October 19, 2023
What interesting social phenomena can be observed at nightclubs? What are "whales" hoping to achieve by spending big at nightclubs? Trying too obviously to increase social status tends to backfire; so how can people buy status without appearing to do so? What do "promoters" gain from these social interactions? How does their work differ from or overlap with sex work? How can they make money without being seen as "gold-diggers"? What ethnicities tend to comprise these nightclub groups? How do wealthy people attempt to navigate the norms of the various elite substrata which expect them both to put their wealth on display and to do so without being ostentatious or gaudy?
Ashley Mears is a professor of sociology and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Boston University, and she's the co-founder of the Ethnographic Cafe and BU's Precarity Lab. She received her BA in sociology from the University of Georgia in 2002 and her PhD in sociology at New York University in 2009. Working primarily at the intersections of economic and cultural sociology and gender, she studies how societies value people and things; she researches value and exchange in the context of labor, beauty, free stuff, elites, consumption, and social media; and she has written on theory and qualitative methods. She has held visiting positions at the University of Amsterdam and the Central European University in Budapest. In 2021-2022, she was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Budapest. She currently serves on the editorial boards of American Sociological Review and Qualitative Sociology. Learn more about her at her website, ashleymears.com.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Ashley Mears about the sociology of nightclubs, bodily capital, and empowerment.
SPENCER: Ashley, welcome.
ASHLEY: Hi, thank you.
SPENCER: I read your book, "Very Important People," a number of years ago, and I just thought it was such a fascinating exploration of human psychology, but through a very unusual lens — the lens of nightclubs in New York — which is such a surprising way to approach that topic. I've been doing a sequence of podcast episodes lately, exploring different extremes of psychology or different niches of psychology that I think can teach us a lot about psychology generally. So I view this conversation in that general genre. But why don't you tell us by just starting with your story of how you got into the nightclub scene in New York, and then we'll talk about how you use that as a way to study psychology more broadly.
ASHLEY: It's great that you see the connections with psychology. I'm actually a sociologist, which means that we study social organization and social groups with a focus on identity as well, but rooted in the broader context usually, than what psychologists look at. I did my training at NYU. You went there as well, yeah?
SPENCER: I did. Yeah, I did my PhD there.
ASHLEY: Yeah. So I was doing my PhD at NYU and I was doing a dissertation on the fashion modeling industry. My background is kind of unusual for an academic. I worked as a fashion model when I was an undergraduate in the University of Georgia. I was modeling in Atlanta which is this really small catalog market. And then I traveled a little bit, and when I got into grad school to study sociology —- which is a topic that I fell in love with as an undergrad —- I retired at the old age of 23, which is actually old for a model. And I started back up again in grad school, studying the modeling industry, and then that became a book. And while I was doing the research at NYU, I was going on castings and hanging out with a lot of models and interviewing them, and it's really just about market dynamics in modeling. But at the castings that I was going to, I would meet these men who worked at nightclubs. And then it turns out, there's this parallel beauty economy in nightlife that really relies on unpaid labor of beautiful women, such as fashion models. So models and model castings are a great recruiting ground for people that work for nightclubs, who want to bring in the so-called 'right crowd.' So, there I was in New York and I was going to castings. I met these men who introduced themselves as club promoters. They're very charming and very skilled at getting a girl's phone number. So I gave them my phone number. I actually went out with a couple of promoters at that time when I was in grad school, but focused on finishing my PhD, working on the book. And then it was 2011, and my first book called "Pricing Beauty" was coming out, and I was not really sure what my next topic would be. By the way, when I gave them my phone number, they're relentless in sending text messages inviting me to come out. I went out with a couple of promoters just a couple of times but the follow-up messages were just relentless for years. I would get these text messages that are like, "Hey, baby, you want to come for sushi dinner?" or "Come to the Hamptons this weekend." And I was like, "No, I'm good. Thanks." But I kept getting these messages years later, because one of the things that I found out later is that they're texting 1000 people a day, and they're just constantly trying to get girls to come out with them. So I got back in touch with them. At one point, I just replied to one of their messages. I was 32 already. I was working towards tenure. I lived in Boston, and I was a professor. But I was one day like, "Yeah, I want to come to the club. I want to come to get that sushi dinner, say hi." So that's how I got back into the club world.
SPENCER: Were you motivated to explore it from a sociological perspective? Or were you just doing it out of curiosity?
ASHLEY: Oh, yeah.
SPENCER: Oh, you were.
ASHLEY: After my first book came out, I was actually a little panicked trying to think about what would be my next big project because, once you finish a book, there's a huge relief and sense of accomplishment. But also it's kind of deflating because it's like, what's next? And I had some ideas, nothing was really going anywhere. And it was 2011. The context was... you remember Occupy Wall Street? It was around this time that discourse was about global financial inequality and wealth inequality in particular. And there was new attention within sociology to study the elites. Inequality is something that all sociologists really care about, but the dynamics of inequality are not driven by the poor necessarily getting poorer, but actually the rich people getting richer. And the global recession in 2008 meant that a lot of people were really still suffering. And yeah, I was finding all of these reports of oligarchs who were going to clubs in London. I was reading about bankers who were still getting these remarkable bonuses and partying with very lavish party scenes in St. Tropez. And then I had these promoters who I knew were connected into that world. And so I wanted to understand how all of this conspicuous consumption and elite wealth and showing it off was possible at that moment. And of course, I knew that it was related to the fashion models, and I knew that I would have an entry because I used to model and I knew the people who were recruiting models. So I had this backdoor into studying something that I could tell was important.
SPENCER: Okay, so you decide to take them up on their offer. You go hang out with the promoters. What was your first impression? And what did they actually do with you?
ASHLEY: Yeah, so ethnography — the method that I employ, participant observation, it's in sociology, also anthropology — we have this idea that you want to be useful for people and not get in the way. And for me, it was extremely easy, because promoters are people who work on a per night contract basis for clubs, and they get paid, depending on the amount of good-looking women that they bring to a party. So I just brought my high heels, put on my makeup, made an effort to try to blend in, to add value to the promoters, to be valuable to them. And in exchange, they allowed me to follow them, not just at night, but during the day. That's really critical because there's a huge amount of organization that goes into making nightlife. One promoter told me there can be no night without the day.
SPENCER: Now did they know that you were sociologically studying them?
ASHLEY: Yeah. And I think that for many of them, that was actually an asset. It was a kind of an ego stroke for them. The majority of promoters are men, and they're not from elite or even highly-educated backgrounds, the majority of them. Many of them hadn't gone to college. The thing that they all had in common was that they have incredible social skills and they like to party. They're the life of the party so they can attract a crowd and mobilize energy in that crowd. Promoters themselves also are situated as brokers in piecing together a party with a lot of wealthy people. So they saw themselves as having this unique and (from their own vantage point) remarkable access to the elite. They wanted to share their stories. They liked the idea that a professor, somebody who had a PhD, who had written a book... I would give them a copy of my first book. I'd say, "I want to write a book about your world, because it's really fascinating." And they themselves saw it as fascinating and they wanted to talk about it with me.
