Study Abroad

David Scher Ashland (2012) | click to enlarge

The account of a self-styled "rogue" sociologist studying upwardly mobile sex workers and drug dealers fails as scholarship and as memoir

In the late 1990s, the sociologist and soon-to-be documentary filmmaker Sudhir Venkatesh landed in New York City fresh from working with crack gangs in Chicago. Now Venkatesh needed a new subject. He spent five years looking for entree into New York’s underground, a period that left him “hungry” to prove himself at Columbia University, where he began teaching in 2000. “Years can go by before a researcher is fully accepted into any sort of group,” he writes unhappily, of deciding where he next wanted to focus his energies, “but the clock was ticking.” Finally, he met Shine, a charismatic man from Harlem who’d fixed his sights on transitioning from poor neighborhood crack dealer to rich neighborhood cocaine dealer. Venkatesh was struck by Shine’s ambition, and interested in the movement from low to high — in class, in culture, in income — that the drug dealer appeared to exemplify. The upward mobility of criminals seemed like the perfect hook for his next study.

Floating City, the resultant book, manages curiously to disavow its own academic value — Venkatesh calls it a memoir, and it is aimed at a general audience, not a scholarly one — while relentlessly asserting its author’s credentials. Venkatesh reminds himself early on of the “generalizability problem,” or the danger of extrapolating the unique circumstances of a few to describe the circumstances of many. He pledges to keep in mind the challenge of quantifying activities conducted off official records. He expresses concern about finding a large enough sample group, and professes a desire to be “rigorous and relevant” in his research. These sound goals make for uneasy bedfellows with his choice of form. Of the drug dealers and sex workers, he says he wants “to understand [their] story, and my own.” He doesn’t explain what value is to be had in telling the two stories at once.

The two-for-one tale, such as it is, describes the series of relationships Venkatesh maintains with the people from “the underworld” willing to let him into their lives. In some cases, he becomes enmeshed enough in their daily existence that he might pass as a friend. He buys a birthday present for the child of a porn shop attendant, visits the home of a madam while her contractors are coming and going, and shadows Shine on his drug runs. These anecdotes, drawn from Venkatesh’s memory and the journal he kept, illustrate the human side of what (we’re told) became hard data submitted to sociology journals, and act as occasions for introspection. Venkatesh is convinced his approach is groundbreaking: “No one really had done a study on the complicated lives of people who toiled underground.” Yet many sociologists — including Melissa Ditmore, Teela Saunders, and Ron Weitzer, among others — were publishing papers on the sex trade during this period. And the thing Venkatesh is most intrigued by — namely, the capacity of sex work to transgress class — is hardly new to the 21st century.

Floating City rests on a concept of rigid class duality that Venkatesh imagines as having been only recently complicated. If Venkatesh is to be believed, poor people and rich people had never interacted with one another before the late 90s, in the black market or beyond. He is incredulous to find that the sale of sex can act as a way for women to climb the social ladder and astonished at its capacity to render immaterial the class boundaries governing most interpersonal interactions. His surprise can only come from someone who knows nothing about the courtesans of the European Renaissance, the hetaera of ancient Greece, or even the American burlesque performers of the early 1900s. (One particularly cringe-inducing comment: “From what I read in the media, strip clubs were becoming more than just seedy places where hustlers and pimps hung out.”) The perspective is as ahistorical as it is conveniently self-serving, allowing Venkatesh to maintain his persona of cutting-edge pioneer sociologist of black markets. “This is the future being made,” he writes excitedly of rich white Americans buying drugs and sex from poor people of color. Is he ignorant or is he disingenuous? Neither possibility inspires much confidence in him as either an academic or as a journalist.

