The Harlot’s Addiction — Part 2: Difficult Jobs

In Part 1, I introduced the concept of rational addiction and speculated that failure to account for it causes us to underestimate the benefits that other people receive from certain activities, which leads us to believe that there is something unnaturally wrong about their high levels of consumption.

A recent example of this is NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s diatribe against video games. I don’t know if LaPierre is serious or merely spouting nonsense to distract from the gun issue, but I’ve heard other people express similarly intolerant views. It’s not hard to see how someone who doesn’t have an interest in video games would conclude that people who play them constantly are deranged — maybe even dangerously so. They don’t understand why it’s a rewarding experience, so they denigrate it and are willing to see it restricted by law.

Which is a pretty stupid thing for the head of a gun-rights organization to do, considering that some folks in the anti-gun crowd do the exact the same thing when they accuse gun owners of paranoia and extremism.

Inter-temporal complementarity works when past consumption increases the net benefits of future consumption, which can mean increasing the benefits or reducing the cost. To people who aren’t familiar with guns, there is a considerable psychic cost to gun ownership, including a not unreasonable fear of injuring themselves or others, so when they imagine buying a gun, they imagine doing so only when they have a dire need for self-defense. However, they make a mistake when they assume that gun owners face similar costs. Because those high costs would make it worthwhile to have a gun only if they were in extreme peril, they assume people want to buy guns because they believe themselves to be in extreme peril, and since no such peril is evident, they conclude that gun owners must be paranoid.

Many gun owners, however, grew up with guns or have become familiar and comfortable with them, so they incur no more psychic penalty for gun ownership than they would for other hazardous implements such welding torches, lawn mowers, or power tools. They want to own guns not because their paranoia has overcome their common sense, but because their common sense tells them there’s little cost to doing so. In terms of this discussion, they have become rationally addicted to guns.

And because rational addiction depends on the net benefit, it doesn’t just apply to the demand side of the market. Just as we can use intertemporal complementarity to explain seemingly high levels of demand for goods and services that appear to to have little value to outsiders, we can also use it to explain high levels of supply for goods and services that appear unpleasant to produce.

I experienced something like this a few years ago when my mother died, and I suddenly had to start taking care of my bedridden father. I discovered that there were all kinds of special steps for preparing his food, maintaining his oxygen equipment, giving him his medications, and dozens of other things I had to do to take care of him. Cleaning up my father’s soiled clothing and bedlinen was downright repulsive. And no matter how hard I worked, my father was always complaining about something. The job of taking care of him was difficult, disgusting, and thankless.

Since I couldn’t afford to take care of him full time, I began looking for a good nursing home. And as I read up on the subject and visited potential homes for him, I met a lot of the staff, and I found myself wondering what the hell kinds of people chose do this for a living? Were they saints? Or were they just crazy?

Skip forward a few months, however, and my attitude had changed. I had worked out efficient ways to manage my father’s life, and the tasks I had found repulsive were now just part of my day. The complicated process of taking care of my father had become a matter of routine. And although my father was as cranky as ever, I had stopped taking it as a personal rebuke. In economic terms, my prior “consumption” of my care-giving labors had reduced the costs I was experiencing. Taking care of my father became something of a rewarding experience, and I appreciated the chance to spend so much time with him before he died.

And now that I had gained some experience, I no longer viewed nursing as the work of either saints or crazy people. Although it wouldn’t be a good fit for me, I now had some understanding of how professional nurses could learn to manage the effort and get accustomed to the unpleasantness, allowing them to make a career out of taking care of the elderly. I had experienced a bit of rational addiction for myself, which gave me the insight to see it in others.

I suspect this is a common path into the caring professions. One day when I was at my favorite pizza joint picking up an order, I got to talking with one of the servers about about the situation with my father, and she told me she had recently taken care of a close family member in hospice care and had since taken CNA training to turn care-giving into a career. We immediately hired her, and she made a huge difference in all our lives.

It seems likely to me that she went through the the same process of adaptation that I did, except that she went a lot further and turned it into a career. In economic terms, she had become rationally addicted to caring for the old and infirm, an activity that many people, including myself just a few months earlier, would have found repulsive.

This seems like a pretty common phenomenon that must apply to a lot of jobs that are difficult or unpleasant — firefighter, nurse, police officer, miner, soldier — which brings me back to Maggie’s concerns about prostitution:

…what I’m saying is that the anti-whore crowd wants to pretend sex work is something people get drawn into by malefic forces (just as so-called “addicts” are supposedly drawn toward their obsessions), when in fact both are cases of people choosing the most attractive of the available options.  The majority of sex workers choose sex work from a number of valid options, and even women of high opportunity cost (those with degrees and other advantages) consider it a rational economic choice…

It’s not hard to see how rational addiction could help explain why women become prostitutes and why they are so often misunderstood.

I think it’s safe to say that most people find the idea of working as a prostitute a bit disturbing. For most women, having impersonal sex with an unending stream of strange men probably sounds like a repulsive way to make a living. And it probably would be for them, at least at first. But it seems likely to me that many prostitutes become rationally addicted to prostitution. Like a healthcare worker who gets used to changing diapers on bedridden patients or a firefighter who gets used to running into burning buildings, they have become used to the hardships of prostitution.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not about a difference of tastes. From what Maggie and others have written, it’s clear that some prostitutes really are happy hookers — having sex with lots of different men is a defining part of their exciting and adventurous lifestyle, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s great for them (and for their lucky clients) but rational addiction doesn’t depend on a this difference in tastes. Rational addiction can work on anyone who gives prostitution a try, and learns to like it as a job.

This is often portrayed in a very negative way by people who oppose prostitution in the name of protecting women. They describe experienced prostitutes with loaded terms such as “numb” or “deadened,” and anyone who helps them through the acclimation process is said to be “turning them out.” You rarely hear that kind of loaded language when discussing, say, nursing assistants who give sponge baths to 90-year-old invalids or police officers who patrol in dangerous neighborhoods.

Just as outsiders assume that video gamers are obsessive or gun owners are paranoid because they don’t understand the costs and rewards, and just as I thought people in the nursing profession must be either saints or lunatics, so people who look at prostitutes from the outside often make up stories to explain their behavior. They know that they would hate having to engage in prostitution, and they assume everyone else would hate it too. From that false premise it’s a simple deductive step to a dangerous conclusion: If all women hate having sex with strangers for money, but some women are doing it anyway, then someone must be forcing them into it.

Once they’ve rejected other possibilities and latched onto that conclusion, it colors their view of everything else. When faced with “freed” prostitutes who return to the life, they assume that these women must be damaged or brainwashed, and when faced with ex-prostitutes who speak well of sex work, they call them liars. Knowing that they would never consent to be a prostitute, they deny the agency of all prostitutes, robbing them of their right to make decisions about their own lives.

Next post: Prostituting yourself as an investment.

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