SPENCER: Tell us about what they would actually do with you. So you'd go meet up for dinner to start? Is that how it would begin each night?
ASHLEY: Yeah, so rather, I did what all of the girls do, which is follow through on an implicit contract or expectation that is quite transactional. Promoters become friends with girls, take them out during the day for lunches, drive them to their castings. They have these big SUVs that they strategically buy so they can fit a lot of girls in it and drive them around to their castings. They take the girls to the movies, whatever. And then once they build these social ties and all of this reciprocity and sense of obligation and sense of friendship among the girls, then the girls are expected to show up and (quote, unquote) 'support' the promoter. And the girls use the language of support and friendship rather than transactions or labor. So basically, I would follow promoters during the day. I would be helpful to them if I could. And then I would meet up at dinner, as expected. Dinner began usually around 10 pm in a comp — compliments of the house restaurant — that's usually tied in some way to the nightclub. So restaurants also have an interest in having beautiful women sit at their otherwise-empty tables. Or maybe the restaurant is partially owned, either by someone who owns the club or has invested in the club. So there's this whole network of business people who are interested in profiting off of the beauty of women. So I would show up for the dinner. I might be one of ten or 20 girls that are sitting at a big table or a couple of tables. We get our comp dinner and then after dinner, like around 12, we go to the club. And I would try to stay out as late as the promoters, which usually goes until three, sometimes four, sometimes much later. And yeah, I dressed the part, I looked the part. The only thing I didn't do very much of was drink. So I would take notes while I was there, tapping them out on my phone, which is pretty normal behavior in a nightclub. I don't know if you've been in a club lately, but everybody's on their phones, even on the dance floor.
SPENCER: The tapping on your phone maybe; maybe not so much the notes about what's happening at the club.
ASHLEY: [laughs] Right. Yeah, so I looked like everybody else, just taking notes. Or sometimes I might run to the bathroom if I really wanted to write something long. Yeah, and I would attend these parties in New York, primarily in the Meatpacking District. I went with promoters when they go on trips where they're hosting parties on weekends, for instance, in the Hamptons, or on special weeks, like in Miami or in St. Tropez. So I traveled with them and I tried to, not only not get in the way, but also be of value.
SPENCER: These clubs you'd go to, I imagine they're quite high-end, expensive clubs.
ASHLEY: There's an ecology of nightlife that, basically, any proclivity that you have, there's a club that will serve it somewhere, especially in a place like New York. But for this particular world, it's offering expensive bottles of alcohol in what's called table service or bottle service. In bottle service, rather than go to the bar to get your drinks, you sit at a table and somebody brings you the bottles of alcohol with the ice and the mixers and you sit there for the night. It's like you rent a little piece of real estate in the club and the prices are pretty high. Depending on the night and which table and which DJ is in town or whatever, it might cost $1,000 to sit at that table for a few hours, or it might cost several thousand dollars at a minimum. And from there, people start all kinds of really interesting and elaborate spending rituals that are intended to show off their wealth in this space to everybody else, and that is ordering large bottles of champagne that come with fireworks or these little sparklers that burn. Some people order a lot of that champagne. Some people gift bottles to each other. There's all these kinds of interesting rituals that people play out in order to show that they're a person of great importance in an otherwise very important people place.
SPENCER: So they're charging for the table and the alcohol, but the alcohol is marked up to some insane degree. You're paying dramatically more than you'd buy it anywhere else.
ASHLEY: Yeah, for sure. There was a moment in Miami, I was with these promoters and people were just passing around bottles of Cristal to drink. Forget the champagne glasses, just drink from the bottle. (This is of course pre-COVID.) And at one point, I get this bottle handed to me, and it's Rosé Cristal. I'm just looking at the bottle and I realize that the price of it is something like the equivalent of my rent for a whole month in Boston. But if you leave the club with even an unopened bottle, the value of it drops precipitously, because what you're paying for is actually the experience. You're not buying the liquid; you're rather buying the ability to show off to other people who are also high status, and to feel high status, to perform status in this space.
SPENCER: What is the vibe like within the club that actually facilitates the showing off of status? Like, how are some of the tables arranged? And where are these attractive women that have agreed to come into it, and so on?
ASHLEY: The club is organized in a very specific and deliberate manner, such that really big spenders are known before they arrive at the club. And that's because their fixers have contacted the place or the managers are aware of who's in town because they're in touch. They have relationships already with really big spenders, who are called whales. You'll know that term 'whales' from finance and from casinos. These are people that make really, really big splashes when they come through town. So whales and big spenders will always get the prime real estate in the club, which is, you could probably guess, the tables that are closest to the DJ booth because everybody's attention in a club is usually focused on the DJ. These were predominantly electronic music formats for the clubs, sometimes hip hop nights as well. The club is also very attuned to the likelihood of spending will be greater if there's a high volume of perceived high-quality women. Quality refers to a woman's beauty that is approximating the look of a fashion model. So the closer she looks like a fashion model in height, in face, in shape, and also accessories with the right high heels. In particular, the high heels at the time were four inches with a little platform built in. It means that she's not going to be doing a lot of dancing, but she's going to look very beautiful and also be striking to the eye because of her height. And then when there's ten of them gathered together, it has a halo effect of making people around her also look more important, more valuable. So clubs will have promoters whose job is to bring those models and sit next to the whales, again, with the expectation that if a big spender is surrounded by a high status audience, he's more likely to try to make a big show, or to show his status with the tools that they provide, which are high-priced bottles of alcohol with sparklers.
SPENCER: Now, they're getting some kind of status from being there. But I could see at least two different explanations for what's going on with that status. One is that they're actually trying to create status among a specific group of people, like they're going to keep seeing these people again and again, and they want to seem cool to that group. The other is it's more like the ephemeral high that you might get from a jolt of status. Imagine that you're on the beach and you do a backflip, and then there's some strangers standing around and they think you're really cool because you just did a backflip. You don't expect to see them again. But maybe you still get this rush of, "Oh, I feel really cool. They thought that I did something really neat." So how much expectation is there that they would ever actually be able to re-see the same people who are witnessing this?
ASHLEY: Both of those explanations are accurate and not mutually exclusive. So absolutely, the high of the experience is what a club is after, but not just a nightclub. I think all kinds of collective rituals that we have in social life — religious events, sporting events, protests — all of these are spaces where people's co-presence, when they're focused on something together, really can create a high of cultural experience. The social theorist, Emile Durkheim, called this collective effervescence, losing yourself to the sense of the group. And I think electronic music, or really all music, any kind of music event, is a really great way in which you can tap into that energy of the crowd. And a really good DJ is skilled in doing exactly that, building up those moments where people really can feel this otherworldly belonging and connection with each other. By the way, drugs also help with that, and people are taking drugs here as well. So yeah, people are chasing that feeling. It's the kind of thrill that can be afforded in a night. And you can imagine, for people who like electronic music, for young people who like to party, that's what they're after in going out. But there's another dynamic that's going on, which is indeed the production of status and recognition within the group. And so people do have repeated interactions. I liken it to a global elite tribe, because people are going from place to place at certain times where they expect people like them to be. Traveling from Miami to Cannes to St. Tropez to The Hamptons to New York, I would see the same people. I would, of course, see the same promoters and some of the same girls, but even the same clients. The global elite, of course, as we know, are very highly mobile, and they're traveling and nomadic, and so they can hit all of these different places.
SPENCER: Is there a certain schedule that they're following?
ASHLEY: Yeah, absolutely. There have been maps of private jet rentals that show where peak destination's happening and you can see St. Barts in the winter, St. Tropez in the summer. One nice example that I found was in August in New York, one of the big clubs, this top VIP place, was closed for a couple of weeks in August. And they put on their door that they were pausing operations in August to be with the [club name] family in St. Tropez for the summer holidays. So every year, there's no business happening in New York in August because all of them are in the Mediterranean. People within this small network are aware of one another. They're showing off to one another. But it's not necessarily the production of status as much as it is the production of just reputation, which is not necessarily good reputation, if you think about the meanings that people can infer from you if you are known to be the person that's spending $100,000 in a night on champagne. This means you have this disreputable gossip around what kind of a person you are, if you're spending like that. So yeah, some of the bigger whales were talked about with a lot of disdain and a lot of suspicion. But a lot of the clients that I got to know and got to talk with — people that worked in finance and tech and real estate, they were based in New York, but they were also traveling to St. Tropez — they would talk about this circuit as being an important space for them to belong in, not necessarily to stand out in, but to be a part of. Because on the margins, it could be helpful for them to connect to other potential business elites like themselves to talk about like, "Oh, yeah, I was in St. Tropez that year, I was part of the scene," and so it helps foster elite belonging,
SPENCER: There seems like there's a few different things going on here. There's the networking aspect or the value of being part of this network. There's the immediate thrill, maybe, of everyone looking at you and feeling like you're cool. There's the longer-term reputation creation, although it's maybe not always positive. Do you think from the point of view of the big whales that are dropping $100,000 in a night, do they feel like they're making a positive impression? I presume that it attracts a lot of sycophantic kind of attention where the people that are annoyed by it probably don't tell them and other people will kiss up to them, I would suspect.
ASHLEY: I didn't get very good access to the very biggest whales. The ones that I spoke to that were in the scene, some of them had been big spenders before but always talked about themselves as like a reformed person and saw that as their bad younger years where they were more reckless with money. There was maybe one instance where somebody just outright justified that, even though they dropped 50 grand in a night, it was worth more in the long run, because they were able to connect with another elite who opened up business opportunities. But generally, people would talk for sure about their spending in these places as being valuable for their productive lives. This is one interesting thing about conspicuous consumption. It's bad behavior. Everybody knows that if you try to buy status, and if you're caught trying to buy status, that's low status behavior. So spending like this in a club and going for all of the status signals has to be justified in some ways. It's like, "Oh, I was caught in the moment. I did this silly thing when I was younger," or "Yeah, I blow my money but I also work really hard. And this is important for my work life." People had all kinds of different justifications for it. But certainly in the moment, I think a club is just really good at normalizing and orchestrating these kinds of huge expenditures to happen and, not just to happen, but to feel good.
SPENCER: So how are they achieving that beyond the elements you've already mentioned? Are they doing other things that drive that behavior?
ASHLEY: Definitely, it's the audience, as I said, having an audience of other people that are seen as high status — women who are beautiful or other people who are elites or, in some ways, convey eliteness in the way that they look — expenditures or making a big show with the display of your money simply won't happen if the audience is not seen or recognized as a high status audience. Like any show, getting the audience right is important. They offer all kinds of tools that make it possible to show off. Shaking and spraying champagne bottles, for instance, wasting champagne, having somebody shake it and spray champagne is very different than if it were red wine. [laughs] So there are these particular kinds of tools that make these rituals possible. The fireworks display is another kind of important symbol because it lights up the entire space and it draws the eye in. So yeah, clubs facilitate and enable. Club owners also, the few that I was able to talk to, were quite proud of the way that they understood competition among clients and how they could arouse competition by putting two clients faced off opposite each other near the DJ booth. So if one guy buys a bunch of champagne that comes out with sparklers, then shortly after, they'll try to egg on the person sitting opposite which creates this line of competition going in the club. The DJ sometimes will interrupt the music to announce who just bought what. [laughs] So this also is like shining a spotlight on people. I'm laughing right now and I think about how juvenile it is but I also just found it seamless and the fact that it just works. And then to the casual observer, if you just walked into one of these places, you would think it just looks so spontaneous, but it's really organized.
SPENCER: When I was younger growing up in Manhattan, I would go to clubs sometimes with my friends in high school. But then occasionally, I would end up in these higher end clubs. For example, one of my friends' fathers actually started a club that ended up being a higher end club. A friend of a friend was a promoter and he would actually invite us to some higher end clubs when it was an off night and he didn't mind having people like us around. [laughs] I'm not a fashion model. So I did have some experiences in these clubs and I always just kind of felt like an alien watching it. There was something baffling to me about it because people are dropping 1000s of dollars and I was like, "What are you getting out of this?" Also there's this memory I have from when I was younger, a friend of mine growing up became an investment banker, and this was maybe a couple years after he'd become an investment banker. He's making tons of money and I go out with him and some friends and we just have a nice evening and just get a normal dinner. And at the dinner, for no apparent reason, he just gets up and orders an incredibly expensive bottle of champagne, which probably increased the price of the dinner by a factor of five or ten. And then he pays for it. And I was like, "That was so weird. Why did he do that?" And then after, I hear him talking on the phone to a friend of his, and he says, "Oh, yeah, tonight was a really cheap night. I only spent $500." And I was just like, "What is this mentality? It's such a strange worldview." So that got me thinking that maybe there's actually certain subcultures that teach a mentality like this, like maybe investment banking tends to. So I'm curious about the professions of these people or where they came from that may have fostered some of this mentality.
ASHLEY: I think that in economic sociology, there's a keen understanding that how you make your money shapes how you earmark it, how you think about it, and how you spend it. So people who make big windfalls of cash are more likely to be loose with their money on the assumption that easy come, easy go, and make more, certainly people who are young and have come into a lot of money quickly, like people in investment banking or crypto investors, for sure. There's a culture of spending that I think corresponds with the ease in which it seems that money comes in. Yeah, I think that that's happening. What's really interesting, I still remember, is the flip side of this are the models — the women who are brought in to beautify the space — they're working in a highly competitive industry where workers are very disposable, have very few protections. It's extremely precarious trying to work as a fashion model. The promoters are recruiting models who are newcomers to the city. Why? Because they don't have their own networks. And they usually don't have any money to afford eating dinner on their own, let alone going out. They're also recruiting from the universities, by the way, like NYU. I had a couple of dinners with the NYU students who were recruited by promoters who are looking around in the West Village for young girls that are good looking. They probably don't have a lot of disposable income if they're college students, and so they might be more interested in coming out for a night. So you have this economically precarious set of women who don't have any financial power, but have all of this beauty capital, or body capital, we could call it. They're strategically brought into a space where people will then spend 1000s of dollars to party in their presence. The club is capturing all of that money, the promoter is taking a share, and the models, the girls, don't get paid. I use the term "girls" here in quotes because it's a term that everybody in the nightlife world uses to refer to any woman, including a 32-year-old professor who's hanging out like I was also a girl. A girl is a kind of social category that refers to this type of woman who's valuable in this space. So they're adding all of this value and it's simply not fungible for them in the same way that they're producing all of these economic returns to an industry. So I often think of this VIP nightlife as an industry that's run by men and for men, but on girls.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. Could you elaborate a bit more on what are the (quote unquote) "girls" getting out of this? Obviously, there's probably an element of fun. They get things for free. But can you elaborate on some of the other elements, like maybe a proximity to power that might be exciting or interesting or feel like it could help them in some way?
