Archive for February 17th, 2011

Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education. –  Bertrand Russell

I recently stumbled on this article at Wired Magazine and was immediately impressed with the incredible stupidity and ignorance of its author, who apparently believes that if he watches one flock of pigeons in one city for a while he can safely make pronouncements about swallows in Capistrano, hawks in Africa and Adelie penguins in Antarctica.  Even with all my experience I hesitate to make general statements about all hookers everywhere, but Sudhir Venkatesh doesn’t; after talking to a bunch of streetwalkers and low-end escorts who used to be streetwalkers in New York City, he apparently considers himself expert enough to make pronouncements about “sex workers” in general.  This article has to be seen to be believed, but I warn regular readers that the only part which won’t have your jaw dropping in astonishment is the angry commentary from real whores below the main article.  So, I’ll just cover some of the highlights.

What is it like to be a prostitute?  The answer depends on whether you work out of a client’s car or a $500-a-night hotel room.  In 1999, I set out to study the effects of efforts to bring the suburban middle class back to New York City.  The gentrification of Times Square made for a unique social experiment:  What happens to sex workers when they are pushed off the streets and into the outer boroughs?  I had little idea at the time that I’d be documenting the rise of an entirely new, upper-end “indoor” market, in which streetwalkers have given way to a professional class.  The economies of big cities have been reshaped by a demand for high-end entertainment, cuisine, and “wellness” goods.  In the process, “dating,” “massage,” “escort,” and “dancing” have replaced hustling and streetwalking.  A luxury brand has been born.  These changes have made sex for hire more expensive.  But luxe pricing has in turn helped make prostitution, well… somewhat respectable.  Whereas men once looked for a secretive tryst, now they seek a mistress with no strings attached, a “girlfriend experience,” and they are willing to pay top dollar for it.

Let this sink in for a moment.  Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia, has apparently never heard of courtesans and seems to sincerely believe that upscale prostitution, stripping and massage parlors were all born in the past decade in New York City.  This represents such profound historical and sociological ignorance it literally boggles the mind.  The next paragraph is more of the same:

Technology has played a fundamental role in this change.  No self-respecting cosmopolitan man looking for an evening of companionship is going to lean out his car window and call out to a woman at a traffic light.  The Internet and the rise of mobile phones have enabled some sex workers to professionalize their trade.  Today they can control their image, set their prices, and sidestep some of the pimps, madams, and other intermediaries who once took a share of the revenue.  As the trade has grown less risky and more lucrative, it has attracted some middle-class women seeking quick tax-free income.

Undoubtedly, the rise of the internet has made it a lot easier for girls to be completely independent, but even agency girls are independent contractors and there were personals ads and referral services long before the internet was invented.  The internet has also allowed girls who might once have worked the street to inexpensively advertise to a wider audience and stay more safely indoors while doing so.  In this one respect, his findings aren’t far off-base; the problem arises when he attempts to extrapolate information gleaned from streetwalkers and ex-streetwalkers (“I followed 290 women, 170 of whom made enough (at least $30,000) to separate them from streetwalkers”) to the entire sex worker population.  And his bizarre assertion that high-end prostitution is a product of computers and cell phones would certainly surprise Phryne, Theodora, Mata Hari, Madame Pompadour or even Josie Arlington.

After interviewing 120 streetwalkers and 170 low-end escorts ($30,000 a year is very low-end, especially in New York) Venkatesh feels confident enough to pronounce that “escorts” (not low-end escorts, all escorts) earn about 50 percent more per transaction than streetwalkers (after saying the latter make about $75 per transaction), are “beaten twice a year, on average,” and “keep working to pay for clothing and shoes.”  Just a bit of perspective here:  In New Orleans (a cheaper market than New York) during the time period of the study agency escorts charged an average of $300 (of which they kept $200) and independents $200, and I never met a girl who was literally beaten by a client, ever.  And I guess they’ve never heard of things like “rent”, “food”, “gasoline”, “electricity bills” and “children” up at Columbia.  He also declares that independent escorts “have to” pay for drugs for clients, which is as amazingly stupid an assertion as any in this mess; it would be a foolish escort indeed who agreed to bring drugs to a client since the very request screams “cop”, and the idea that she would pay for such out of her own pocket leads me to believe that some of these girls were pulling Venkatesh’s leg.

It just goes downhill from there; we are told that nearly all escorts have a day job (in reality a minority do), that a boob job will increase earning potential about 50% (obviously he’s never heard of “spinners”), and that bottle-blondes make more money (they don’t; I got just as many requests for brunettes).  “Caitlyn” sold this sucker on the idea that mid-range escorts spend $2000 per month on shoes, and he somehow got the notion that a girl with four regulars making $80,000 a year is “high-end” in New York.  The professor says all sex workers (even, apparently, strippers and PSOs) “always” carry two cell phones because “Guys sometimes grab a woman’s mobile to gain a sense of power and control” (perhaps that happens to New York streetwalkers from time to time, but I’ve never heard of it) and that “If the client wants to skip the condom, there’s usually a 25 percent surcharge” (no, there’s usually a boot out the door for such a request, and even among desperate street girls or semi-pros who agree to it there’s no “usual” charge because desperation is not a predictable thing).  But in the end, he reveals his methodological flaws in spades:  though 61% of his interviewees had used Craigslist at one time or another, according to his graphs only 8-15% advertised via “personal referral or other”, with that “other” containing every other means of internet advertising including Backpage, Eros, personal websites, review boards, etc, etc, etc…in other words, his “study” ignored somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% of the whores in New York.

The only remotely interesting thing about the study (outside of its author’s capacity for self-delusion) is that he claims to have encountered 290 streetwalkers and low-end escorts but only 11 pimps.  Considering that like most people he was probably predisposed to overestimate the percentage of girls with pimps the number is a tantalizingly low 3.8%; unfortunately his worthless methodology renders even that number unusable, which is too bad because otherwise it would’ve been a great statistic to quote.

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