Revealed preferences in prostitution
Posted February 5, 2008on:
The stereotypical customer of prostitutes is a seedy, desperate old man in a trenchcoat. I have tended to think (without any empirical evidence, I hasten to add) that it’s more likely to be a stereotype based on prejudice rather than experience or observations. After all, not many people have the opportunity to observe a representative cross-section of brothel clients. However, today’s article on Stuff reporting that many prostitutes are being displaced by under-age sex workers was very disturbing.
Of course, it is terrible when children are pressed into such occupations and our first reaction is shock that it happens at all. What I find almost more worrying though is that there is demand for their services. Economists use the theory of revealed preference to analyse these choices. The idea is that a person looking for a prostitute has the option of engaging either an under-age worker or a legal worker. If they choose to engage the inderage worker in those circumstances then it indicates that they prefer sex with an under-age girl. Given that they could be charged with a serious crime if caught, the cost of an underage prostitute is significantly higher than the cost of engaging a legal prostitute. This suggests a strong preference for under-age sex among those men who choose to use the services of under-age workers.
If Stuff is correct that workers over the age of 18 are being displaced, it suggests that many men who seek to prostitutes’ services are not just seedy but have a tendency to prefer under-aged sex. So maybe the stereotype isn’t harsh enough!?