Venkatesh’s apparent unfamiliarity ith historical precedent is only one problem with the account. Another, possibly deeper one has to do with his perspective, and with whom his sympathies lie. Though Venkatesh’s relationship with Shine runs throughout the book, most of his time is spent with people involved in the sex industry: porn shop attendants, prostitutes, and madams, or, as he calls them, “brokers.” He admits that his experience of these people is colored by his own judgments, but his self-awareness doesn’t extend to his perceptions of the cops, of whom he’s notably less critical. In one instance, police steal money from women they detain. In another, they withhold information about what’s become of a missing porn shop employee. Venkatesh has no reaction to their actions beyond acceptance. In one telling passage, he says that

cops who were picking up women at bars and hotels for just regular stuff — the usual random reasons like disorderly conduct or drugs in public view — were finding hundreds or thousands of dollars on them. ‘They’re not hookers,’ [an officer] said, ‘but they have all this money.’

Why should the cash on the women be taken as proof of their selling sex? The misogyny behind the cops’ assumption goes unexamined, and the characterization of the arrests as “regular” betrays the subtle cast of Venkatesh’s allegiance. The arresting officer is assumed to have definitive information about how these women work when he’s only speculating.

Venkatesh’s inability to recognize sex workers’ mistreatment by law enforcement comes to a head when one of his subjects is assaulted, and her co-worker asks that he not report it: “I stood there, frustrated. . . .What should I do? Go along with them or call the damn police like a normal person? I didn’t want to get sucked into their criminal value structure and end up doing the wrong thing.” This alarming response encapsulates the book’s — and our narrator’s — problem. The desire to avoid arrest after suffering a brutal assault is a sensible one, not the hallmark of a “criminal value structure,” but Venkatesh can’t wrap his head around it. He believes he’s a great listener, yet can’t recognize basic facts about the lives of his subjects or accept their plea that he not intervene. Nor can he shake the idea that he is “normal” and they are deviants, that his responses are the right ones and theirs are not. Later, he refers in passing to the “lack of a friendly legal system.” But the police are not merely “unfriendly” to sex workers who dare to report robbery and rape; officers are unlikely to take their reports of victimization seriously, and commonly arrest the very people asking them for help.

Most of Venkatesh’s ostensibly empathetic statements display a similar flippancy and ignorance. “The pain these women went through was so random and pointless,” he laments at one point. The comment is sentimental at best. There is nothing random about violence against sex workers: They are targeted because they are stigmatized criminals who have no recourse when attacked. Venkatesh clings to the notion that sex work is inherently, unavoidably risky, regardless of the legal and cultural circumstances in which it takes place. When the issue of the legalization of prostitution is raised, it’s only to dismiss it as not pertaining to the book’s goals.

What small triumphs can be found in Floating City are likely attributable to the Urban Justice Center, with whom Venkatesh volunteered, and who almost certainly taught him to use the phrase “sex workers.” Mercifully, sex work as work is a concept Venkatesh understands. But old prejudices die hard, and he frequently refers to the women who share their secrets with him as “selling their bodies” and living in the “underworld” of New York, even when they’re middle class or working other legal jobs. “Can sex work become a theater of aspiration like any other job?” he muses. “Can a prostitute even have an American dream?” Perhaps Venkatesh is playing up his own thick-headedness in an attempt to win over an audience he assumes will be resistant to seeing sex workers as fellow human beings, but odds are high that these nasty, dehumanizing questions are not exaggerated for effect but lifted verbatim from his internal monologue. It’s hard to say how cannily Venkatesh depicts his own cluelessness, but consider a recent Mother Jones interview in which he generously says of his subjects, “They might be completely blind — we have a right to say that — but they also have a right to feel what they feel, which is that they're following their passion.” In Floating City he wonders, “Maybe I really did find safety in their difference, even though I kept telling the world that treating them differently was patronizing.”

Similar moments of insight, if they merit the term, are sprinkled throughout the book, usually in the form of questions, and call to mind a confused Carrie Bradshaw: “Was I studying the poor out of some prurient desire to feel better about myself?” “I defended my need to see misery firsthand as a search for truth, but was truth an excuse for voyeurism?” Venkatesh feigns personal transformation but none of his attitudes change. When he delivers the inevitable, clichéd declaration that he is giving sex workers “a voice,” a madam immediately corrects him: These women have a voice and tell their stories all the time. Yet Venkatesh insists nobly that he’s adding something “to the sum of knowledge” by recording his encounters. A nobler project might have included a few practical suggestions: a call to decriminalize drugs or prostitution, say, or to redress the income gaps enforcing power structures.

