The Wisdom of Whores

by on June 9, 2008 at 7:30 am in Economics, Medicine, Science | Permalink

As a teenager Elizabeth Pisani discovered that she liked sneaking into the "girlie bars" of Hong Kong and talking to the hookers and the johns.  Ordinarily one wouldn't expect such peculiar hobbies to pay off in a dazzling career.  But beginning in the mid 1980s, people who were comfortable talking to hookers, rent boys, trannies, warias and junkies (all Pisani's terms) especially in the hot spots of Asia and Africa became scouts and spies in the war against AIDS.  Information provided by these epidemiologists in the streets about where AIDS hid and how it spread has been critical to the war. 

The Wisdom of Whores
is Pisani's vivid account of what she has learned and why AIDS is still being fought ineffectively.  I'll say more on this in the future.  Here, however, is one bit relevant to the title:

We'd just finished our first survey of HIV, syphilis and risky sex among waria in Jakarta...I had the impression from the qualitative research...that waria were turning dozens of tricks a week, but the study showed they averaged only three.  And since that figure came from 250 waria selected at random as the manual requires, it was certainly more accurate than the qualitative research...

"Three a week?  Your insane!," snorted [sex worker and waria] Ines....Ines left school at fourteen but she is not stupid, so I explained how, through our probability sampling, we are asking a representative sample of Jakarta's waria.  Ines dismissed by lecture with a wave of her manicure and a flick of her locks.  "So clever, but so stupid." she sighed.

Ok, so what was the wisdom of the whore?  (n.b. Pisani's term!)  Bonus points if you can also describe a solution.  I am going to have to get this into my econometric notes!  Answer in the extension.

She explained, as if to an enthusiastic but slightly dim child, that a waria who is hanging around on a street corner to be interviewed by a research team is a waria who is not with a client.  ‘You are talking to all the dogs, obviously’.

Not something I learned in the lecture halls of London…but Ines is quite right.  Our sample is biased towards the ‘dogs,’ who get picked up less than the cuter girls.  So the study results underestimate the true number of clients per seller…

Ines’s comments…prodded us into changing the sampling strategy…now we work with the powers-that-be (the mami, the pimps, the brothel owners) to arrange off-hours time for data collection.  The principle….is that you are not cutting into people’s work time, so there is less chance of talking only to the remnant sex workers who can’t get a client.

1 Arsène Lupin June 9, 2008 at 7:55 am

Systematic measurement error, i.e., the whores underreported the number of tricks they turned to make themselves look good in the eyes of the enumerators.

In the qualitative research, the rapport built with the whores dulled that systematic underreporting. And yes, awesome example for an econometrics course!

2 tadhgin June 9, 2008 at 8:08 am

Another possible bias is that prostitution is either part-time or seasonal (as is probably often the case) making number of encounters per week a misleading stat. Noreover, this could interact with the phenomenon described if true professionals are kept busier, or are otherwise better at turning tricks.

3 Lucas Novaes June 9, 2008 at 8:46 am

I agree that lines are longer at Burger King, but maybe the ‘dogs’ are not just ugly. They might have some matching problems with clients, due to location, price, outfit, approach, tastes or other. If this is true, the bias would still be there.

4 Greg June 9, 2008 at 8:52 am

Re Tyler’s comment, I think this is a situation where typical economic assumptions don’t hold. There’s little information in the market on pricing, and johns probably don’t want to walk up and down the block doing price comparisons. There’s probably also a good bit of price inelasticity. I can imagine there are street prostitutes who would have a hard time staying busy even if they were giving it away. They can only attract a few non-picky customers at the margin.

5 Simon June 9, 2008 at 9:03 am

If the perception to outsiders is that they are ‘turning dozens of tricks a week’ then no one will complain about higher prices and assume that there services are a good in high supply. If we think that OPEC is outputting massive quantities then people will blame demand side causes first, especially in opaque markets and put the high prices down to increases in demand.

(same as market for prostitutes…i’m sure the average ‘john’ wouldn’t be able to grasp from driving by kerb corners exactly what supply is like)

In effect this allows the hookers to cover for the fact that the service is in fact in rather more limited supply and that this is what is keeping prices high.

…i dunno, that is assuming prices are high

…or not

6 Rue Des Quatre Vents June 9, 2008 at 9:13 am

@ Tyler:

The equivalent of Morton’s doesn’t walk the street–Ashley Dupree takes the Accela. So the on the street market for prostitutes has some kind of ceiling in terms of quality. I would imagine, then, that the competition is not between Morton’s and Burger King, but rather Burger King and Long John Silver’s or Burger King and Duchess, or Burger King and Waffle House.

Furthermore, the slight edge in quality Burger King offers has dramatic effects on the returns these marginal advantages deliver. But not too dramatic, otherwise that Burger King employee would become an Ashley Dupree.

7 happyjuggler0 June 9, 2008 at 9:36 am

I think the same problem occurs during phone polls, at least with economic questions.

8 Patrick June 9, 2008 at 9:44 am

Poll all the sex workers you can find, ask them for a list of the other sex workers they know about and an estimate of how many tricks they turn per night. Build network, if errors randomly distributed, mean tricks / night = good guess. 😉

We can make a hypothesis about price elasticity, however until we get data, we don’t know. One possible inelastic story is that client view dogs as dirty, so clients go to a recommended waria => network effects and a resultant power distribution of clients per waria capped by the number of hours in a night.

9 Douglas Knight June 9, 2008 at 12:30 pm

the convention wisdom is the opposite for phone polls: busier people have more phones. Maybe it’s reversed now, if they aren’t polling cells.

10 Rolo Tomasi June 9, 2008 at 1:38 pm

But they only lie when paid to lie. I don’t think there’s any reason to think that these people are any less honest than the rest of the population.

11 giancarlo June 9, 2008 at 8:35 pm

I’m on Greg with this one.
This is not an efficient market.
There is a point when you won’t be selling yourself, because the price is to low.

12 RobbL June 9, 2008 at 9:44 pm

This all reminds me that you have to be humble when you think you have it all figured out…(this mean you, libertarians!)

If anyone is interested, Elizabeth Pisani will be speaking in DC this weekend. The schedule is of course on

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17 GooGooDoll February 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm

I have some friends that work as escorts London and when I chatted with them and asked about how is the work and life, they didn’t complain at all… They have grown attached to their job which pays well… I don’t think I can compare them with street sex workers from the Far East…

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