The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0212 Tuesday, 1 February 2000.
Date: Monday, 31 Jan 2000 09:29:24 -0600
Subject: Money and Prostitution
Way back in grad school, I heard the assertion that using the cost(s) of
a night out with a prostitute was a valuable way of comparing money
across time. Frankly, I found the comparison both uninformative and
downright offensive then, and still do now. Back then, however, I
didn't have the nerve to ask the asserter what I'd like to ask now:
How do those of us who don't frequent prostitutes make this comparison?
The comparison seems to suggest that we all frequent prostitutes (or are
prostitutes) and so know the prices, an assumption that's problematic on
so many levels that it floors me. At the least, it seems to imply that
everyone in the room is either a customer (male, at least that's my
sense from popular culture today) or a prostitute (female or male).
Does the comparison hold today in different geographical areas? (Upper
Manhattan vs suburban Wisconsin, for example?) Was there a standard
price in London, or did it vary? Do all prostitutes charge the same
amount? Did they then?
And the questions I most wanted to ask: What does it say about the
values of the person/people who started (and perhaps pass on) this
commonplace, about the way s/he/they value women's bodies as
commodities? (I've never heard anyone suggest that we compare the value
of a night with a male prostitute, but it's open to the same problem.)
And about how s/he/they regard female colleagues, peers, students, and
teachers? (Prostitutes keeping busy during the day? Or not really
worth communicating with?)
I think most of us would find it easier to use a combination of
wage/salary ranges for various labor activities and costs for various
commodities to get a sense of relative costs. In this case, worrying
about being too specific may not be helpful because costs change
constantly: wheat prices go up in years of a bad harvest and come down
in years of a good harvest, wars make scrap metal more valuable, high
mortality (such as during and after the plague) tends to drive up the
price of labor. Tracking prices of even one commodity exactly would
prove extremely difficult, especially over the course of 30-50 years or
At the least, when one passes on the comparison, one should enlighten
all of us about the costs and "services" being compared, no?
Thanks, Jan Stirm
University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire