VENKATESH: Many will admit that sex and selling sex and buying sex is part of what they do, but you know, there's all sorts of tricks we play on ourselves, and these exchanges are no different.

SIMON: And is the profile of the men who pay fox sex or something changed as well?

Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah, again in the olden days, it tended to be the folks who based their lives on the street, people who had problems associated with the sex trade, so drug abuse, the runaways. On occasion, you might have the white-collar worker who came and patronized that economy.

Now you have a burgeoning industry in which there's an entire segment of the white-collar work force, associates at law firms, bureaucrat, people in corporate America, who are really sustaining this for whom in the past it might have been a once-in-a-while activity, something they did maybe just once in their life.

Now, it really is about forming a different relationship and getting a service, just as they might get any other kind of service.

SIMON: Using this incident of the past week is what inevitably these days is called a teaching moment. There are people who've written this week about some of the horrifying statistics about life for a prostitute: the earlier mortality, the danger from disease and physical assault. Are you concerned that your study could be used to lend the impression that it's some kind of white-gloved profession?

Prof. VENKATESH: I think there's always a concern that you either romanticize the trade and make it seem like it's something out of the movies or that you just downplay some of the dangers, and I want to be careful to note that the folks at the upper end of this spectrum - and the upper end is, you know, above $7,500 a session, so that's a lot of money - they still are subject to physical abuse.

These women are reporting that they might get beat up twice a year, on average. There are still issues about family stigma. They have to hide their money. They can't make an investment or plan for the future. It's a very risky, very dangerous occupation in which women continue to either be abused or to suffer mental problems and physical health problems too. So we should not diminish the risk that women face at all levels of this trade.

SIMON: Sudhir Venkatesh, sociology professor at Columbia University. His most recent book is "Gang Leader for a Day." Thank you very much, professor.

Prof. VENKATESH: Oh, it's great to be here, thank you.

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