As the Eliot Spitzer scandal has highlighted, prostitutes and their salespeople have embraced the internet in large numbers.
One economist argues that the ease and anonymity of the online world have created a virtual red-light district in which customers face little fear of prosecution. Like the file sharing of copyrighted music, soliciting tricks online may be illegal, but it’s difficult to prosecute because of the number of people doing it and because of the difficulty of tracking down the individuals who visit prostitution websites.
“Today, the internet has caused a semi-legalization of this product,” said Todd Kendall, a Clemson University economist trained at the University of Chicago.
Sites like The Erotic Review (NSFW), which has been called the Yelp of prostitution, help customers find, rate and review sex workers. Similar services abound, including My Red Book (NSFW) and Big Doggie (NSFW). Kendall says the sites allow prostitutes and their clients to cut out most of the risky, police-attracting behaviors associated with the sex trade – like streetwalking.
At the same time, these sites allow prostitutes to solicit large numbers of potential johns at once. Compete.com estimates that the largest site, The Erotic Review, had 323,000 unique users last month.
Good reviews drive sex sales, prostitutes report. “I get a lot of calls when I have a new TER review,” wrote a “provider,” Bobbi, on her blog late last year. “It always amazes me how many men chose to see me based on these new reviews. They tell me that they will only see a well-reviewed provider.”
Kendall predicts that similar applications could be built for other types of vice, making it increasingly difficult to enforce the nation’s laws.
“I’ve got a student working on an application where you enter a city and it will tell you what grades and types of marijuana are available,” he said.
The open-secret nature of the information on escorts and their clientele is also helping researchers like Kendall understand the economic underpinnings of the oldest profession. Drawing on data from The Erotic Review, Kendall has been able to compute the mean rate for sex workers who have an internet presence: $250-300 per hour. Those who work the streets make much less, he says.
He’s also been able to engage in more sophisticated analysis of how the legalization of prostitution in some parts of Nevada and Rhode Island impacts the market for sexual services.
“In places where prostitution is legal, prices are a little bit higher,” he said.
The professor theorizes that the higher prices charged by legal prostitutes are actually due to “higher quality” prostitutes, in large part because of the standards that regulated brothels need to uphold.
Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite BunnyRanch, which has been the subject of an HBO special, echoed those sentiments, stating that the sex workers at his establishment are tested weekly for sexually transmitted diseases.
“You are less likely to get a disease so men are willing to pay a premium for that,” Kendall said.
Hof also noted another connection…
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