Connecting money to sex can be exciting, but this is something that nobody wants to talk about. We used to think of prostitutes as tragic, desperate victims. Now, due to sites like SeekingArrangement.com, that perception is changing. When and how did sex work become “no big deal”? – By Karley Sciortino
(This article was originally written, in a different form, for the current issue of Purple Magazine.)
For decades, the cultural conversation around sex work has been essentially the same: sex workers are abused, dehumanized victims, and sex work is bad for society. Going back to the 70s, radical feminists and anti-porn crusaders like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon made it their mission to beat this into the culture consciousness, some going as far to say that all sex work is rape. We don’t consider sex violence, and we don’t consider being paid violence, but if you put the two together, you’re being exploited and need to be saved… apparently.
While the moralists ostensibly “mean well,” what this discourse does is imply that sex workers have no agency. Even if a prostitute insists that she works out of her own free will, she shouldn’t be taken seriously, because she must be either delusional or brainwashed or on crack.
But then, in come the sugar babies. As I’m sure you know, a sugar baby is a young woman who is financially pampered by a typically older man, in exchange for “companionship.” It’s clearly an age-old dynamic, though it has become far more mainstream in recent years, now facilitated through sugar dating websites that connect sugar daddies (and, occasionally, mommas) to babies, who in turn go on to form “arrangements” that range from genuine romance to “the girlfriend experience” to pay-by-the-hour sex meetings. In essence, sugar culture is a modern, hyper visible version of prostitution that has been dressed-up and repackaged in such a way that it’s become nearly socially acceptable. And this is not a small subculture. These websites boat literally millions of subscribers, many of whom are women at top universities. Sugar babies are making bank… and having fun in the process. As a result, these women are inadvertently acting as proof that sex workers are not tragic. The sugar baby is modern, practical, and educated. And she is reinventing the image of the sex worker in the cultural consciousness.
As of 2014, more than 1.4 million students had signed up to the most popular sugar site, SeekingArrangement.com, and that number is growing rapidly. On average, 2000 new students with an email account belonging to an American university sign up to the site every day. Here’s a fun fact: as of 2015, there was over 1000 women signed up to Seeking Arrangement with an NYU email address. The number of female students at New York University is roughly 27,000, meaning that 1 in every 27 female students at NYU is ostensibly exchanging sex for money in some capacity. However, according to Seeking Arrangement, only 42% of its members are students, which puts the total number of sugar babies into the multiple millions.
The sugar phenomenon has been reported on everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to CNN to GQ to the BBC. Most reports have cited the increasing burden of college tuition as a primary catalyst (on average, American students today graduates $35k in debt). Others say it’s the result of wealth inequality, and the crushing cost of cities like NYC, LA and SF on young people. Others blame the websites themselves. However, what I think is perhaps the most interestingly stimulus is the radical sexual freedom of the modern young woman, who fucks who she wants, and might as well get paid for it, too.
Over the past few years, I have met and interviewed over fifty female sugar babies. Some don’t consider themselves sex workers at all, feeling that sugar arrangements fall into a grey area, as opposed to clearly transactional, pay-by-the-hour sex. Other women are happy to interchange the term “sugar baby” with “prostitute.” When asked why they do it, many reply with some version of: “I have a lot of sex anyway—why not get paid for it?” Or “Why would I work at a coffee shop for $9 an hour when I could make $800 to sleep with a banker who’s not even that bad?” Many talk animatedly about how being a sugar baby has enabled them to travel, support an artistic career, help pay for school, eat at fancy restaurants, and basically avoid living in a shithole in Bushwick with seven roommates.
Our own bodies can be a tool for freedom. We can fuck for love, or we can fuck for money, or we can fuck for you fun, but it should always be up to us to make that decision. And fucking for money can be more exciting than fucking for love, and fucking for fun can be more fun than fucking for money, and sometimes fucking for fun can turn out to be not so fun, because you expected it to be fun and then it was sort of boring. But these are all valid experiences.
Connecting money to sex is exciting, but this is something that nobody ever wants to talk about. When someone is willing to pay a thousand dollars to sleep with you, you don’t need to be told that you’re beautiful. You become a luxurious sex object, a living currency, and that can be a huge turn on. It’s impossible to have this experience with your boyfriend, because romantic relationships are too tied up in emotions. As a result, sex work provides a very unique sexual experience. People discount sex work as simply being a submission to money, or being only about power. But it’s more than that: it’s a sexual experience in itself, which is different than having sex for love or for fun.
We all want to be loved, but we also all want someone to look at our body and think “I want to fuck you,” plain and simple. Unlike when you’re with a boyfriend, when you’re with a client you know that you’re not being fucked simply because you share a bed and it’s convenient. You know that your lover isn’t fantasizing about someone else while with you. When someone pays, it’s because they want you. And that’s a powerful feeling. All women intuitively know this, but most women won’t have access to this experience because their values make it impossible. And that can—subconsciously or not—be very frustrating.
