In the first chapter of Superfreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner provide a cost-benefit analysis of the choice to be a street-level or a high class prostitute in Chicago. What really interested me about this chapter is the last few pages – about Levitt and Dubner’s description of Allie, a ‘high-class’ prostitute in Chicago who spent her nights being wined, dined, and pampered by wealthy businessmen. Allie makes an important observation about herself in her interview with Levitt and Dubner - she could be the younger, more sexually adventurous “ideal wife: beautiful, attentive, smart, laughing at your jokes and satisfying your lust”(53). This, coupled with Levitt and Dubner’s point that prostitutes have a harder time finding a husband than a non-prostitute, made me wonder whether or not is was economically better for a woman to be a prostitute or a wife, as well as why men choose to get married rather than continually engaging with prostitutes (or doing both). In order to discuss this question, we first have to assume that selecting a mate itself is a market, and that marriages only occur if it is profitable for both parties involved.
Because marriage can be an important (and sometimes only) source of income for women, prostitutes themselves face an opportunity cost when deciding to pursue this career. Prostitutes are paid so much higher than women who work in other fields, or women who are wives, because they need to be compensated them for the marriage-market earnings they gave up when they decided to be a prostitute.
Because prostitutes are undesirable as wives, buyers must pay a sort of ‘no-husband’ tax that a man normally pays if he is married. Moreover, the opportunity cost for becoming a wife in comparison to a prostitute is all the lower because wives can easily divorce and become a prostitute if married life is not suiting them. However, while they are more limited in the above respect, prostitutes only provide (and are paid for) one specific service by men. Wives, on the other had, deliver a variety of services – they cook, clean, and provide sex. A study conducted by Lena Edlund and Evelyn Korn compares the two different careers and determines the cost-benefit analysis of each. Assuming that both wives and prostitutes are sellers of the same product (and thus are interchangeable), this study determines that wives can offer more than a prostitute at a lower cost. While prostitutes can only offer non-reproductive sex, wives can offer their husbands both non-productive and reproductive sex (ie children), and they offer it at a lower cost (ie, husbands do not have to pay for sex, and, more often than not, wives provide other services like cooking and cleaning, that prostitutes do not). However, although wives are a low-cost alternative to prostitutes (ie you get more bang for your buck – yes, pun intended), there is an opportunity cost to becoming/engaging with a wife – it is a much longer contract than if becoming/engaging with a prostitute. Men and women who engage in marriage have much different and greater responsibilities to each other than a man and a prostitute would. Also, because marriage is a longer contract, we must also take into account that wives age, and because men cannot buy services from multiple wives like they can prostitutes, aging does impose an additional externality on the buyer. This makes wives not have the same guarantee for your money as with a prostitute. This lack of guarantee could be the reason for why married men decide to engage with prostitutes as well as their wives. Moreover, some economists consider wives to be superior to prostitutes because the consumption of the wife increases as income rises – like fine wine. This basically means that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to consume champagne (wife) than beer (prostitute). Essentially, from a male perspective, the greater your income, the more benefit you will receive from choosing to marry a woman instead of engaging with a prostitute every evening.
There are other ways for women to get income besides simply being a prostitute or a wife. However, as Levitt and Dubner show through this first chapter, the prostitutes of Chicago (whether high-class or street-level), often make more money than they would working in a job in another field. Moreover, based on the anecdotal evidence provided through Allie’s story of being a high-class prostitute, women who are prostitutes have much more flexible schedules, and work about half as many hours as women making a comparable wage, making it seem like being a prostitute is a more economically desirable career than working in a different field.