Stories about women seeking richer, older men to pay their university tuition in exchange for sex are becoming more and more common. From the United States to the U.K., "sugar daddies" and "sugar babies" are becoming a reasonable option for women looking not only to exercise control over their own bodies, but also to fund ridiculously high educational costs with the money of people who can afford to help.
I've dipped my toe into the sex-for-money pool before, and I made enough money in four hours to pay my entire month's rent, which typically takes me over 80 hours at my regular minimum-wage retail job. But I wouldn't do it again.
It started when I found out about websites like WhatsYourPrice.com and SeekingArrangements.com through a friend who'd had a successful experience with a "sugar daddy" arrangement. These sites connect young women with mostly older, rich men who will essentially pay for "companionship" (which can amount to dates and sex). My friend was making $700 a week in exchange for such interactions with one man — meaning she made $2,800 a month in exchange for spending time with someone for four days. You might be wondering how this doesn't constitute prostitution, but to avoid legal trouble, these websites don't pitch what's going on as sex work. They like to call it a "mutually beneficial relationship" in which the sugar daddy is paying for "attractive company," and in return, a sugar baby is gaining access to "the finer things in life."
Do these exchanges have the potential to feel degrading? Totally. Do they perpetuate the pervasive idea that women can, literally, be bought and sold? Absolutely. Did that matter to me in the end, though? No it didn't, because my rent, utilities, tuition payment, and monthly Sallie Mae bills were all due, and because of extenuating circumstances that month, I had no money to pay them. That isn’t to say, however, that I was doing this out of sheer thirst for money and was averse to the idea of having sex with a sugar daddy figure. On the contrary, the arrangement also appealed to me because I actually really enjoy sex, exploring my submissive side (which doesn’t come out to play too much), and being pampered every now and then. As someone who is supportive of sex work in general and sexually curious myself, I didn't just allow myself to engage in this kind of behavior — I welcomed the experience.
Within two hours of signing up for a SD/SB website, I set up a date with a man we'll call RJ. We agreed to meet for dinner at a high-end restaurant in the city. His profile said he was from New York but came into Boston, where I live, every three months for business. He had a beautiful apartment here, worked at an investment banking firm, and loved "a good girl with a bad attitude.” Not entirely sure what that meant but confident that I could fake it, I headed to the date expecting someone professional, reasonably informed about the world, and at least a little interesting. Unfortunately, that’s not quite what I got.
As soon as I showed up, he told me I was beautiful ... for a brown girl.
There are several reasons this was unsettling, but the main one is that I am already constantly bombarded by images that present white women as the beauty ideal, and I have a slight complex about not being sexy enough because I'm brown. This stranger kicked off our interaction by essentially telling me that my beauty extends only to a certain level that can never exceed that of white women, and that other women who belong to my racial or ethnic group aren't usually beautiful.
When he asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was a writer, retail associate, and student, he laughed.
After calling journalism a "joke profession" and making multiple comments about how a pretty girl like me "doesn't need a brain" (in response to which I decided to just smile and nod), RJ told me that my time would be better spent working out and doing CrossFit so I could become a stripper, high-end prostitute, or cocktail waitress in Vegas. ”I mean, you have the looks, and since you're already comfortable slutting it up, you might as well dedicate your life to it," he said.
I suppose he was right about one thing: I am comfortable "slutting it up," as he called it, because to me, there's nothing morally wrong with being sexually active, engaging in sex work, and being comfortable using your body however you want. However, I was so irritated by his assumption that I was doing this out of sheer thirst for money, and that therefore my body and no other aspect of my person held value. I realized that putting myself in the position of sugar baby opened up the door for this man to degrade and insult me verbally in ways I didn't really expect. As bad as it sounds, I was prepared to consent to some things I wasn't necessarily fully comfortable with during sex, but I wasn't prepared for it outside of the bedroom.
When we started discussing the terms of our "arrangement," he told me he would only pay me in full after each session if I let him have his way with me. No questions asked.
