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A Personal Choice

The internet is making the buying and selling of sex easier and safer. Governments should stop trying to ban it

STREET-WALKERS; kerb-crawlers; phone booths plastered with pictures of breasts and buttocks: the sheer seediness of prostitution is just one reason governments have long sought to outlaw it, or corral it in licensed brothels or “tolerance zones”. NIMBYs make common cause with puritans, who think that women selling sex are sinners, and do-gooders, who think they are victims. The reality is more nuanced. Some prostitutes do indeed suffer from trafficking, exploitation or violence; their abusers ought to end up in jail for their crimes. But for many, both male and female, sex work is just that: work.

This newspaper has never found it plausible that all prostitutes are victims. That fiction is becoming harder to sustain as much of the buying and selling of sex moves online. Personal websites mean prostitutes can market themselves and build their brands. Review sites bring trustworthy customer feedback to the commercial-sex trade for the first time. The shift makes it look more and more like a normal service industry.

It can also be analysed like one. We have dissected data on prices, services and personal characteristics from one big international site that hosts 190,000 profiles of female prostitutes (see article). The results show that gentlemen really do prefer blondes, who charge 11% more than brunettes. The scrawny look beloved of fashion magazines is more marketable than flab—but less so than a healthy weight. Prostitutes themselves behave like freelancers in other labour markets. They arrange tours and take bookings online, like gigging musicians. They choose which services to offer, and whether to specialise. They temp, go part-time and fit their work around child care. There is even a graduate premium that is close to that in the wider economy.

Originally published by The Economist.

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