ASHLEY: Yeah, of course. I think that all of that is really, really important to recognize as this really seductive pull in the background. This is a population of people who are brought into an industry that is hagiographied to young people around the world as the pinnacle of women's success, to be a glamorous fashion model. Modeling is a winner-take-all industry. That means that there's a tiny apex of people at the very top, like the Gigi Hadids, who are just making tons of money and their names are well known and they're extremely successful. But the base underneath them is this huge bottom of people who are pursuing this dream under pretty bad working conditions. The models come in, and they get recruited to places like New York. One of the things that I discovered in researching "Pricing Beauty" is that modeling agencies are investing quite heavily in models that they think might become winners, but more likely are not going to be, and so they're paying in advance for plane tickets, visas, apartments and some pocket money, which might be $150 or $200 a week. What can you experience in New York if you are new to the city and surviving off of pocket money, living in an overcrowded model apartment which might be located in Jersey? So enter the promoter. A promoter is opening up possibilities for the model, first, for social network and for companionship. Models that are new to New York, they don't know where to go; they don't know who to hang out with. Promoters can be extremely valuable in offering them access to a network. Promoters make themselves extremely valuable in these women's lives by offering them services: driving them to and from their castings, taking them for lunch, being friends with them, and also romantically being involved with them. Many promoters were quite strategic about having model girlfriends. We could talk about the level of strategy [laughs] and what are the ethics around that. There's these practical benefits: there's the free meal that many of them need. But also, there's the subsidized night out, and in this exciting, glamorous city that they've been recruited into as the face of, they can't actually materially access it because, for many people, the crisis of affordability makes so many of the things that these cities are celebrated for, just completely inaccessible. So promoters give them access. A club that's VIP — for very important people — necessarily is exclusive. It means that a lot of people can't get in. That's where it gets its value from, the rarity of being able to access it. If you're one of the people that gets in and gets celebrated for your beauty, that itself is extremely appealing and seductive and problematic, because it reproduces hierarchies among women, and reproduces the idea that women's value is primarily in their beauty. And yet, it is seductive and it is fun.
SPENCER: You mentioned hierarchy among women. If I recall from your book, there was some kind of ranking system of the girls. How did that work?
ASHLEY: One of the promoters told me everybody in this club has something that we want. The men are allowed in the club if they have money. They can just get a seat, buy a seat at a table, or if they have social connections, or if they just have cultural capital, meaning they look cool and they help the place from looking empty; they're called filler. For the women, the primary thing that gets them in is beauty. Either they do or they don't look like fashion models. At the very top of that is a woman who's a working fashion model. And there's gradations among that, like if you're booking campaigns, if you're on the cover of magazines, all doors are open to you, you never pay for anything. Actually, women never pay for anything if they have this beauty capital. Below them would be women who are aspiring, like signed in an agency, so-called legitimate models. Below them would be what's called good civilians, and this was what I passed as. A good civilian is somebody who looks like they might approximate the look of a model. But maybe they're a bit older, or a bit heavier, or a bit shorter, but they still look close enough, model-esque, one would say. And you would recognize that language, 'civilians,' from military parlance, like somebody who doesn't really fit into the scene, but a good civilian is allowed. But below that, women are prohibited: women who are too short, women who are considered too heavy, women who are dressed badly or in a way that the club determines bad, all of these women are fiercely excluded. And promoters and door people, everybody, but particularly promoters, were extremely guarded against allowing a woman to be in their presence if she was less than a good civilian. And they were talking about this really as personal liability, like their livelihood is at stake. Because if they bring a woman who's considered unattractive, she's going to lower his value in the eyes of the club managers. They might not give him a good table. They might not give him drink tickets next time. They might just cut his shift. So they were really fiercely protective, to keep out women who were considered not beautiful. And there are lots of instances in which the doorman turned away women who had money to pay for a table, but who were too short, for example, or didn't fit into the look. Or if they had social ties but those ties weren't celebrity-like kind of ties, they were turned away. The exception would be somebody who's an accomplished, well-known celebrity woman, then she gets in on these other celebrity grounds. But for a woman in banking who wants to go out with coworkers after work and get a table, they're allowed in, but she'll be harassed or insulted, or just excluded at the door.
SPENCER: Wow, that's pretty intense. The promoters were getting paid per woman they brought. Would they differentiate, like extra pay them different amounts for different women, or just...?
ASHLEY: [laughs] This probably happens, but it didn't happen in my research. Promoters that get paid per head as they would say, these promoters generally tend to be newer; they're just starting out. And so a club is testing to see what's their worth, what kind of crowd they can bring out. And so a promoter then can get between 50 and 80 bucks per girl that he's bringing out, maybe a little bit more. But for the more established promoters, promoters who have been in the game for years — and I mean 20 years or some promoters who've been doing this since the 90s — they would be paid on a nightly basis just for bringing out the crowd. And their crowd might be ten, it could be 20, all models or a mix of models and other women. It's really variable.
SPENCER: A promoter's job is such a funny one because it's essentially a job where they have to just endlessly be making friends with extremely attractive women all day long, right?
ASHLEY: Yeah, it's actually pretty exhausting to try to keep up with promoters. Many of them have this incredible relational skill, the ability to talk with ease with people across class backgrounds, race, gender, but particularly the charm with women, and they use that to their advantage. They use their own sexiness and sexual attractiveness to flirt, to get girls to like them. And they'll talk very explicitly about that as their asset. Almost all the promoters have the same story about how they got into the job, which is that they were just hanging out in nightclubs with beautiful women because they liked it when they were teenagers in their youth, and some manager or some other promoter noticed them and came up to them and said, "Hey, do you know you could get paid for this? You seem great in the club. Have you ever thought about being a promoter?" And they're all like, "What's a promoter?" Pretty great.
SPENCER: So it comes pretty naturally, it sounds like. You mentioned that they often would date the women. Can you elaborate on that? Would they have just one girlfriend but then make sure she brings her friends? Or is it more like they'd be dating many women and using that as part of their strategy to get people to come to the club?
