What the financial crisis means for high-end prostitutes.

The search for better economic policy.
Sept. 26 2008 1:20 PM

But What Does It Mean for the Prostitutes?

How the financial crisis affects the oldest profession.

Read more about Wall Street's ongoing crisis.

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As the women I interviewed spoke to me about the strategies they used to manage risk during hard times, it became quickly apparent that Caroline's adjustment was one of many strategies that higher-end sex workers have used. Women get used to the lifestyle—fancy apartments, nice clothes, a vacation now and then—and they need to keep income flowing, especially in recessionary periods when men run out of cash. It is quite common for sex workers at the high end to take men "on credit," giving them freebies for a few months or longer until they can get back on their feet. Equally common is the willingness to reduce rates.

A smaller percentage of high-end sex workers are more innovative and find ways to distribute their risk. These women draw on techniques that are more common in legitimate economic spheres. Marta, for example, said that she took inspiration from the revolving-credit associations that her mother once belonged to in New York's Spanish Harlem neighborhood. These modest savings accounts—some only a few thousand dollars—helped the women make ends meet between paychecks. In some cases, they provided capital to start a new business. Marta asked five of her friends to put a few hundred dollars in a money-market account. A week ago, Marta told me the story of one of her friends who lost three clients (two of whom reportedly worked as investment bankers) and who withdrew funds to help make ends meet. I've known Marta for almost a decade, and while I didn't meet her friend, I've seen others in her social network use such strategies to ride out bad times.

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Of course, it's not always as simple as that. If too many women draw on the account, each may not find the money she needs. And participants will not always agree on the rules for membership. Some of these accounts charge interest as a means of penalizing women who make repeated withdrawals, although this is not the norm. Others may place restrictions on the number of withdrawals allowed in any time period. Such formal rules are quite rare, but these days I've been finding an increasing number of sex workers seeking ways to respond to their vulnerable position. Ultimately, however, access to cash is a great benefit. Even in the high-end sector, women may not have bank accounts or credit histories—this makes access to loans (and credit cards) difficult. It takes only a few client cancellations to make next month's rent payment a source of concern. Knowing that cash is available is a source of comfort.

I've even seen a small number of women, flush with cash from sex work, use their resources to play the role of insurance broker. Unlike Marta and her friends, who must pool their money, a small percentage of women invest their own savings to insure the risk of other sex workers. Recall that sex workers face a number of risks, from men who do not pay for their services or who steal their money to the sudden loss of their entire client base. Savvy individuals will volunteer to assume such risks, in effect contracting with sex workers to insure them against misbehaving clients or unforeseen drops in business. Jean was so successful as a sex worker that she decided to use some of her income to insure 10 high-end sex workers against potential losses. Each woman gave Jean 5 percent of her earnings each month. In exchange, the women could take out $1,000 per month for five months a year if times were tough. I met most of the women in Jean's insurance pool. Each one volunteered a story of how the cash disbursements helped them avoid a personal crisis.

On first glance, a sex worker could probably do better by simply putting some money aside in a cookie jar. But sex workers are not the best savers (who is?). And a sudden loss of clients means no cash comes in the door. If they lack credit cards or have no room to borrow, a cash payment from Jean is invaluable.

Escort-service managers, strip-club owners, pimps, and other entrepreneurially minded people often approach sex workers with similar proposals to assume some of the risks of the trade. The majority of sex workers I have studied admit feeling trapped when these offers come along: They can try to make it on their own or pay someone to provide some protection. Of course, not all insurers pay up—and the government is not around the corner to bail anyone out.

The trick to surviving lean times, says Caroline, is to be patient and do everything it takes to keep your clients. "They are going to come back. I mean, c'mon, it's Wall Street! These guys are never out of the game for that long. That's what's so great about what I do. If you can keep your cool, it's pretty rare that you lose money. Just make sure you keep the man happy."

Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.

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