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You Can Find Capitalism in Da Club

Though “financial coercion” is something of a phrase du jour for hand-wringers describing unsavory employment decisions by women, there is a new phrase in town that seeks to take its throne. It is “consensual trafficking,” and it is brought to you by a New York Times opinion piece on Sunday entitled “Who Runs the Girls?” by Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University.

This piece chronicles Mears’s time working in VIP nightclubs, which she did in order to “study” the men operating them and the other women working in them. The latter group largely served as decorations and social lubricants between powerful men, while the former reaped most of the benefits. Noting how women “were cut out from the value that their own circulation generated” in this process, Mears goes so far as to call it “a system of trafficking in women.” Mears clarifies that this trafficking is consensual, and spends much of the piece laying a thin layer of blame and shame on the women who engage in this world of unequal pay and lopsided power.

Mears gets off to a running start by explaining how the men in the club scene call these women “girls,” and then proceeds to call them “girls” herself for the remainder of the piece. She explains, “Girls rarely pay to be in V.I.P. nightclubs, but neither are they typically paid to be there, accepting instead gifts and perks like free drinks and even housing.” It is telling that Mears does not consider payment in goods and housing to be payment at all; she apparently believes that the only legitimate exchange is currency for services rendered. She later continues, “Beneath the glamour is an unbalanced economy in which girls generate far greater profit for men than their free drinks are worth.” But in fact, it is the larger capitalist economy itself, and not the nightclub economy in particular, where compensation never matches the value of the labor.

That women have less to gain through these largely ornamental roles should be no real surprise, not because of the insidiousness of male power in the VIP nightclub scene, but because of the insidiousness of male power in our current economic systems. Though the reign of the male gaze is more explicit in the nightclub, its borders stretch well beyond the velvet rope. The value of the labors performed by women’s bodies and minds are constantly (and historically) undervalued. So to single out the women who have been selected for a certain form of labor is to make both a category error and to compartmentalize that which is universal: women’s work is undervalued. Beyond the irresponsible conflation of even the most minimally sexualized forms of labor as “trafficking,” Mears fails to mention that the system to which the women are participating is not a malevolent nightclub scene that exists independent of an otherwise egalitarian utopia.

“Why do women consent to their own exploitation?” she ponders. It is worth taking a moment to consider a few possibilities for this troubling phenomenon. Well, despite its many merits, witchcraft has an uninspiring track record of generating sustainable income for women across the centuries. Direct flights to Pyongyang are few and far between, and housing is a nightmare to secure upon arrival. There is exciting thought leadership leading in the direction of all-female misandrist death cults, but for now, they are still remain in the online-planning stages. And so it is without other options that women submit quietly to life under capitalism, and by extension, to their own exploitation. Mears, it seems, has not considered this possibility. She posits instead that “Flattered egos, of course, play a role.”

Near the end of her piece, Mears uses the following hypothetical to illustrate the power differentials that facilitate exploitation:

The unequal ability of one person to capitalize on another is a classic case of exploitation. Imagine that the Hamptons businessmen hold meetings with the private equity C.E.O., in part because I softened their introduction. In two years, perhaps their investment fund will be cranking out profits, while I’ll be turning 36, and no longer welcome at the party. What may seem like an agreeable quid pro quo looks different in the long run, when women age out of the system without any returns on the time they invested. What’s really troubling is that no one even sees it as a lost investment, in part because it feels so good.

The work performed in this particular situation was the “softening” of an introduction between two businessmen, a decidedly feminine form of labor. But this is not the exclusive purview of hired party girls. This is also the work of professional event planners, 76 percent of whom were women in 2011. This is also the work of human resources professionals, over 70 percent of whom were women in the same year. That this labor is performed by women outside the stodgy contexts of business-casual and office cubicles makes those women no less a part of the workforce.

If the women she studied did indeed report their lack of concern about this imbalance in the system, it is not made clear in Mears’s piece. But she assumes that they don’t mind being objectified and used in this transactional way. Instead, she writes:

When it comes to women, popular culture confuses pleasure and power. Sure, girls may run the world, but men run the girls. And the girls don’t seem to mind all that much.

So she is troubled, then, by a phantom claim from these women that their lost investment is acceptable when there are so many good feelings to feel. This is surely the result of their easily flattered egos, and not the result of the deeply ingrained doctrine that it is our work that both makes us good, and should, in turn, make us feel good.

In fact, what is more troubling than the role these women play at the club is the one that they play in Mears’s piece. Serving as waifish props in a narrative that makes them complicit in their own exploitation, they are extended the courtesies of neither name nor nuance. Mears seems more interested in using their experiences to illustrate her own points than in demonstrating their humanity from inside a system designed to dismantle it. But when given the opportunity for a Times byline, the prospect of a flattered ego could make anyone consent to perform unsavory forms of labor.