But What Does It Mean for the Prostitutes?
How the financial crisis affects the oldest profession.
Read more about Wall Street's ongoing crisis.
There are some people who might just benefit from the current turmoil in the financial markets. One probably won't surprise: lawyers. The other might: sex workers.
In the late 1990s, New York and other large American cities witnessed the rise of a so-called indoor sex-work trade. Women either left the streets for strip clubs and escort services, or they started their own businesses by advertising on the Internet or cruising hotels and corporate centers to find clients. You may recall "Kristen" (aka Ashley Dupré), the young woman whose tryst with Eliot Spitzer helped bring down the New York governor. "Kristens" might earn $1,000 per evening, which places them toward the higher end of the indoor sex market.
I came across these women when I began studying New York's sex industry at the end of the 1990s. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in an effort to clean up Manhattan's neighborhoods, forced sex off the streets of Times Square and other Midtown neighborhoods. In the process, his administration created a new economic sector. I've been following the lives of more than 300 sex workers—in New York and Chicago, in high and low ends of the income spectrum since 1999.
One thing I've learned is that economic downturns can be boom times for high-end sex workers. Sex workers of the past waited on street corners, outside bars, and around parks, and their transactions were fleeting and usually for a few dollars. Today's high-end sex workers see themselves as therapists, part of a vast metropolitan wellness industry that includes private chefs and yoga teachers. Many have regular clients who visit them several times per month, paying them not only for sex but also for comfort and affirmation.
The cost may be thousands of dollars for an evening of leisure. Few people outside of the corporate work force can afford this price tag. And, in good times, Wall Street came calling.
But bad times seem not so bad either, at least in the short run. After the dot-com bubble burst and again in late 2006 when the housing market began to flatten, the high-end women I interviewed in New York and Chicago reported upticks in business. Their clients were coming to them for a mix of escape and encouragement. As Jean, a New Yorker and a 35-year-old former paralegal turned "corporate escort" (her description) told me, "I had about two dozen men who started doubling their visits with me. They couldn't face their wives, who were bitching about the fact they lost income. Men want to be men. All I did was make them feel like they could go back out there with their head up." (Like most of the sex workers I interviewed, Jean was concerned about her participation in an illegal trade and asked that only her first name be used.)
That's probably not all Jean did for her clients. But, as I reported in Slate a few months ago, about 40 percent of high-end sex transactions do not involve a sexual service. It's not difficult to imagine that a man's need for positive reinforcement is amplified when a pink slip lands on his desk.
In my study, approximately half of the sex workers I have been following (150) work in the high-end sector. Nearly all of them tell me that this pattern of increased activity following an economic downturn lasts about six to eight months. "They get tapped out," Caroline told me. Caroline specializes in "Internet stiffs," her term for folks who work in Manhattan's high-tech sector. "They party with me. Or I listen when they tell me they can't face their kids. When the money runs out, they go back and they deal with it."
Caroline learned quickly that she had to diversify in order to survive these cycles. Now, she never has more than half of her clients in one economic sector. "I always have lawyers, very dependable. And I never have too many stock brokers. They're a real pain in the ass. I've never heard anyone whine more than them." But Caroline may be an exception. Most high-end workers find their clients via word of mouth. They can easily become lodged in one sector, rising or falling with the economic tide.
Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.
Photograph of a prostitute by Getty Creative. Photograph of woman in heels on Slate's home page by Digital Vision.