ASHLEY: Different promoters had different styles of working, but for almost all of them, their romantic relationships were deeply connected to their work. So they would deliberately date models, particularly very social models or models who were living in the model apartment because then she's more likely to get all of her roommates to come out to support her boyfriend. Some of them will have romantic relationships with more than one woman at a time. Monogamy was not so typical among them —- not unheard of, but not the most typical —- or they would be pretty quickly going through relationships. Yeah, promoters tended to have a lot of sex with different girls. I didn't quantify it. It was something that was kind of obvious in talking with the girls and getting to know the promoters. And the more that I would talk to promoters, the more open they would be about this fact of their work. The promoters wouldn't tell me their number of sexual partners, but they would say it's quite high. A lot of people ask, when they hear about this world, what are the similarities with sex work? In particular, people want to know, isn't this just like pimping girls for clients to have sex with them? Like rich men sleeping with young, beautiful girls and promoters are kind of pimping? It's far more complicated than that. There's clear parallels. The clients are not having as much sex with the girls, anywhere near as much as the promoters are having. I think that if I were to be able to get that kind of data, that would appear pretty clear. It's not to say that clients don't hook up with girls, take them home, relationships form, sure, that does happen. But that's a side effect of the night; whereas for the promoter, sex is a part of his work, having sex with beautiful women is an asset to him and almost all of them use this.
SPENCER: How big a motivator do you think that is, for people who are spending money on tables, that they would meet attractive women through that?
ASHLEY: Oh, I think it's a huge motivator. They won't go to a club and spend on tables if it's full of unattractive women, and people have said that to me outright. They were very, very clear about that. But I think your question is more like, do they go out expecting to bring a girl home? Is this the goal for them? And I think no, they like the chance, the sexual chance of it. I think that definitely, there's lots of flirtation and making out and people do go home together. But if you just look at the setup of a club, there's a couple of men, or the ratio is more like (say) three women to every one man who's there — meaning man client — and then always flanked by all these beautiful women. It's far too many women. It's a waste of potential sex partners. The women are serving a different role. They're projecting his power through their sexiness. So it's not so much about sex as the connotation of status and sexiness. It's also really difficult to meet someone in any substantive terms at one of these clubs. Because the lights are low, the music is really loud, and I mean, really loud. It's hard to have a conversation beyond, "Hi." "Hi, what's your name?"
SPENCER: More like, "MY NAME IS SPENCER!" "WHAT?!" "MY NAME IS SPENCER!!"
ASHLEY: Yeah. Actually people would have this method of talking to each other, particularly men talking to women, by pushing the flat part of their thumb against her inner ear, and then pushing his mouth right up against the ear. You can drown out other noise like the bass music, and it'll sharpen the sound of a voice. So yeah, there's lots of touching and physical intimacy, in that sense. And sure, connections can happen and people go home, but it's definitely not the main, or rather, the only thing that's happening here. One promoter put it in really blunt terms. He was like, these are really rich people, and they can afford expert company. So why would they go through all of this if they want to just bring a girl home? There are far more efficient ways to have company for the night. That said, I want to come back to this question of what I mentioned, the pimping. Promoters are also really adamant that they are not pimping. It made promoters uncomfortable if they would have clients who were too explicit about wanting to have sex with girls. Some promoters were okay with it. Some promoters were like, "Yeah, I'll introduce you," or like, "For sure, there's gonna be a lot of hot girls tonight. You can take your pick," or whatever. But most promoters that I talked to were actually pretty cagey around this. They didn't like being approached as a pimp. They also didn't like being approached for drugs. Some of them were okay with it, but many of them were not. They wanted to clarify that their role for the night was to bring people together for a good party. And this is partly to protect their own professional reputations because, if word gets out that they are engaged in something that's perceived as pimping, this could be off-putting to girls who could tell their friends. It could damage their ability to tap into future pools of girls. So many of them had stories of rich clients who offered them money or tips for girls and they felt uncomfortable or refused the money.
SPENCER: Yeah, that makes sense to me. It's just that they think of themselves as providing something different. And presumably, they would view it as more ethically questionable to pimp out a woman rather than just to bring her to a club where she most likely wants to be, at least on some level.
ASHLEY: I don't know if it's about some deep ethics against sex work. I really think it's a reputational liability that they'd rather avoid because of the strong stigma against sex work.
SPENCER: Were some of the women engaging in sex work or do you think that would be unlikely from this group?
ASHLEY: Oh, no, for sure, some of them were. Most of them, however, were very clear that they weren't doing sex work. They drew very sharp lines between what they were doing in a club as opposed to a sex worker who might be soliciting, even though the actual behaviors are very similar, of what they might be doing for a night: getting dressed up, looking beautiful, being on display, being surrounded by wealthy men and appreciated for it, going home with a wealthy guy. But one is getting paid and one is not, and the fact of not getting paid was actually really important for the girls to understand what they were doing as legitimate because it's not work. So they didn't want to be seen, they didn't want to see themselves as working or as getting paid for labor. They wanted to see this as leisure and getting treated and getting things for free because of their beauty, but not actually capitalizing on it. And I had wanted to arbitrage the market with a couple of the girls that I got to know during this project. And I was thinking, okay, so the promoter is getting paid 1000 a night for all of us, (say) ten of us, to go out. Why don't we just approach the club and say we'll come out on our own volition, we'll stay for the hours and just pay us each 100. [laughs] How about that? And they were all like, "No, absolutely not." They don't want to work at all to organize. They don't want to feel beholden. They're not there for any reason other than just having fun. And there's this other group of women that are in the club who are being paid, or who are seeking money, either as sex workers for the night, or this other demonized classification of woman, the gold digger, the woman who is seen as going out specifically to meet a rich guy. Everybody saw her as being low status and stigmatized, and you didn't want to be that girl. So people would draw these symbolic boundaries, even though in practice, people are really doing similar kinds of behaviors.
SPENCER: Presumably, people like the idea of meeting someone wealthy and powerful. So what's the distinction between that and gold digging? Is it that the gold digger is just out there to get money; whereas other people are, "Oh, it'd be nice to meet someone wealthy and powerful. I wouldn't want them just for their money," or something like that?
ASHLEY: Yeah, of course. Now, these are all just symbolic boundaries, meaning that it's all in the meanings and the framings that you attribute to where you are on one side or the other. I think of these as strategic intimacies, but all intimacies are, in some way, strategic, and we're all capitalizing on each other and transacting with each other. It's just that, for some people, this is framed as dirty or unethical and corrupting, and then for other people, it's framed as love. So if you stretch your mind far enough, you could think, yeah, breadwinner marriage is also an exchange of women's time and comfort for man's economic security, and that is on a continuum, rather than hard and fast differentiation from somebody who's on seekingarrangements.com and wants to be a sugar baby. Actually, the women on seekingarrangements, from what I understand from very little research that's done about them, are also really adamant that they're not sex workers. What they're looking for is love, but only with a rich man. And that's a sense of validating their own value as well, or legitimating their value. So anyway, it's all in the meanings that you attribute to the behavior.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's interesting because I think what you're pointing out here, many of these things lie on a continuum. But the way we label ourselves is categorical. Like, "Oh, I'm not that, I'm this," even though maybe you're near the boundary between these categories, but to you that's a really big difference because you're in this category, not the other one.
