The going rate for oral sex in my city is twenty dollars. This is not the sort of market price that one can freely quote without accounting for how they know it, so allow me to explain.
There is a street in our town that the police and residents seem to have accepted as the red light district. It’s a fairly impoverished area and the people who live there have more important things to worry about than the prostitutes who leapfrog from corner to corner day and night. The hookers are fairly easy to spot in their unchanging uniform of miniskirts and day glo tube tops, many of them bearing the effects of meth or crack abuse. It’s also a slow-speed road and, if you make eye contact before stopping at a light or turning a corner, they will try to hop in your car, something that has nearly happened to me twice. As with a tourist safari, I find it’s best to keep your doors locked and windows rolled up.
By chance, the prostitute street runs perpendicular to the gentrifying street in Hamilton and, on one particular evening, I was in close proximity to this intersection at my favorite rock and roll bar to see the great Memphis singer and artist Tav Falco performing with his latest band. Tav has been kicking around since the 70s. His band “the untouchable Panther Burns” included such Memphis luminaries as Alex Chilton and his current act is a captivating blend of rockabilly, blues, and flamenco dancing. He was superb.
Around 1 a.m., as the show was ending and the band was getting on their way to the next gig, a few of us music fans were milling about the patio discussing everything and nothing when a tiny young woman burst out of a car angrily onto the sidewalk accompanied by two young men who looked like they just got done kicking sand in someone’s face on Muscle Beach.
“Where in the dickens is that rapscallion?!” would be the network television version of what they shouted. “We’re going to give him a sound thrashing!”
“He owes me twenty bucks for services rendered!” she yelled, more explicitly and more specifically than that.
The two thugs threatened us, they threatened anyone who looked like the guilty party, they considered chasing after Tav Falco’s tour van, and demanded someone find the missing john so they could commit assault. There was a thick and uncomfortable atmosphere of violence menacing what had been an otherwise enjoyable evening. They were sharks that had smelled blood. Above us, the silent streetlights dimmed to accommodate their violence. Finally, a musician friend among us asked the irate group:
“Look, nobody knows where this guy is and we don’t want any trouble. So how about I just give you twenty dollars and you get the hell out of here?”
It was as easy as that. The deal was made. The three took his twenty dollars and left fuming. Somebody found the weasel hiding in the women’s room and demanded he leave the property immediately. The club owner heard of what happened and paid my musician friend twenty dollars out of the till. Tav Falco escaped unscathed.
Except, I started to wonder how exactly the market decided that twenty dollars is the accepted rate for fellatio. This sounds extremely low to me. Truthfully, though, anything less than five hundred dollars would sound low. I assumed the price is not related to the time involved, but to the act involved, which is arduous and demoralizing, if not dehumanizing.
Searching around online, however, I find that street prostitutes do, very often, charge by the hour, and that the average rate in Canada is fifty dollars for one hour with a streetwalker. And so, perhaps, our city, which is one of the poorest in the country, reflects the poverty rate in this market as well. I still had questions, however, about just how prostitutes, johns, and pimps go about setting these wages.
Now, many of my friends support the decriminalizing of prostitution, which is quasi-legal in Ontario but still exists within a gray zone. This seems to be one sort of regulation that liberals frequently oppose, along with drug laws. At the least, it is extremely difficult to regulate prostitution, which has existed for centuries and is relatively easy work to find. For instance, one of the key planks of Mussolini’s Fascist program in Italy was the elimination of prostitution. And this simply resulted in prostitutes working out of restaurants as quasi waitresses. Ernest Hemingway wrote an amusing story about the time he and my great-grandfather tried to order food, but not sex, in one such restaurant.
Jaybird recently described “neoliberalism” in a thread as an attempt to decouple morality and the market and, certainly, in the case of prostitution there is some room for consensus between the left and libertarians on this. Even if we find sex work to be immoral, the futility of wiping out prostitution should give us pause, along with the fact of punishing people for what is usually a victimless crime.
And yet, the sex trade is not quite the same as other markets, or is it? In classical economics, what is called the “market theory of wage determination” holds that wage rates are determined by the supply of workers and the demand of employers. One argument against the minimum wage is that it sets an artificial wage floor, which is often higher than the equilibrium wage rate. And so, employers accept the minimum wage only grudgingly. If someone is willing to work for four dollars an hour, the argument goes, why shouldn’t they? An employer would gladly give the four-dollar-an-hour employee more hours, and thus more employment, than a twelve-dollar-an-hour employee.
