The recession has pushed sex worker prices way down

Changing social mores combined with a bad economy have made prostitution less lucrative than before

Topics: Sex Work, Prostitution, legalization, Decriminalization, sex workers, The Economist, Economics, Recession, Financial Crisis, ,

The recession has pushed sex worker prices way down (Credit: iStockphoto/wragg)

Sex work just doesn’t pay as well as it used to. Due to a combination of factors — economic decline, loosening social mores, the rise of the Internet — the hourly rate for “the world’s oldest profession” has faced fairly dramatic declines in recent years. The Economist recently did a deep dive into the changing cost of prostitution, finding that sex work — like so many other fields — was hit harder than expected by the recent recession:

The fall in prices can be attributed in part to the 2007-8 financial crisis. Even places that have escaped the worst effects, such as London, have been hit. In cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, where unemployment peaked at 12.5% in 2010, prices have plummeted. … [And] in places such as Norway, where previously local prostitutes tried to all charge about the same, growing numbers of migrant sex workers make such unofficial price controls harder to sustain.

Additionally, shifting social norms — specifically the increased acceptance of premarital sex and divorce — have effectively led to a lessened demand, even as supply increases in urban areas around the world. But, even as it seems that the price of sex work could continue to drop, sex workers are somehow still making more than they used to:

The shift towards advertising and coordinating the sale of sex online means that prostitutes rely less on intermediaries, such as brothels and agencies, pimps and madams. That means that they may be able to keep a greater proportion of their income. But selling sex online brings new demands. Clients contact sex workers via their websites, by e-mail, through Facebook and Twitter. Some websites allow prostitutes to tell clients whether they are currently available; but that means going online frequently to update their status. Such work is time-consuming, so some prostitutes may end up paying someone to do it for them.

The ability to hire on what is essentially an in-house ad team is yet another indication of how the Internet has caused major changes for sex work, without showing any signs of actually ridding the profession. Prostitution isn’t going anywhere. The increasingly professional presence of sex workers online could be one more draw to legalizing and regulating the profession — that is, one more in addition to the numerous public health studies that suggest that decriminalizing sex work could be the key to containing communicable illnesses like HIV. Even as the field and our attitudes to it change, there’s one thing the Economist notes that hasn’t: “For sex workers as much as anyone, time really is money.”

Jenny Kutner

Jenny Kutner is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on sex, gender and feminism. Follow @jennykutner or email

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