November 14, 2013

The sex trade and inequality, 1920 to present

In earlier posts on the historical cycles of perversion, I looked at how popular culture revealed the audience's preferences. See here for a list of posts on the unwholesome mid-century. Briefly, in times of cocooning people show a lurid interest in sexuality, and in outgoing periods, a jocular attitude.

I'm most interested in what made people tick in different time periods, so I look at the demand side. The supply side is complicated by technological progress, which moves independently of the social-cultural zeitgeist. And in any case, I don't find the production or business side of pop culture as fascinating as what some phenomenon reveals about everyday people.

But for some phenomena, you might have to take into account what factors motivate the people on the supply side. Not so much "what attitudes to business owners and managers have?" but more like what would lead the actual workers to take part in the business that creates the product. Those choices could also reflect the cocooning / outgoing trend, but decisions about economic life will probably respond more to the status-seeking / status-ignoring trend.

Turchin's work on the dynamics of inequality puts status seeking, over-production of aspiring elites, and intra-elite competition behind inequality (an effect of those divisive processes). See this post of his on the topic, using lawyers as a case study. I'll refer to status-seeking or rising-inequality depending on which aspect seems to be more important.

Something I could never explain using just the cocooning vs. outgoing framework is why the mid-century sex culture, while just as lurid as ours is, nevertheless did not specialize in pornographic photography or movies, lapdance clubs, 1-900 phone sex services, and so on. It was more lurid comic books and pulp novels, voyeuristic girlie shows (with no contact or proximity), and the incredibly rare stag film (hardcore). *

The state of their technology allowed for all of our forms of commercialized vice, yet they didn't make nearly as much use of it (they didn't even take a stab at inventing phone sex). So the answer must lie more with economic motives of the workers themselves.

During the Great Compression of circa 1920 to 1970, young women showed a declining interest in climbing up the status ladder as fast as possible and in financing the acquisition and display of luxury by earning quick-and-easy money. Their increasingly modest tastes made them feel more comfortable with a slow-but-steady typing job. Sure, a stint as a pornographic actress could have raked in a lot more dough than that, but what would she do with all that money? She wasn't going to stain her feminine honor just to add unnecessarily to her bank account.

This shows the importance of looking at both supply and demand. The demand was there, but in those days it just wasn't true that "everybody has their price," or that demand would have been met.

Beginning in the '70s, and becoming more and more visible over the '80s, women shifted their priorities, becoming more fashion and status-conscious. Their interest in fashion was more fun-loving in the '70s and '80s, and not so hostile like it became in the '90s and 21st century, when the separate shift toward cocooning made them less interested in getting along with others on an interpersonal level.

And sure enough, that's when hardcore pornographic movies began to grow, continuing upward right through the present. That steady rise since the '70s/'80s is unlike the changes in interpersonal sexual behavior, where folks were more and more connected during the '70s and '80s, but segregated themselves from the opposite sex during the past 20 years and don't get it on as frequently as they used to. You see the same steady rise in lapdance clubs, and virtual outlets like phone sex, nude photos, and webcam girls.

The only area that shows a decline is prostitution, where arrest rates fell by over 40% from 1990 to 2010. I interpret that as a substitution effect from all those other outlets. They're all ways to get relief through transactions rather than interactions, and the men who pay for those things weren't so concerned with making it with a real-life partner that they'd risk disease, arrest, fines, etc.

In periods of rising inequality, the bottom chunk of society feels like the deck is stacked against them. So lower-status men, sensing the widening divide, might reason that it's not worth even bothering with the real-life interaction game, where the available women are already taken by high-status men, or have effectively taken themselves off the market by waiting around for a taken high-status man to become newly available. **

Those lower-status guys still have a libido, though, so they'll drive up the demand for commercialized sex. As long as he has enough cash or credit, his lack of status won't count against him. This effect on males comes more from inequality, while the effect on female sex workers comes more from the status-seeking trend closely related to it. Giving schlubs a lap dance, or shooting a porn scene once a week, is a quick and easy way to finance your conspicuous consumption and student loan debt (the higher ed bubble being another consequence of status-seeking).

All this predicts that we ought to find a burgeoning economy of commercialized sex during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as inequality rose toward its peak in the mid-1910s. Would it surprise you to learn that prostitution was widespread during the Victorian era? Perhaps a more helpful name for the period would be the Victorian-Dickensian era, to remind folks of the heartlessness and the growing disconnect between the upper and lower layers of society.

I planned to review the history before 1920 in this post, but it's already gotten long enough, so I'll save that for a follow-up. It really deserves its own post, too, since all of it will be unfamiliar to today's readers.

* Judging from ubiquitous ads in comic books, teenage boys were eager to buy X-ray specs and pocket spy telescopes in order to see girls naked, or learn the art of hypnosis in order to get her to sleepwalk into their beds and get it on against her will. You didn't see lurid stuff like that in the teenage culture of the 1980s, because boys were more socially connected to girls, went out on dates, and got what they wanted.

** Is economic inequality reflected in dating-and-mating inequality? Hunter-gatherers don't have harem organization, while concubines and other forms of polygyny are often found among more stratified groups like large-scale agriculturalists.


  1. Makes sense. Feminist movements seem to correlate with rising inequality.

    Steve Sailor has a good article on this: "Prohibition: Twin Sister of Women's Suffrage".


  2. What are the different types of marriage arrangements in hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, and agriculturalists?



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