To start from a place of ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. But Venkatesh’s attempts at comprehension don’t go very far. By convincing himself he’s on virgin soil, he never has to bother to check for others’ tracks. He was cold-calling escort agencies and lurking in strip clubs, trying to find sex workers who would speak to him, at a moment when $pread, a sex worker-run quarterly magazine, was publishing to a reasonable amount of public recognition. (A professor turned me on to $pread in 2006. Our university was a subscriber; it was hardly a secret.) Blogs by exotic dancers and escorts were plentiful. And other sociologists were already releasing studies on urban sex work. Venkatesh made use of neither the available resources nor the available literature. SWOP and SWANK, two New York-based sex worker organizations, have publicly stated that Venkatesh never contacted them.

In fact, these two groups released a joint statement in the wake of Floating City arguing that Venkatesh’s “‘research history’ simply did not add up. Claims…regarding the dates, locations and numbers of people in his research were wildly inconsistent.”As if anticipating such criticism, Venkatesh includes the disclaimer that “the bulk of [the book] is not appropriate for mainstream academic social science publication.” That’s putting it mildly. What few numbers he includes don’t add up. To take one example, we’re told that Annalise, an ultra-rich trust funder who takes up madaming as a favor for her comparably rich friends, makes $10k a month in 2007 but spends $5k a month in hotels alone, to rent a room three nights per week. That’s a little over $400 per room, for which Annalise then profits about $800 or less — while allegedly servicing some of the city’s richest men.

These sums are virtual pennies in terms of real New York wealth, and the lowballing is a pattern. In both Venkatesh’s online articles and the book, he describes his subjects as “high-end” and “upper-class” workers, which he defines as women making around $50,000 a year. The moment is 2004 and 2005, pre-recession; the ceiling for a prostitute’s hourly wages in New York at that time was several thousand dollars per hour. When the FBI raided the home of the managers of the Spitzer-patronized Emperor’s Club, they found just shy of a million dollars in cash. NY Confidential, another high-profile agency, was reported to make over $100,000 in a week. The point is not that most sex workers or their agents make this much money. The point is that, given these astronomical incomes, it is dishonest to present local women earning in the mid-five figures as representing “the upper end” instead of the middle.

The error has only two possible explanations. Venkatesh either genuinely never knew some escorts made this much, or he purposefully misrepresented his findings to give his subjects greater cache. During the bust of The Emperor’s Club and subsequent escorting scandals, he claimed the women he’d studied were of this same exclusive demographic. Yet these high-earning women, he claims, are so chronically broke they will sleep with anyone — cab drivers and dentists alike — instead of paying. According to him, they borrow money from strip club owners and pay it back in the form of sex with the owners’ friends, and their use of the internet is so negligible it warrants only one aside late in the book.

Venkatesh explicitly says he doesn’t want to be a “tourist” in this world, and he isn’t. He is not a mere voyeur: He pretends to factuality while providing misinformation, claims benevolent curiosity while practicing disrespect. Near the book’s end, he presents Annalise’s rich, abusive, and alcoholic boyfriend (an aspiring porn producer) with a screen treatment of the life of one of the Latina street workers he followed, a woman who experienced assault after assault while working and eventually killed herself. The abusive boyfriend offers Venkatesh money for the film, but our hero is too gallant for that. Instead, he wants an introduction to the boyfriend’s even richer investment contacts.

Because Floating City rejects the mantle of academic work, it’s left to succeed on its strength as memoir or reportage. As a record of the lives of a marginalized populace, it is too inconsistent and too incomplete to be useful. As a memoir, it is devoid of real insight or personal evolution; Venkatesh is too comfortable with himself and his worldview to risk serious introspection. He imagines himself a worthy topic merely for his proximity to exoticized others — and how fervently he resists seeing those human beings as anything but “other.” At one point, he writes that “in the underground, [Shine] was telling me, everyone is a user and everyone is a resource.” Though the lesson is hardly unique to the “underground,” it’s one Venkatesh took to heart. If his work with sex workers has taught him anything, it’s that he can get away with using them as callously as everyone else does.