ASHLEY: Yeah, absolutely. And categories have incredible power to shape our thinking as well. If you're labeled one way, that can shape how other people see you, but also how you see yourself. And so everybody was very clear that there was no sex work going on here.
SPENCER: Do you think that most of the women in retrospect, were glad they did this, like if they were going to look back a few years after they stopped doing it, look back at those years, they'd be like, "Oh, that was a nice part of my life that was worth it" or do you think they would have many regrets?
ASHLEY: I think it really depends on what a person's experience is. For the majority of the women that I interviewed and that I spent time with, I think that they would see this as this unique opportunity to have fun and to be a part of a really interesting social world that might open doors for them. But primarily, they were interested in just having that experience, getting to travel and getting to be elite adjacent. So there's that. The girls are in an incredibly disadvantaged position relative to all of these other people who are organizing the night. The club owners, the promoters and the clients have far more money and connections and power than these women. Some of the women are very young. Some of them are underage; they actually shouldn't be in nightclubs. Not all of them speak great English. They're not necessarily educated. In fact, being a model as a woman means that you are foregoing that time in college, because peak career years are also college years for women. So they're in a disadvantaged position structurally, which means that this is an arena that is ripe for people getting taken advantage of and people being injured. Luckily, in my research, I didn't come across any cases of women who labeled themselves as having been assaulted. But certainly at the time that I was doing this research, there were some horrific cases of women who were targeted for abuse in other clubs, not in the ones that I studied. So I think that, of course, those experiences in nightlife are much more likely to happen to women in this VIP world of nightlife. And if someone goes through those experiences, then of course, they'll have a very different narrative of it.
SPENCER: Let's talk a little bit more about the gender element here. Because one of the interesting things about this is just this huge dichotomy about the role that women play in these spaces versus men. And I'm also wondering, was it mostly White men or was there more diversity of men that were the big spenders here?
ASHLEY: The clients are almost all White men. First off, almost all men. There might be a little bit of ethnic diversity because we know the global elite are coming from Latin America, Asia, as well as more White kinds of places like Russia, also Latin America and the US. So there's a little bit of ethnic diversity among the men but, for the most part (this is very, very clear), clients are almost always men, disproportionately White men. Promoters are disproportionately Black and Brown men, so they're men of color, and there's a couple of really interesting reasons for that. A lot of racial stereotyping is happening among promoters who are seen as being more exotic and more fun, more appealing to the women. These are racial stereotypes, old racist stereotypes that promoters themselves — the Black promoters we spent time with — that they themselves are using and employing in order to attract girls. They talk about themselves as being more exotic and fascinating to young girls, better dancers, more sexy and hypermasculine and hypersexualized. They're leaning on all of this colonial baggage actually to their advantage. But almost all promoters are men, which is also quite interesting. It's a job that is really difficult for women to pull off because of the important heterosexual flirtation that is at the promoter's disposal to attract girls. Any analysis is partial so I didn't study the corollary of, where are the clubs for women where there's Chippendales on display or something? Although there is actually a sociology paper I had read about Chippendales and the clientèle for Chippendale (the male strippers) are primarily women on their bachelorette parties or birthday parties.
SPENCER: That's what I figured, yeah. It's not like, "Oh, let's go out on a Friday night" kind of thing, I'm assuming.
ASHLEY: Right, and talk to the male stripper and form a relationship with him, as we know how men behave when they go to strip clubs. Well, no, not all men behave that way. So it's a totally different thing. But there are definitely spaces for women to show off to belong in elite space with other women. I think the kind of obvious corollary here would be the philanthropy circuit, which we know is bankrolled by men who control disproportionately all the world's money. But it's women who are doing the status work of putting on the galas and organizing the charity balls and charitable givings. I think that that might be the reputable site for elite women for display. Of course, there's also shopping and the shows. I think that there's a very robust world of conspicuous consumption for women in fashion and beauty industries, and lifestyle as well, in which they can show off for one another through the acquisition of luxury goods.
SPENCER: Do you think there's some reason in particular that this is a very male-oriented form of showing off at these nightclubs? Is it because of using attractive women as the source of power and status?
ASHLEY: Yeah, I think that it taps into (for sure) a lot of scripts of masculinity, about what makes a good man is the alpha man who can dominate the other men, and the club really affords a stage for men to enact that performance, which in some ways, is almost caricature. You could think of it as carnival-esque because sometimes the big clients are put, not only next to the DJ, but also elevated for the VIP. Where the tables are will be a step up from the dance floor, so they're physically elevated, and they have all this fire that they're controlling, and they're gifting champagne, or wasting it in the presence of beautiful women, which is also in some ways a waste of beautiful women themselves. Because as I mentioned, it's too many women for a brand new one man to consume. It's like a waste of beauty.
SPENCER: But isn't that part of the show? It's sort of like, "Oh, look, there's three women for every man. Look how impressive the men must be to have all these models around them."
ASHLEY: Yeah, absolutely. And this is a show of masculinity. It's the most stereotypical hegemonic form of masculinity defined as dominance over women, dominance over other men, and massive amounts of power and money that you can just burn. It's a show, for sure.
SPENCER: There's two things this reminds me of that I think are very interesting. One is, there's a nonprofit. What they do essentially, is they get really wealthy men, often hedge fund managers, in a room and have them effectively bid against each other on who can give away more money. And they can get, in one night, millions of dollars given away because essentially, it becomes like a pissing competition between these rich people to show off who's more charitable and who has more money. They leverage it to try to do good, to try to make the world better through charitable donations. But I feel like it's just another instance of the same phenomenon.
ASHLEY: Yeah, absolutely. I do a parallel event like a much older form of competitive waste that was documented by anthropologists in the early 20th century among tribal societies in the Pacific Northwest. These were rituals that were called potlatch. Franz Boas was writing about them, or [unclear] invokes them. They're these really somber affairs where a tribe will be gathered and leaders will try to outdo each other in hosting a lavish feast, even destroying valuables like breaking canoes. These were described as these odd curiosities, but these rituals had a number of functions among society. Partly, they were redistributive, but they were also a way of solidifying rank. And they really mattered; they had very important consequences. If you lost in a potlatch, you would suffer all kinds of shame. So the parallel is only metaphorical. It doesn't carry over all the way here. But it's an old form of ritual waste. What's happening in a club is the very modern version of something that we see in lots of other iterations.
SPENCER: Were potlatches competitive? Was it multiple wealthy people competing to give away their money or destroy their money?
ASHLEY: Not multiple, but it would be like two, yeah.
SPENCER: And they would be in competition with each other in some sense?
ASHLEY: Yeah, not all of them. Some of them were just redistributed feasting, but usually it would come with a status benefit to the host.
SPENCER: Interesting. Yeah, because obviously, there seem to be a bunch of similarities there. The other thing that this reminds me of is one of my favorite documentaries of all time, a very obscure documentary called "The Great Happiness Space." And it's about these clubs in Japan, where women go and pay money to have men flirt with them.