But while sugar babies are changing the modern archetype of the prostitute, there’s still been plenty of finger waving and moral panic in the media recently. Last year, GQ published a particularly judgmental article that interviewed six daddies and babies, all of which were mocked and shamed, the thesis being that that sugar relationships are somehow “wrong,” simply by virtue of not being “normal.” Others believe that these arrangements—as with all types of sex work—exploit women. Many have accused the sugar-baby industry of trying to justify prostitution, and Seeking Arrangement’s founder, Brandon Wade, has been widely deemed a high class pimp, luring coeds to the dark side for his own profit.
But is it actually true that sites like Seeking Arrangement have inspired millions of women who otherwise would never would have never considered sex work, to start sell their bodies? Or has this been going on forever, and the internet has only made it more visible? I recently posed this question to Norma Jean Almodovar, a sex workers activist and author of the book Cop to Call Girl. Almodovar worked for the Los Angeles Police Department in the 70s and early 80s, before leaving to become a prostitute. “Street walkers have always been the smallest percentage of sex workers—less than 15%—and yet they get the most attention,” said Almodovar. “Middle class, educated women, as you put it, we were always in the industry, advertising our services in magazines, working for high class madams, working in safe brothels, fucking billionaires and famous actors, using our money to buy real estate and pay our tuitions—we just weren’t visible. I know a lot of sex workers who were putting themselves through college before it was ‘a thing.’”
Research done by The Economist, however, speculates that a new demographic of women might be moving into the sex trade due to the Internet. In the article “More Bang For Your Buck,” The Economist states, “More attractive and better-educated women, whose marital and job prospects are therefore better, are more likely to consider sex work if it is arranged online. Indoor sex work is safer than streetwalking, and the risk of arrest is lower. Anonymity becomes a possibility, which lessens the fear of stigma.”
When I asked Almodovar what type of woman does sex work, she responded flatly, “a practical woman.” She went on, “The sugar baby phenomenon is a symptom of women being practical and saying, ‘I don’t want to put myself in huge debt for a good education.’ These women are not being forced into sex work. They have simply realized that it’s the quickest, fastest, easiest way to make a living.” And according to Almodovar, the moralizing media around sugar culture is inevitable. “When it comes to sex work, there are recurring periods of moral crusades, which fade out and then come back into fashion. People are endlessly offended by prostitution. What I find offensive is when people mind other people’s business.”
But people find great places in minding the business of others—especially when it comes to women’s bodies. From abortion to surrogacy, women are repeatedly being told that they don’t know what’s best for them. Most recently, Amnesty International released a draft policy on the protection of the rights of sex workers, advocating for the full decriminalization of the sex industry. In reaction, a bunch of celebrities with “an opinion”—including Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep and Gloria Steinem—launched a campaign opposing the proposal, stating that “regardless of how a woman ends up in the sex trade, the abuse, sexual violence and pervasive injuries these women endure at the hands of their pimps and ‘clients,’ lead to lifelong physical and psychological harm—and, too often, death.” This statement is so bizarre and off base and factually incorrect. It follows a trend of inflammatory reporting on sex work that relies on inflated figures and false statistics that don’t survive any serious analysis. Of course, no one should be forced into sex work, but consensual sex work and sex trafficking are not the same thing, despite the fact that they are continuous conflated. In fact, sex trafficking makes up only a minute portion of the sex trade.
Weighing in on a situation that doesn’t impact your life is harmful, because it implies that the people who are impacted don’t deserve to speak. These celebrities and anti-sex feminists are silencing the voices of the sex worker who say “I do not feel exploited.” In reaction to the celebrity led opposition, many sex workers have come forward online and essentially told these women to shut the fuck up, basically. As sex worker rights organizations have repeatedly pointed out (as well as organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International), those who are truly interested in decreasing exploitation in the sex industry would be better off supporting the decriminalization of prostitution.
We should all have the right to make decisions about our own health, body and sexuality, without fear, coercion, violence or discrimination. And if a woman wants to fuck a finance guy in order to pay her bills, then she should be allowed to do that, and the rest of the world should just move on with their lives. As the porn star and writer Stoya recently told me, “There are many established academics out there today who truly believe that a woman having a public sexuality keeps us down – that it’s this patriarchal plot. But sex work isn’t inherently more oppressive than anything else under capitalism. The problem with this branch of feminism is that, specifically when it comes to sex work, it neglects to consider capitalism. What about the demonstrable wage disparity, and the fact that you can’t have food and a roof over your head and medical care when you need it without money? And where the fuck is the money supposed to come from? Maybe [anti-porn activist] Gail Dines skips to work at her office in the university, and would do her job even if she wasn’t getting paid – but that’s definitely not most people’s lives.”
On the flip side, we need to stop viewing men who pay for sex as creepy, ugly, exploitative and lonely. There are many valid reasons why a man might hire a sex worker: because he is not looking for a relationship; because he wants the sex to stay casual; because he has a fetish that he only feels comfortable opening up about to someone he’s paying; because he is turned on by the exchange of money; because he want a higher caliber of woman than he can get for free at a bar; or, simply, because he’s busy and getting an escort is just easier. What makes any of these reasons “wrong”? Surely, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, then people should be allowed to have whatever type of sex they want.
Main image by Ellen von Unwerth