Suddenly, I realized something very important that informed the rest of my experience with this man, and the whole sugar daddy / sugar baby dynamic in general: There was a stark power imbalance. A lot of women say they feel like they have the power and control in these kinds of arrangements, and while I can see that being the case in other possible scenarios, I certainly did not feel like that would be the case for me with this man. I had envisioned us both guiding the conversation and interaction equally — or, even better, me guiding it primarily, so that I could call most of the shots, set the boundaries, and detail my comfort levels with things. But RJ was not having it. He took the “you-need-me-more-than-I-need-you” approach, and was initially unwilling to negotiate when I disagreed to the arrangement he had outlined.
As the evening proceeded, we talked about a variety of other topics that didn’t pertain to the arrangement at all, like what he does for work, where he grew up, our favorite literature, etc. He wasn’t particularly interesting, but he wasn’t particularly uninteresting, and he was certainly attractive. When we were getting near the end of a shared creme brûlée, he asked me again, “Would you like to come to my apartment for a drink? There’s a beautiful view of the water. And I have plenty of rosé [which is what I had been cautiously sipping on that evening]. Plus, my sheets are extremely soft.”
I took a deep breath. This could go one of two ways: I could say no, leave right now, and never see this man again. Or, I could try one more time to define the arrangement on my terms, go through with it... and then probably never see this man again.
“I want half the money upfront and I can take the other half after. We have to use a condom, and I don’t want any anal penetration. If you intend to tie me down or tie me up in any way, you have to ask for explicit consent first. If I tell you you’re being too rough, you have to stop.” Compromise.
He paused, and then responded: "OK. I’ll give you all the money upfront, if you’re interested in experimenting with a little bondage. And OK, no anal penetration if you promise you have the ability to please me in other ways.”
I realized we were playing a game here, and even though RJ was now open to compromise instead of insisting he have his way with me, it became clear that that the whole situation was so wildly uncomfortable for me because I believe that sexual interactions should not involve such games. And while compromise is usually a good thing, I am not usually open to compromising what I’m physically and emotionally comfortable with, especially not for a stranger. Even if I needed the money.
The amount of money was significant enough that it would allow for me to spend the rest of that month focusing on school and my volunteer work, and give me free time to sleep instead of hurting my body by working more than 40 hours of retail per week, 30 hours at my writing jobs, and 16 hours at school on four or five hours of sleep per night. I decided to go through with the arrangement.
As soon as we got to his apartment, I dropped a pin on my location and shared it with a friend so she'd know my exact whereabouts in case something were to go wrong. RJ and I enjoyed the view, had another glass of wine (totaling only two for me for the night), and had sex after he paid me $800 in cash. He honored my requests for the most part, getting a little too rough with me here and there, but eventually easing up when I asked him to stop. Most importantly, I did not feel like I had been hurt. I did not feel like I had been violated. And though I was slightly too nervous to reach full orgasm, the sex was mostly pleasurable for me. Despite that, as I got into an Uber to head home, I decided I most likely wouldn’t engage in this kind of interaction again.
I wasn't comfortable giving up so much of my sexual and mental autonomy to someone just because he was paying me. I know there are probably a lot of sugar daddies out there who aren’t problematic human beings, who are kind, and who can follow the lead of their sugar baby. I know there are probably a lot of scenarios out there in which I can potentially call the shots, maintain power in the situation, and fully enjoy all my interactions while still making money. But I'm 21 years old and just coming to terms with the power I have over myself in this life, and I'm not willing to give that up to anyone before having a full grasp on it myself.
As a woman of color, a student, and someone who values consent and autonomy greatly, I realized that there were very few scenarios in which I could have more power than this white investment banker, who had so much disposable income he could pay me $800 (plus the cost of my dinner, wine, and transportation) for one date. I also realized that no amount of money could justify degradation, racism, sexism, or the potential to get hurt.
I’m not telling women that they should never engage in sex work, and I’m not telling them that they should. I’m sharing an experience I had and how all my various identities directly conflicted or curtailed with the situation in order to shed some light on potential issues that could occur with this kind of sex work. And even though I enjoy sex, and in a different world where sex work was legal and regulated I may certainly enjoy working in the industry, I mostly did this because my hourly job doesn’t actually pay me a livable wage required to keep a roof over my house, clothes on my body, and food in my stomach. But that’s a completely different article, isn’t it?
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