(This interview was completed for and originally published at Role/Reboot.)
Sex work is a controversial and polarized topic, and there are many perspectives on it. My position is complex — but for me, when it comes to how we actually interact with sex workers, one important factor is whether or not they consent to and enjoy their jobs. I am absolutely in favor of giving better options to sex workers who do not enjoy their jobs, and I am horrified by the idea of a person being trafficked or coerced into sex that they don’t want to have. But I also know people who have sex for money 100% voluntarily, and I do not want to deny their experience.
My friend Olivia, a 25-year-old graduate student, recently started advertising her services on a “Sugar Baby” site called SeekingArrangement.com. I think it’s important for more people to understand these kinds of experiences, so I asked to interview her. Many people have pointed out that once a person starts thinking about the definition of “prostitute”, it’s a bit difficult to define what exactly a prostitute is. Some of my sex worker friends have asked the question: what exactly is the difference between a person whose partner buys her a fancy dinner after which they have sex — and a person whose partner buys sex with money? Olivia has thought at length about this, and I’m grateful to her for sharing her perspective on that question, and others.
Please note that Olivia is exceptionally privileged. What you are about to read is a portrait of what the sex industry looks like for a person who is very privileged: she comes from a white upper-middle-class background, she is not desperate, she is being paid a lot of money, she does not have a drug addiction. Many other peoples’ experiences in the sex industry are very different.
The interview went long, so we’re going to post it in two parts. Here’s part 1:
Clarisse Thorn: Hey Olivia, thanks so much for being willing to talk about this incredibly complicated topic. Could you start by defining a sugar baby site? What is it?
Olivia: I use the site SeekingArrangement.com. I don’t actually know how many sugar baby sites there are, but I get the sense there’s more than one. It’s very hard to pin down exactly what it does. I guess it connects people, usually with a big age gap, who are interested in exchanging some kind of material goods or financial resources for some form of companionship that is often sexual — but not always.
As far as I can tell, the site’s founder is very against the claim that this is prostitution. He puts out a lot of publicity claiming that this site has nothing to do with prostitution. At first I thought that he was trying to evade legal consequences, but I think he actually probably believes that. The site has a blog that he controls, and you can look at it to get a sense of what he’s thinking. One post I think is really interesting is called “Sugar Baby & Sugar Daddy: The Modern Day Princess & Prince?“, which compares being a sugar baby to a kind of “happily ever after” princess fantasy.
So far, no one I’ve talked to seems remotely interested in hiring what they see as a “prostitute”. They seem to want to be having sex with someone they find very attractive who is also someone they feel like they can respect, whose intelligence they respect. For example, someone I see occasionally — the last time I saw him, he gave me money at the end and he said that he felt good about giving me the money because he knew I wouldn’t spend it on, quote, “a designer handbag.” He seems to think that I am reasonably ambitious and have my shit together, and he seems to feel more comfortable giving me money because he knows it goes towards my grad school costs and credit card debt. My ability to write with proper grammar, without overusing emoticons, appears to be my biggest sales point. Men have told me this outright.
That guy also mentioned feeling more comfortable because he thinks I’m from the same social class as he is. There are a lot of class issues coming up in these encounters, I think. Being white and from an upper-middle-class background may help me get clients. My background has also given me a ton of confidence that puts me at an advantage when negotiating. I do not think I radiate “take advantage of me,” and I (nicely) tell guys who start doing that to go away.
The guy I was just talking about — he also mentioned that he feels like he doesn’t want to have sex with someone that he doesn’t feel at least a little bit connected to. There’s a distinction between meaningless sex and casual sex. I think these guys want casual sex — maybe they aren’t at the point where they want to deal with having a partner, or they’re really busy at work, or they already have another partner — they want casual sex but not meaningless sex.
In my encounters with these men, the money does two things. Firstly, it enables them to have a relationship with me that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have. Secondly, it puts them in this position where they can give me something valuable and have that be appreciated. The guys I see really want to feel appreciated.
Clarisse Thorn: Do you feel like this has given you any new insight into gender roles?
Olivia: Hmm …. It’s made me feel more powerful. I definitely feel like I am the one with the power in this situation. When I show up, I don’t feel like — here is this rich, powerful person who is about to bestow wealth upon me. I feel like — here is this person who is a bit sad and lonely, and maybe I can make their day better.
A lot of the men who are on this site want to feel appreciated, so it’s important to them that the woman they’re with give off the appearance of appreciating them. So for example, on the website there’s a lot of talk about sugar daddies being “mentors” or “benefactors” rather than clients. They seem to want some combination of me asking them about their day, and they also want to feel like they’re bestowing knowledge upon me about the world. One of the men I see will always talk about his opinions about money. He has complicated feelings about himself having money because he doesn’t come from money, so he’s trying to work those out. But he also keeps telling me in a very serious voice that money will not make me happy, that nothing I can buy will make me happy. I tell him that I can buy security and he says yes, that is one thing I can buy.
Other men seem to be having issues with their age. One mentioned that he’s just turned 40, and that’s really bugging him. Then he flaked out on me a couple times — I don’t think he was completely okay with his own decision to be seeing me. But anyway, often, another thing these men seem to get out of it is access to someone who has a bunch of youthful energy and optimism and just plain new ideas. A lot of them have mentioned feeling stuck, or bored, or cynical, or intellectually constrained. So in this sense sex is only one thing I’m offering them — I’m also offering them optimism, hope, energy, and so on. Firstly, the sex is good in and of itself, as most of them aren’t getting laid otherwise. But the sex is also a symbol of them getting access to my youthful energy or whatever.
I think the archetypal image of a mistress involves a woman being “kept” so that she doesn’t have to work, so that she can be available for sex basically whenever. But I don’t think this is what the men I see want. I am more valuable to them because I have other work that I am seriously invested in, and am having sex with them anyway. Again, these men are interested in a woman who they see as more “equal” to them — in this case, defined by earnings potential — and they seem gratified by the idea that they could help me enter their income bracket someday. This is, of course, still kind of patronizing; like I said, they keep using words like “mentor”. It’s also presumptuous. But I think a lot of them being patronizing and presumptuous can probably be attributed to age and wealth, and only some of it to gender.
I think I’ve learned more about class and money than I have about gender. It turns out there are people to whom $1000 versus $3000 doesn’t matter that much, and I finally understand that on a visceral level. $1000 doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to most of them. I knew this, but now I really know it.
Another thing I’ve been struck by is exactly how much romantic relationships are worth. I’ve had several clients tell me they don’t feel wealthy, and they feel like they worry about money a lot. I think they were sincere. Of course, my first thought was: don’t you think that your $2000-per-month prostitute is part of the budget that could be trimmed? But I think that maybe it’s not, actually. I think they think that investing a lot of money in me is a good investment for them if it gives them a release valve so they can deal with the rest of their lives. They’re probably right.
Thanks for reading! Click here to read Part 2 of my interview with Olivia, in which she discusses how she negotiates monetary exchanges and how she manages her relationship with her husband.