And in fact many employers do try, as a result, to get more work for fewer hours from their employees. One of my coworkers in the toiletariat came to us after a temp service job in which he was required to clean a factory floor and offices in “three hours”, something that is essentially impossible. As a result, he had to finish the job in five hours and get paid for three. This is illegal, of course. But, if he had stuck with three hours and failed to finish the work, he’d have been fired. The prostitute had more immediate recourse when asked to work for free. And a golden rule of the “new economy” is that there’s always someone willing to work for less money than you.
Our company is thus becoming something of an anomaly in our city since we work full time for fifteen dollars an hour, while the trend (also a tenet of neoliberalism, sorry to point out) across North America, if not the English-speaking world, is towards “short term contracts” and the “flexibility” that they offer companies. We are expected to be replaced with contract cleaners in 2018.
The classical market theory of wages has always seemed somewhat lacking to me, and I think the market price of fellatio brought home why this is. To be fair, let’s say that the haggling that goes on in prostitution fits the model exactly: prostitutes charge the highest rate that the market will bear for their labor without exceeding that rate and thereby having diminishing returns. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “We’ve established what you are. Now we’re trying to fix the price.”
On the other hand, while we might romanticize prostitution, I think we generally do know that few people take up the trade because they have a calling or a fetish. Instead, hooking is a job of last resort with a high element of desperation baked in. When there is a drug addiction involved, as is often the case, this alone “artificially” lowers the going rate. Haggling is done under duress.
So, the first problem I see with the market theory of wages is that, of course, the decisions of workers are also driven by demand – without a job, most of us couldn’t eat, maintain shelter, or meet any of our material needs. When wages are kept artificially low, as they quite often are, the need on the part of workers to make a deal quickly is perhaps even more pressing than the need on the part of employers to find another worker. Prostitution is an extreme example of work that is done under duress, but in this city, we’ve all taken jobs with very little “choice” involved.
The second problem with the theory, which is glaringly obvious with prostitution, is that selling labor is different from selling any other good on the market in that it’s so intimately tied with one’s selfhood. We sell off a part of our life, our being, our physical condition, our purpose, and our autonomy as well. This is roughly what Marx meant by the “alienation” theory. Since there are plenty of problems with Marx though, let’s turn to Karl Polanyi, who wrote back in 1944 that would be a mistake to let the “market mechanism” be the sole director of human beings and societies:
For the alleged commodity ‘labor power’ cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this particular commodity. In disposing of man’s labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity ‘man’ attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation.
Polanyi was writing against the “liberal utopianism” of Hayek, among others, and is worth reading for his simple but important observation that “laissez-faire was planned” and his argument that an idealized free market society would eventually turn authoritarian in order to maintain the ‘freedoms’ of the privileged class that could actually afford such a narrow sort of freedom. Because free trade relies on disposable labor, its advocates recognize as valid only the government function of “protecting private property”, or essentially using government power to maintain the prerogatives of a privileged class (although not necessarily a hereditary one). The dangers of this seem obvious.
In the case of prostitution, an unregulated market in most locales, the element of private force maintains the system, but so does the element of social dislocation that Polanyi talks about. Prostitutes are not embedded in society in the same way that workers in other professions are. In a sense, however, they’re not so far removed from the effects that many of us “respectable” laborers have experienced due to the continual, top-down, three decade, planned movement towards the social dislocation of labor. Recall neoliberal diva Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement that: There is no such thing as society; there are only individual men and women.
Polanyi explained almost four decades before the fact why that was a pernicious lie. The good news is that societies arise spontaneously all the time, and continue to do so over and over, because individuals are not nearly as “flexible” as market mechanisms require them to be. Human thinking can be changed greatly over time. Humanity cannot.
In other words, labor is so intimately attached to the selfhood of the individual that, when we remove “morality” from the labor market, we remove all traces of humanity from the market, laying bare the power underlying every social structure thus far. This can, in no sense, be considered “free trade”, any more than could prostitution.