IRB blues: s. venkatesh v. new york sex workers

A group of sex workers in New York city has openly criticized Sudhir Venkatesh’ recent ethnography of New York sex workers. There are many criticisms, one stands out for me. An article from the Museum of Sex blog relates how SWOP-NYC and SWANK, two sex worker groups thought that Venkatesh’ work increased the risk to prostitutes by reporting that clients could opt out of condoms for a 25% surcharge:

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 2011we 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.

For me, the IRB issue sticks out for legalistic reason. How exactly does a third party appeal to an IRB board? It’s obvious if the aggrieved person is a research subject. But what about third parties? Let’s say that SWOP & SWANK are correct that this book/article increases risk, what responsibility (if any) does an IRB board have?

The issue is unclear because IRB’s themselves are muddled institutions. They don’t operate through statute or contract. It’s an ad hoc administrative unit set up by universities to make sure research complies with federal guidelines. At most, they can inTterfere in research if you cross them. But they aren’t penal institutions – there’s no IRB police.  There’s no “human subjects 9-11.” Even though I am sympathetic to the claim that ethnographic publications may endanger at risk groups, it is unclear to me how third parties may leverage genuine concern into an actionable complaint.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 11, 2013 at 2:24 am

16 Responses

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  1. There’s a sex worker by the name of, Charlotte Shane, who published a devastating review of Floating City in last month’s issue of The New Inquiry. There’s lots in that piece for sociologists to ponder, but also some new questions raised about the validity of Venkatesh’s data:

    “What few numbers [Venkatesh] 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.”



    November 11, 2013 at 3:03 am

  2. I’m gonna take a firm line on this. No third party standing at IRB ever. Otherwise it’s just an open-ended invitation for people who don’t like the conclusions of the research to harass researchers. If they think the research is inaccurate they can issue a sharply critical report on their website or collaborate with other researchers (who have every career incentive to debunk a famous study).

    And lest you think “well, I do sympathize with making sure sex workers aren’t pressured into unprotected sex” or “well, there’s a certain smoke/fire issue with this particular research project” or parallel concerns about a certain other much discussed and ethically-adjudicated research project that shall go unnamed, remember that these kinds of precedents get applied not just to people you don’t trust or for research that supports policies/behaviors you disagree with, but for stuff that you like. If you sympathize with SWOP/SWANK, fine, but remember that you’re opening the door to let some wannabe Coburn harass stuff you sympathize with more.

    btw, if third parties disagree with research and manage to identify subjects who have a grievance about their treatment qua subjects, then that’s legit, let the IRB hear it. For example Bailey is within his rights to present a theory of M2F transgender people that many of them find offensive, but it was entirely appropriate that NU IRB heard complaints from research subjects about seduction or the nature of informed consent for interviews.



    November 11, 2013 at 3:19 am

  3. I have no specific knowledge of this particular research, but the question of third party standing in the IRB is a red herring. The true issue is the responsibility of the institution to limit the risks facing participants in university research. The IRB is an agent of the institution and has most of its impact in limiting risks a priori. But the institution is required to report unexpected outcomes, particularly if risks that were not anticipated in the approved research protocol surface. So the university must respond to allegations, particularly if their agent failed to assess the scope of risk. And even if the IRB performed adequately, the institution has responsibility if the researcher puts subjects or populations at risk through carelessness, ineptitude, or fraud.



    November 11, 2013 at 3:55 am

  4. If you contact Zachary Schrag, the historian who studies IRBs, you can probably find out if there’s a precedent for this. His blog is:


    Chris M

    November 11, 2013 at 4:17 am

  5. Well, the bottom two-thirds of the linked IRB complaint is rather silly, but the first third asks an important question that no one (in any of the linked articles, either) has actually addressed: did Venkatesh actually receive IRB clearance for his project, and did that clearance cover what he did? He calls the book a “memoir,” and I see from Amazon that it includes an “author’s note.”

    I won’t purchase the work of a discredited liar, but perhaps if someone else has bought it–to use as a doorstop or as a shim for a wobbly desk?–it might be worth seeing if there is any discussion of his ethical procedure whatsoever.



    November 11, 2013 at 1:25 pm

  6. Although I think the allegations against Venkatesh are serious, I agree that third party complaints probably cannot be brought up with the IRB. However, I would think that perhaps the existence of such complaints and allegations in public forums should be something that would influence IRBs for any future research he conducts.



    November 11, 2013 at 6:29 pm

  7. […] IRB blues: s. venkatesh v. new york sex workers ( […]


  8. I’m not sure if the IRB is the right place to turn, but as a Columbia alum and a sociologist, I’d say this is very troubling. Especially since it appears to be part of a pattern. Remember this: (Maybe when someone calls themselves a “rouge,” we should take them seriously.) And how cool is it when our research subjects talk back, and sound more hard-headed about research than many sociologists? (



    November 12, 2013 at 2:33 am

  9. In addition to ethical issues, perhaps part of the problem is in the presentation and/or interpretation of qualitative data. A few sex workers might indeed be charging a 25% surcharge to opt out of condoms, but certainly not all or even majority of sex workers in NYC.



    November 12, 2013 at 3:27 am

  10. Good discussion. ICYMBI, this is a lovely review…



    November 12, 2013 at 10:54 am

  11. Fabio,

    How are we to properly Venkatesh-bash if you confuse the issue with all of this boring IRB stuff? Oh, what’s that? Thank you @hector. Book review of the year! Can we get Jonathan Dee to write for Contemporary Sociology?



    November 12, 2013 at 11:30 am

  12. Randy is right – if there is a case, it’s against the university, not the IRB in specific. The IRB is a university committee whose job is to approve university personnel to carry out certain research in certain ways.



    November 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm

  13. Thanks for the link to the review Hector. My favorite line from the review: “His new book is little more than a vanity project, a tedious series of selfies with various dealers and madams and whores, and there is never any question that is more interesting to the author – neither his subjects nor the drama of his heroic efforts to understand them.”


    brayden king

    November 12, 2013 at 4:00 pm

  14. For what it’s worth, I have written a boring, positive review of the book.

    It starts like that: “In an unusual genre between fieldwork account and memoir, Sudhir Venkatesh proposes a sociological exploration of the informal economy of New York City. His ethnography of drug-dealers and sex-workers constitutes an occasion for him to reflect upon the limitations of “academic sociology”.”



    November 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm

  15. I actually like many of the points made in the review but I think that we need to be clear on definitions. The
    ILO has done a lot of work defining the informal economy and my sense is that the literature makes a distinction between the informal economy and the illegal economy. The informal economy includes activities and products that are otherwise legal. I think it is a distinction that is important to keep in mind…



    November 13, 2013 at 5:14 am

  16. i definitely think this article overplays the “outsider” status of alice goffman vis-a-vis the academy. but the favorable buzz surrounding her book is the clearest evidence yet that venkatesh’s star has peaked within the discipline. so hopefully the field will get a better role model for studying the highly marginalized and precarious:



    November 20, 2013 at 6:50 pm

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