Johns prefer blondes (with degrees)

A Dutch prostitute looks out a brothel window. Image copyright Getty Images

The internet has disrupted commerce around the globe. It should be no surprise, then, that the business of prostitution also has been transformed.

Now, in an Economist cover briefing cheekily titled "More bang for your buck", we have some solid figures about what the information age has meant for the sex-for-money business:

"Specialist websites and apps are allowing information to flow between buyer and seller, making it easier to strike mutually satisfactory deals. The sex trade is becoming easier to enter and safer to work in: prostitutes can warn each other about violent clients, and do background and health checks before taking a booking. Personal web pages allow them to advertise and arrange meetings online; their clients' feedback on review sites helps others to proceed with confidence."

Some of the findings drawn from a review of 190,000 profiles on an international sex worker review site can be classified as profoundly unsurprising. For instance blonde, buxom, fit women are able to charge a premium for their services, as are those who offer what the magazine delicately describes as "niche services".

Others are more revelatory. Race matters. In major US cities and London, white workers charge higher hourly rates than blacks. In Kuala Lumpur, however, blacks are in greater demand.

"What counts as exotic and therefore desirable varies from place to place, and depends on many factors, such as population flows," the magazine writes.

The struggling global economy, the Economist reports, has led to a decline on prices across the board, as have global migration patterns. An influx of cheap labour from Eastern Europe, for instance, has pushed down rates in the EU.

Having a college degree also appears to make a difference:

"Although sex workers with degrees are less likely to work than others in any given week (suggesting that they are more likely to regard prostitution as a sideline), when they do work they see more clients and for longer. Their clients tend to be older men who seek longer sessions and intimacy, rather than a brief encounter."

While sex transactions conducted online and consummated in hotels and residences have flourished, more traditional brick-and-mortar and street-side prostitution is declining, the magazine reports. This has already had profound public policy implications:

"That shift will make the sex industry harder for all governments to control or regulate, whether they seek to do so for pragmatic or moralistic reasons, or out of concern that not all those in the industry are there by their own free will."

The reality, of course, is that the public policy drive has been in the opposite direction. The "Nordic model" of prosecuting clients and not sex workers has been adopted in France and is being considered by the UK. It is also on the verge of being implemented in Canada, after its Supreme Court struck down the nation's existing prostitution laws.

In the US, prostitution (outside of a small portion of Nevada) is illegal, and there have been recent highly publicised efforts to crack down on sex trafficking and shut down the kind of websites on which the Economist study relied for data.

In the end, however, the Economist's editors believe technology will lead to more lenient prostitution laws, as the anonymity and wealth of information available online increases the number of consumers.

In a separate editorial, the Economist calls for legalisation.

"The unrealistic goal of ending the sex trade distracts the authorities from the genuine horrors of modern-day slavery (which many activists conflate with illegal immigration for the aim of selling sex) and child prostitution (better described as money changing hands to facilitate the rape of a child)," the magazine writes. "Governments should focus on deterring and punishing such crimes—and leave consenting adults who wish to buy and sell sex to do so safely and privately online."