ASHLEY: Oh, yeah! I don't know the documentary, but I've been to Shinjuku. Yes, I wouldn't be allowed in these spaces. I think Vice... I can't remember which company it was. But there is a really good one about one of the most successful men who's a host, and has this one. This hostess club culture is huge throughout Asia, and the women hosts also are making a killing and have all these really complex relational work that they're doing with clients. But yeah, the men hosts are, I think, the really fascinating ones.
SPENCER: Yeah. And so this documentary, I definitely recommend it. It explores what's really going on at these clubs. Why do women go to them? How do these men get the women coming back? The reason I bring it up here is, it feels in some ways like a gender reversal of the same situation, but what I think is really different about it is, in the clubs in New York, men are throwing down lots of money, they're getting attention from the room. Whereas a lot of these host clubs, the tension is really about the tension from one individual to the host, forming attachment with the host and getting their attention, and spending money as a way to prove your loyalty to them. To me, it's interestingly different.
ASHLEY: Yeah, in an unfortunately stereotypically gendered way. The men are getting this attention from a whole room and it's about financial domination. It follows a very clear (I think) script of masculine domination or how to perform alpha malehood. Whereas this version that you're talking about in the hostess club with a man host is very much about relational attachments and building a relationship, and that's such a stereotypically feminine quality.
SPENCER: Yeah, there are these insane scenes where you could just feel the pressure the women feel to buy more because they want to make a good impression on the host so badly, it's almost terrible to watch.
ASHLEY: Oh, yeah. Okay, it sounds awesome. I'll watch it. Thank you.
SPENCER: Another element that we've touched on in many different ways in this conversation is this idea of ostentation, which is something that you see in many areas of life where people are showing off. You go to Miami and you see people driving their super fancy cars. You walk down Park Avenue and you see women with their incredibly expensive purses, but you wouldn't even know it unless you were in the know enough to realize how expensive the purses were. I'm curious about this broader phenomenon of ostentation and how you think this connects.
ASHLEY: When you get into the question of ostentation, you get into the question of different ways of showing status and different ways of belonging as an elite. When I was writing the book, I was thinking through a lot of Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class" and the concept of conspicuous consumption that he was writing about in the late 19th century. He was looking at the new wealth in America and the culture of celebrating wealth in which the positional goods that you could acquire really were a testament for your success and your moral character in American society. And I think that's, to a large extent, still true today for the most part, even though there is also, of course, a lot of suspicion and disdain for the rich. I think underlying a core American value is that how wealthy you are is a sign of how hard you've worked and how good you are, that you're a deserving person. And so, in some ways, this showing off through goods is already quite normalized in the States. And so there's a home for ostentation here that I think is not quite as transparent in Europe or in cultures of old money, where indeed there's a much greater emphasis on distinction, cultivating tastes through subtle cues. Do you watch "Succession"?
SPENCER: I do not.
ASHLEY: Yeah, okay. Well, you've probably seen them, this super, super wealthy New York family. They're wearing extremely expensive clothes that you would never know because they don't have Gucci or Louis Vuitton written all over them. They're very subtle. But if you're rich, you would recognize that, "Oh, they're wearing that designer." So anyway, maybe this is a good point to intervene in the conversation to say that there's many different types of elites. There's old money, new money, people who've earned their money, people who've inherited. The elite, we often talk about in singularity, but there are so many variations. Politically, they're all over the place. There's also nationality because pools of money have exploded all over the world. So it's better to say that this is a study of a particular slice of, for the most part, a new elite, people who are globally mobile, international, and have earned their money. They're like the working rich, people who have gotten rich in tech or finance and real estate investments. And so among that group of people that I had access to, yeah, ostentation was allowed in the club. But when they would get out of the club, when I conducted my interviews with clients, which might be in their offices, or it might be in a cafe or a restaurant outside of that setting which is really designed to rev up energy and get people stunning, people were much more likely to present themselves in terms of distinction and not ostentation. They would say outright, "I'm not a flashy person, I work hard, I just take these occasional breaks. I don't spend that recklessly." So I think another way to come at the question is to think about identity and situations as not being the same thing, or rather that identities are in flux, and they're very much situated. So if I were to talk to somebody in that moment of spending, they might say, "This is a really ostentatious person." But when they're sober a few days later, they might tap into these discourses that old money share about how important it is to be discreet.
SPENCER: It seems like there's this fascinating thing about showing off. You mentioned this earlier; if it's clear that you're trying to raise your social status, that's actually a low status thing to do. So people who are very concerned about social status, or who are excited about the idea of raising it, they want to do it in ways where it seems like they're not trying to do it. And spending a bunch of money is almost like the most blunt instrument. It's like, "Oh, look, let me throw my money in your face." And maybe in a lot of contexts, that would just be viewed as crass, but maybe in certain settings, people are okay with it and so you have that excuse to do it in a more blunt way. What do you think about that?
ASHLEY: Absolutely. I think that that's an implicit takeaway from the book for sure. And I think that it still carries with it the problem of the luxury yacht, which I think about often as, okay, there's this arms race... What Veblen was writing about was that conspicuous consumption is also competitive. People are outspending each other in order to show that they have more status than the next person. So it's not just that you have a mansion; I've got a super mansion. Now I've got a super yacht. And when I think about this super yacht, I think that it's a sociological problem that invites people to ask, what are the moral meanings that people who have those things or live on those things take away from it? Because it's so excessive. This is true not just of the super yacht. There's so many objects and so many luxury items that are so excessive that they can't be legitimated in any kind of framework of, "This is discreet," and yeah, I think people understand that spending on that level is tacky to some people and so there must be some kind of interesting mental gymnastics or legitimation to which people are trying to redefine categories of taste.
SPENCER: One thing I find fascinating about that is it feels to me like people can't get outside of this stupid game. They're incredibly successful, incredibly wealthy, and they're still playing this silly game of showing off, which boggles my mind. But the most extreme example of this that I encountered personally was, I was talking to this guy, a very successful entrepreneur. I barely knew the guy and he starts telling me about how he's made $100 million but he feels so poor because he hangs out with billionaires. And I was like, "Wow, this is just so demented." [laughs]
ASHLEY: This is really the problem of economic inequality, when you have such a far extending right tail of people in terms of their earnings and their success, or their visibility, or their followers, or whatever it is that the unit of value is. When you have this extreme inequality, it means that even if you're in the 1% or if you're in the 0.1%, you're a failure compared to the 0.001%. And people are always looking up when they're making comparisons; they're never looking down. And that also is something that I try to think about as an academic. Actually, I don't know if you encountered this in academia, but I see it in academics. I see it myself as well. Every accomplishment means that you move up in the upper rung on the ladder. And rather than seeing down below of what you've managed to do, and comparing yourself to where you were below, you're now comparing even further. Now you can see even higher up on the ladder, and there's still so much more to go, still so much farther to climb. It's really the curse of success in an unequal society.
SPENCER: Like, as soon as you get that tenure track job, you're no longer comparing yourself — maybe you're elated at first — but then you stop comparing yourself to all the myriad grad students that would die to have your job. And now you're like, "Well, I'm at the bottom of the totem pole among tenure tracks and I'm starting from scratch." And then...
