Sudhir Venkatesh has already had more than his allotted 15 minutes, but his most recent appropriation of sex workers’ lives gives us—sex workers, people in the sex trade, and allies—a moment to reflect on unethical researchers who have not yet realized that they are as much under the microscope as we are. New media and new forms of organizing building on at least 40 years of struggle for rights, means that the studies “revealing” the “secret” lives people in the sex trade are read and critiqued by members of those very same communities. Gone are the days where sociologists can effectively pretend that they speak for “silenced” or “silent” groups of people. The people who were once described as “deviant”, the drug users, the prostitutes, the “queers”, all the people whose communities were once considered a “playground” to provide the “raw materials” for academic research—the “gift that kept on giving” according to Sudhir— are not and in fact have never been compliant and silent.
SWOP-NYC and SWANK—two organizations lead by sex workers and their allies in the NYC area—have significant questions about the “research” carried out by Sudhir Venkatesh. In January 2011 members of our organizations were shocked to read a piece by Venkatesh in Wired Magazine. Here he made many outlandish, salacious, and false claims about the experiences of sex workers in NYC including suggestions that sex workers “always” carry “extra panties” with them to sell to men as souvenirs and that escorts “keep working to pay for clothes and shoes” even though they are “beaten, twice a year on average”.
We wondered about veracity of Venkatesh “findings”—he said he had “followed” 270 sex worker subjects in NYC but none of our membership had ever been contacted by him nor knew of anyone who had been—so we carefully examined the investigations he said he had done with sex workers over a ten year period. We found that his “research history” simply did not add up. Claims in articles online, in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and on the Freakonomics blog regarding the dates, locations and numbers of people in his research were wildly inconsistent. His conclusions, for example about large numbers sex workers advertising on Facebook, were easily shown by other researchers and commentators to be incorrect. Other conclusions such as the fiction that “there’s usually a 25% surcharge” to have sex without a condom not only bore no relationship to reality but also endangered sex workers and public health programs working with them.
We were so concerned by what we uncovered that in October 2011 we wrote a letter to the Columbia IRB to the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (IRB) and to the Sociology Department asking for some clarity about Sudhir Venkatesh’s research. Specifically, we asked for the research project titles, dates of research, and IRB approval numbers for each of the years he claimed to have conducted research while at Columbia University. We also wished to make Columbia University’s IRB and the Sociology Department aware of that the research appeared to create additional harms and risks for sex workers in the New York area. Our action is an example of the degree to which communities of sex workers have organized and the degree to which we will question research that we find harmful. We are no longer a “gift that keeps on giving” for Venkatesh, we are a community that speaks for itself.
But clearly we need to educate the media more about this issue. It is not so much our worry that respected publications such as The Guardian and Mother Jones have seemingly accepted that Venkatesh’s current book has some validity—though we certainly encourage these and other media outlets to be more diligent in terms of speaking to the communities supposedly “spoken” for by Venkatesh in the future—it is that Venkatesh’s whole body of work regarding sex work and other informal economies is bankrupt. And Venkatesh is simply an extreme example of an older form of sensationalist, inaccurate “research” which is becoming less and less relevant in the world today. People in the sex trade have done their own research—excellent examples are community based research by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project and the Alliance for Safe and Diverse DC—and new relationships based on mutual respect after some soul-searching about the impact of power differentials on “the researched” are now emerging all across the United States. This is the real story we wish would be covered in the media if journalists can wean themselves off from the tantalizing (yet completely fallacious) fantasy sold by people like Venkatesh.