A FEW years ago, I attended a party at a nightclub in the meatpacking district of Manhattan with about 10 young women, most of them models, and two club promoters, men whose job was to bring beautiful women to exclusive parties. Beyoncé’s hit single “Run the World (Girls)” boomed, and the girls danced to the beat, singing, “Who run the world? Girls! Girls!” One promoter joined in, with his own twist on the chorus: “Who run the girls? Boys! Boys!” The men high-fived, and everyone laughed.
Many of the models who walked the Fashion Week runways this month in New York, London, Milan and, starting this week, Paris, are the same women who pass through these clubs. The fashion shows and the international circuit of V.I.P. parties — Miami in March, Cannes and St.-Tropez in May and July, August weekends in the Hamptons — serve as case studies in an old debate. Does the celebrated display of female beauty and sexuality empower or exploit women?
V.I.P. night life is an industry run by men, for men, and on women, who are ubiquitously called “girls.” The girls are brought in to attract big-spending clients from among the young global elite, willing to spend thousands of dollars on alcohol. Hence the V.I.P. party is sometimes half-jokingly described as “models and bottles.” The girls are seen as interchangeable; one club owner calls them “buffers” because rows of them frame his Instagram party pictures. They are recruited through friends of friends, scouted on the streets of SoHo, with its clusters of fashion agencies, or tracked down at model castings.
During the week I was a sociology professor. But during my weekends and summer vacations, I became one of these girls. In exchange for showing up at their parties, the promoters let me study them. I was what they call a “good civilian” — close enough in physique but not as valuable as a fashion model.
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 — no small thing for fashion’s underpaid work force. Clubs and promoters will pay to fly girls from New York to Miami, or from Prague to Cannes. Most girls don’t see promoters as exploitative, but as friends, something the promoters foster by treating them to lunch or games of bowling.
As anthropologists remind us, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Gifts are given with expectations of reciprocity. Friendships mask what would otherwise look ugly: the exchange of women’s bodies for money.
The promoters are handsomely paid, upward of $1,000 per night for those who regularly recruit high-fashion models. Girls also give the promoters access to powerful men, whom they often see as potential investors in their entrepreneurial dreams, which range from opening their own nightclubs to brokering business deals.
This is a system of trafficking in women. It is, of course, consensual, and a far cry from anything like sexual slavery. But, in an anthropological sense, it is not so different from the tribal kinship systems studied by Claude Lévi-Strauss, in which men exchanged women in order to forge alliances with other men, while women were cut out from the value that their own circulation generated.
Consider a contemporary example: Greek life on college campuses, where women circulate among fraternity parties. The best frat houses are those with the best-looking girls at their parties. In exchange, the girls get free beer. This system is not without risks. In a five-year study, the sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton found that working-class women who joined the frat scene faced greater risks of sexual assault and academic derailment. The more popular they were at frat parties, the worse their financial and professional futures looked.
Why do women consent to their own exploitation? Flattered egos, of course, play a role. When I interviewed a 21-year-old fashion merchandising student, she explained: “I love the whole aura in New York. I love the vibes. I love like, the exclusivity.” She was keenly aware of her value to her male friends in the night-life scene: “But I always wonder, if I wasn’t, you know, skinny, if I wasn’t attractive, would they really be friends with me? Probably not.”
Beneath the glamour is an unbalanced economy in which girls generate far greater profit for men than their free drinks are worth. A successful nightclub in New York City might make $15 million to $20 million a year.
In 2013, I spent a weekend in the Hamptons at a nine-bedroom mansion shared by a few Manhattan businessmen who aimed to host at least 20 models each weekend during the summer season. They called it “model camp.” That weekend, I attended a nightclub, a pool party and a house party hosted by the chief executive of a private equity firm. One of the men explained to me that girls were “currency,” assuring him a steady stream of invitations to exclusive parties and visits from important businesspeople.
I did meet some exceptional women who joined the party in search of opportunities, such as a 24-year-old model who was looking for an internship in finance through the connections she made in nightclubs. “If you have a head on your shoulders,” she told me, “it’s a great way to meet people who work a lot and have money.” Similarly, a 28-year-old marketing professional with an Ivy League education loved having the “most interesting, amazing conversations in the world” with politicians and venture capitalists at V.I.P. dinners. But while girls can certainly meet important people at these events, they are generally in a weaker position to leverage these connections.
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.
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.