This month, GQ published a very mean-spirited and moralistic article about sugar babies and sugar daddies. But why is GQ, which is ostensibly part of the liberal media, shaming people simply because their sex or dating lives are not “conventional”? By Karley Sciortino.
I am generally not a fan of the type of writing, or writer, that aims to point out things that are “offensive.” I’m not interested in being a member of the PC Police, and I feel that articles that mainly intend to call-out other people’s mistakes are often written for lack of one’s own original ideas. That being said, last week I did write an article for Vogue about the increasing moral panic around so-called “hookup culture” in which I criticized a few recent articles—particularly the Nancy Jo Sales piece in Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dating Apocalypse”—for demonizing casual sex. I suppose one could argue that my article was in part an “I’m offended by…” type rant. And now, here I go again…
There’s an article in the current issue of GQ, “Searching for Sugar Daddy,” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, that really bummed me out, and I feel like I need to explain why.
We all know what sugar daddies and sugar babies are, right? If you’re an avid reader of this blog, you clearly do, because I interview sugar babies all the time. But just as a refresher: a sugar baby is a young female or male who is financially pampered by a sugar daddy or sugar mommy (who’s usually older and rich) in exchange for “companionship”—it’s clearly an age-old dynamic, though today these arrangements are facilitated through “sugar websites” that boast literally millions of subscribers.
The GQ article profiles 7 different people—both sugar daddies and babies. Instead of coming at the sugar world objectively, to shed light on how these relationships function and what people get out of them, all the writer does is mock and shame everyone she interviews. It is genuinely one of the most moralistic, judgemental and snide articles I have ever read. It just made me really confused—like why is GQ, which is ostensibly part of the liberal media, shaming people simply because their sex or dating lives are not “conventional”?
Take the first sugar daddy that Brodesser-Akner interviews. For starters, she gives him the mocking pseudonym “Scrooge McFuck,” which I guess is supposed to be funny, but it’s not funny, it’s just mean. Scrooge confesses to her that he has a sexual fetish—he doesn’t want to get specific about what it is, but he says that through sugar dating sites he’s able to be more open about his fetish with women. Good for him, right? Apparently not, according to Brodesser-Akner. She ponders mockingly of Scrooge: “Maybe he wants to wear some lingerie? Does he want to punch her in the stomach while he sucks on a pacifier? Does he need her in a clown suit as he takes a dump on her clown nose?”
Um… so fucking what if he does? Since when is having a sexual fetish a bad thing, you bitchy, moralistic bully? She then goes on to joke about how she and her husband make fun of Scrooge while at home, making dinner. And here’s the heart of the problem: throughout the article, the writer’s conventional marriage is continually used as a background example of what is “good” and “appropriate,” as opposed to sugar relationships which are apparently somehow “wrong,” simply by virtue of not being “normal.”
As for the sugar babies she talks with, one is a sweet, 23-year-old female who’s given the mocking pseudenym “Kitten Babypuss.” Kitten is candid with Brodesser-Akner about her time spent living in a shelter for homeless youth. She says that she’s used sugar dating to get herself on her feet, and to pay for her college tuition. Seems like a valid reason, right? Nope. According to GQ, this decision makes her worthy of belittlement and judgement.
At one point Kitten makes the point that being a sugar baby isn’t that different to being a stay-at-home mom with a working husband—that most relationships, on some level, have a mutually beneficial element. And that’s a really good point. Often, one partner—usually the woman—get financial benefits and security out of being in a marriage. Essentially, the wife gets paid. However, Brodesser-Akner immediately rejects this, using her own marriage as an example of one that’s apparently so equal that she just finds Kitten’s comments to be ridiculous and “defensive.”
Throughout the entire article, Brodesser-Akner tone is incredibly snide and condescending, and she clearly assumes that we the reader will agree with her that the sugar phenomenon is “bad.” However, there’s extremely little argumentation as to why it’s bad. The only argument that vaguely comes through is that the daddies and babies are “scamming” each other—that their relationships are somehow dishonest, sneaky or greedy. But this theory is incredibly weak, given that all of her subjects seem to be strikingly honest with each other, and are very comfortable with asking each other for what they want. In fact, it’s precisely their willingness to lay bare the mutually beneficial dynamic of their relationships—or of most relationships—that seems to make Brodesser-Akner so uncomfortable.
At one point she criticizes sugar relationships for being “about power.” She says glibly, “psychologists will tell you” (as if all psychologists are just hanging out in a bar together, agreeing about everything) that sugar daddies are simply “in it for the power.” But is that so revelatory? Obviously sex is about power. As Oscar Wilde told us “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” To condemn those who are transparent about the power dynamics at play during sex seems ridiculous and hypocritical.
The article is morally condemning, but without giving us a set of morals. For instance, one could argue that sex is sacred and should always be a product of love, and should never be transactional. That would at least be an argument to disagree with. But this viewpoint isn’t discussed in the article, because I assume even Brodesser-Akner realizes that this is an embarrassingly simplistic and puritanical assessment of sex. Instead, she surmises that sugar daddy/baby relationships are evil simply because they’re not normal.
Surely, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, people should be allowed to have whatever kind of sex they want, right? Because Brodesser-Akner clearly doesn’t agree with this, it’s hard not to liken her contempt to that of anti-gay crusaders. At their core, moralistic opinions like these intend to police our sexual autonomy, and to marginalize and suppress any form of sexual behavior that diverts from the path of traditional relationships and marriage. And that’s really fucking scary.
Another bizarre thing about the article is that literally all of Brodesser-Akner interviewees disagree with her own perspective. They all say essentially the same thing: that they enjoy sugar dating, and that they do it out of choice. Apparently she couldn’t find a single person to interview who felt exploited or regretted having sugar dated. But she refuses to take anyone’s claims seriously, and never considers the other side of the argument, which feels like very misguided journalism.
Good journalism should be informative, objective and compassionate. However, when a piece of journalism is intensely critical and condensing, it’s generally directed at the powerful. For instance, it makes sense for a journalist to be intensely critical of a billion dollar company that avoids paying taxes. It makes less sense for a journalist to be intensely critical of a disenfranchised young women in student dept who’s choosing to make money off of sex. That’s just unsympathetic. Brodesser-Akner article is full of moral indignation, but on behalf of who?
The media presents a very unitary idea of what our lives should be like, and we’re a culture that finds perverse pleasure in shaming people who don’t conform. People love to moralize, to point a finger and say, “You’re worse than me.” But shame is usually much more to do with the person doing the shaming than the person being shamed.