Writing in The Washington Post, the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh lists five myths about prostitution. By his account, today's sex workers are less likely than their predecessors to work on the streets, to be drug addicts or survivors of child abuse, or to have a completely hostile relationship with the police. Furthermore, some of them manage to get paid for that other four-letter word for intercourse that ends with k:
Often, [men] pay them to talk. I've been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per "session") in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men pay women to not have sex. Well, they pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don't ultimately involve sex.
Figuring out why men pay for sex they don't have could sustain New York's therapists for a long time. But the observations of one Big Apple-based sex worker are typical: "Men like it when you listen….I learned this a long time ago. They pay you to listen—and to tell them how great they are." Indeed, the high-end sex workers I have studied routinely see themselves as acting the part of a counselor or a marriage therapist. They say their job is to feed a man's need for judgment-free friendship and, at times, to help him repair his broken partnership.
Venkatesh also argues that the recent crackdown on Craigslist won't have a significant effect on the prostitution business, reporting that "even before the site's 'adult services' section was shut down, it was falling out of favor among many users."
There are obvious potential problems with the numbers here, given that we're dealing with an underground activity. Still, Venkatesh and his colleagues spent several years tracking the behavior of hundreds of sex workers. In the cities he's been studying, this is as good a cross-section as we're liable to get anytime soon.
Elsewhere not in Reason: Some of Venkatesh's scholarly work on the subject.