Economists have decided Sex Workers make great interviewees – on the subject of risk.
Risk is a word that is loaded for marginalized communities, particularly ones in the sex industry: high-risk, risky behavior, at-risk. But a new podcast episode out by Planet Money details a new kind of baseline risk only sex workers (and a few other niche markets) can demonstrate.
In "What Sex Work Reveals About Risk", Stacey Vanek Smith interviews author Allison Schrager about her new book, An Economist Walks into a Brothel. Schrager's new book attempts to delve into "niche" categories of the economy; while (legal) sex work is one of those niches, she also interviews horse racers, poker players, and war generals.
Listen, the dovetailing of economics and sex work is not a new one--in fact, it is nearly as old as the profession itself. Ever wonder why books about prostitution rings in the United States are so popular, like Sin in the Second City, or Soiled Doves? Not only because the history of sex work is a fascinating and juicy one, but also because it shows us where our economic outliers..um.. lie.
Economics is, for all intents and purposes, a study of social systems.
But the dismissive tone of this Planet Money episode is disappointing, and a far cry from the reverence and severity paid to FOSTA/SESTA in Reply All's episode, No More Safe Harbor. In fact, FOSTA/SESTA isn't mentioned at all, which one would think would be a crucial component to talking about risk, especially in the economic sense of the word.
Instead, Schrager focuses on how studies of risk can ultimately show us how we think about long-game economic concepts, such as retirement.
"What's riskier than sex work?" she asks. "It's a risky job!"
"I went to four brothels.. but all legal," states Schrager, in the Planet Money episode. "When I first went to the brothel I was surprised to find out that the legal prices were much higher than the illegal prices... You pay about 300% more. At first this surprised me because, think about it, illegal drugs are really hard to find, so you have to pay drug dealers a premium."
She delineates how legal providers can charge considerably more because it's what economists call a "risk-free transaction": clients do not have to worry that they will be caught by police, and they can count on a certain level of discretion. These are considered premiums for something that you'd have to worry about a lot more if you hired illegal workers.
"You don't have to worry the woman blackmailing you or mugging you," she added. (Yeah, we rolled our eyes at that one, too).
Despite the wink wink nudge nudge tone of the interview, the book itself has been making waves in economic circles (again, likely a combination of the juicy nature of the field as compared to the dry landscape of finance, as well as the ways the livelihoods of those in non-traditional work positions can teach us various cash hacks). Reason.com praised the book highly: "A Ph.D. economist who writes for Quartz, Schrager traveled the country to see how people in high-risk, high-reward fields such as horse breeding, candid celebrity photography, professional poker, and big-wave surfing assess and manage risk. The result is a compelling blend of first-person reporting and high-level economic analysis that gives individuals a new way not to avoid risk, but to make more-informed choices."
Still, there is something to be said for sex work, and sex workers, making it onto such a mainstream platform as Planet Money. Either we have reached a kind of dire straits or absolute drought of topics for an economics podcast (highly unlikely), or perhaps talking about sex work has become visible and vanilla enough for NPR.
If we get real stories in front of the mic (and offer protection for doing so), or showcase the actual lived experiences of actual sex workers (rather than exploit their labor for how it demonstrates or does not demonstrate the damn yield curve), then we run the risk of creating some actual political change. If a lack of representation equals death, then the opposite of death is life. Living. Thriving. A holistic incorporation into the world.
What Planet Money, and many one-dimensional narratives of sex workers' lives that only captures facets of them, is that the legality only shows one tiny piece of the pie. Visiting brothels in Nevada is a narrative choice, and one that greatly influences results.
As for the book itself, the concepts laid out are admittedly interesting. Shrager does have a point that looking at high-risk industries does show average Americans where to investigate risk in their own lives. In one of the more illuminating write-ups about the book, Peter Coy at Bloomberg breaks down exactly what Schrager's studies show us: no risk, no reward; I'm irrational and I know it; Get the biggest bang for your risk-buck; be the master of your domain; and, uncertainty happens.
"To learn how to manage risks in your life, don’t consult office-bound economists or actuaries. Ask the real experts: prostitutes, gamblers, magicians, paparazzi, big-wave surfers, movie producers, horse breeders, and soldiers. Their careers require them to take risks. They succeed by doing so smartly—deriving as much benefit as possible per unit of risk taken," writes Coy.
It's smart to write a book that addresses the outliers of economic factors, because, well, our economy is a fragmented one. In a day and age where more working adults are relying on non-traditional careers (telecommuting, gig work) and projected to work well past the age of retiring Boomers, discussing the financial merits of risky industries makes practical sense. The every-person could stand to learn a lot about the gumption of horse breeders and poker players and prostitutes.
But what's glaringly missing is the social aspect of it. Incorporating conversations about FOSTA/SESTA, for example, would show the one thing Schrager isn't talking about: how legality and illegality have a lot more to do with determining risk (not to mention keeping certain demographics out of reach of financial stability altogether) than the industries themselves.
Admittedly, she is staying above board and only talking about legal industries. A book about illegal economies would be remiss in a lack of this sort of representation, but it's precisely the legality of the trades that keep Schrager safe from this, relatively. And perhaps the social component isn't the job of a book on economics, but if economists really do exist to study social systems then one would think that reducing the whole picture could only serve to offer reductionist advice, stymieing the actual goal they set out to achieve.
This incomplete reporting, while highly praised across many review platforms and finance sites, isn't revered by all. The very component that seems to actually be working for Schrager, here, has been deemed as only mediocre advice by the New York Times.
"But if you want to create a more complex personal finance book, things are likely to get challenging in a hurry, because you must accomplish three essentials.First, you need to find a new take on those bare-bones basics. Then, to hook readers, you need to come up with an intriguing angle. Finally, you need to show readers how they will benefit from putting your novel approach to work. Allison Schrager has clearly written a book of the complex kind: “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk” (Portfolio/Penguin, $27). She accomplishes two of the three tasks I’ve outlined, and does so quite nicely. Unfortunately, she falls short in the important news-you-can-use category. And that’s too bad, because, as her title suggests, she has a provocative approach, and she has an interesting take on investing as well," writes Paul B. Brown in "Which is Riskier: Prostitution or Investing?"
A follow-up book by an economist invested (pun intended) in sex work/ers that explores the sociopolitical dynamic is a must, because try as economists might (and they sure have tried) to divorce the legislation that drives policies (and therefore determines economic outcomes), this book is a bright example of how they fail.