ASHLEY: This is never ending. [laughs] From a rational actor perspective, why does any professor who has tenure keep working? You can't be fired once you have tenure. You should just stop your research productivity. You could stop being a good teacher. You could just read out of the textbook from here on out and have a good salary with health care, which is like one of...
SPENCER: At least go research the thing that you really are passionate about, the thing you most want to research, right?
ASHLEY: Yeah. So people will say that it's passion, but I think it's actually perverted by status competition. I think that people usually don't change their course. They're just still playing an extremely competitive game of trying to get grants and trying to get into the right research journals. You would expect that post-tenure, people's passion might emerge. You can finally see, "Oh, wow, they're writing novels now," or they're doing something else. And then teaching as well; it's also a question mark to me about, why do they continue unless they're really passionate about teaching?
SPENCER: It's funny, I had a conversation recently. I was talking to an academic who just got tenure, and I was like, "That's so awesome. How are you going to do things differently?" And they're like, "Well, I just have no time. I'm managing these 12 students, and I have to be in these committees." I'm like, "What if you just didn't do any of that?" And they're like, "Hmmmm..." I'm like, "Do you have to do any of that?" "Well, no, but people expect me to do it." It is really fascinating. Not to say that I'm immune from social forces, but it's fascinating how, on some level, people care so much about how people view them that it can overwhelm everything else. it can overwhelm even enjoying your life or being happy.
ASHLEY: So many academics with lots of success are just totally miserable. And I think you get socialized into really caring about how other people see you. To some extent, this is true of everybody. But I think some occupations are a bit more extreme than others. In academia, because success is all about peer evaluation, you're constantly thinking about, "What do people think of me?" which I don't think is a recipe for happiness.
SPENCER: Yeah, certainly not, feeling like you're constantly being evaluated. I feel like a lot of the best relationships are when you feel like you're in a judgment-free relationship. You can be honest about who you are and your strengths and weaknesses, and the person will accept you for who you are. And feeling like you're being scrutinized and judged, I think, creates a lot of stress and unhappiness.
ASHLEY: Yeah, to come back to the nightclub, it reminds me of this moment in my fieldwork and on a totally different scale. As a woman in this space, I was just constantly reminded, the women are constantly reminded that they're there because they're beautiful, because a promoter is critiquing how she looks, encouraging her to wear different high heels, making her wear high heels, telling her to change her dress. And then you're getting moved to different tables where richer men are. So it means that if you're at the table in the back, you must not be as beautiful as the table full of more beautiful women that are at the front, or whatever. There's so many moments like that. I was in Miami; I was very sleep deprived trying to keep tabs with this promoter. It was maybe my third or fourth day when I was there, and we were at a club. I was just looking around and I was seeing very clearly that there's a range of men in this space and women are just uniformly beautiful, all of us, and everybody's dancing and it's fun. For sure, you can have fun in a moment like that. But I just started crying. I went to the bathroom and had a cry. [laughs] I was like, "The world is terrible. I hate this." It's so hierarchized and just constantly being reminded that you have to measure up against an ideal in order to be there. Yeah, and then I was fine. Weird moment in the field.
SPENCER: [laughs] It's a good reminder that if we live our lives trying to be viewed a different way by other people, that's ultimately not a fulfilling life.
ASHLEY: Yeah, I mean, it is and it isn't. I always say that, in this example of beauty, it's also a reminder what kind of capital beauty is for women. It is a door opener, and it is a resource. But in the VIP world, what I found was that trading on it and using it really came with reproducing this hierarchy, feeling the insecurity inherently; I think, when you know that you're at one level in a hierarchy, you can see that you can always slip down. So there's that sense of insecurity, especially with an asset like beauty, which is temporal. It'll fade for everybody. But particularly for women, it was extremely punitive. I was 31, 32 when I was doing the field work, and I never lied about my age. And so when people would ask, "What's your name? Where are you from?" the basics of a conversation. I'm like, "I live in Boston." "What do you do in Boston?" "I'm a professor." "What! You're a professor? How old are you?" "32." "What! You're 32?!" Like I should be in the grave at 32. It's usually a really rude reaction to somebody when they say that they're a certain age and you're like, "You don't look 32!" Like what's your 32 look like? Like 32 looks like a woman who's no longer valuable, I guess. And that's why people were so surprised that I was still in that space. Yeah, just to say that it opens doors, but partially. And ultimately, the value of women's beauty in this space — thinking in political, economic terms — it went disproportionately to men. Women, if we're in a system of traffic — I don't mean that as like sex trafficking the way you usually hear about women being trafficked — I mean in an old anthropological sense of, there's a circulation of women here that have this valuable asset of beauty, but men are controlling the flow. Men control the circuit; they profit from it, and the women are just going along for the ride. Not to say that they're dupes, not to say that we don't have agency, for all those reasons that we talked about. It's extremely seductive and thrilling and empowering to be included in this space — not without risks — but it can feel really great. And I think that we have to fully understand how the systems of inequality work, and really understand what are the subjective meanings that people get out of participating in them.
SPENCER: Ashley, thank you so much for coming out. This was a fascinating conversation.
ASHLEY: Yeah, look, thanks for reading my book. I'm really glad you found it.
JOSH: A listener asks: "What is your take on the likelihood or severity of long-term consequences from COVID?"
SPENCER: It's an important question because even those who weren't so concerned about the regular effects of COVID, the acute effects, I know many people who are really, really concerned about potential long-term effects, getting long COVID. And it's a scary idea that maybe you could get COVID and recover from the acute effects, but then have permanent chronic issues for the rest of your life. And obviously that is a huge cost. And I even know people that, as of today, are still taking lots of COVID precautions, despite not being unusually high risk. In fact, they might even be in lower risk categories, but they're so worried about long COVID that they're still taking precautions. I stopped taking those kinds of precautions a long time ago. I don't feel like I'm at very significant risk right now. But when you look at the papers on this, I think it is very confusing because some of the papers didn't do a very good job of defining what they meant by long COVID and almost any symptom that people reported after getting the virus that they didn't have before, they would count as long COVID. And so you could get rates that looked like it was 20% of people getting long COVID. I think that's just ridiculous. I think there's just bad methodology. Does that mean long COVID doesn't exist? No, it doesn't. Unfortunately, I think it does exist. But getting the actual rate of it is pretty hard to get. I think it's more like a few percent of people get it. Another complicating factor, though, is, well, what do we mean by long COVID? From my point of view, it really sucks to be sick for a week. It really sucks more to be sick for three months. But it's way, way, way worse to be sick for the rest of your life. And so a bunch of these studies don't have that long follow-up period. So if three months later, the person still had some of the symptoms, they might call it long COVID. But maybe those symptoms resolve two months later, and yes, that really is shitty and sucks, but it's not nearly as bad as having it the rest of your life. So I just think we have to be really, really careful. I don't have an exact figure here but I would just say, use caution when evaluating this. When you're reading papers, really be careful about the methodology. Yes, there does seem to be some risk, but I think it's very, very unlikely to be 20%.
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