(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 they 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.
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 different.
The interview went long, so we posted it in two parts. Part 1 is available if you click here. In Part 1, Olivia told us that she usually uses the site SeekingArrangement.com to find clients; she described the nature of a “sugar baby” site, and she talked about some things she’s learned about gender roles. Now for part 2:
Clarisse Thorn: In Part 1, you mentioned that you feel powerful in your relationships with these men. But there are issues of your safety, right?
Olivia: I think there are issues of safety anytime a person meets someone they don’t really know, especially if they plan to spend time in private. And especially if you’re dealing with topics as sensitive as sex or money. There may be more issues of safety with this because some people really do believe that money can buy them anything. But for the most part, when I meet people they seem very respectful.
Things I do to increase my safety are that I tell my husband and my friends where I’m going to be, I tell them exactly where I am. I’ll do things like take down a client’s license plate number and text it to my husband. I’ve been thinking maybe I should look at each client’s driver’s license too, and text the client’s name and driver’s license number to my husband. I think some clients might feel threatened by that, though.
The most important thing for my safety is that I’m willing and able to walk away from situations. I’m not desperate — I won’t starve or die if I don’t do this work. I meet all my clients in public first for a meal, and if someone sketches me out, I leave. I’m not so desperate that I’ll get into a situation that scares me.
I guess I am at risk if I meet a really crazy person who wants to chop me up and put me in a dumpster. But I could meet a person like that during a normal night at a bar, too.
The major risks that I see include that I might catch an STD — but I use protection. I might end up alone with someone who believes that the money he’s paying actually gives him the entitlement to do whatever he wants to my body, but I’ve never encountered anyone like that. The thing is, as I said before, I haven’t met anyone who I think would actually describe themselves as paying for sex. The terms on which I continue to see these men are probably less explicitly negotiated than an escort’s terms would be. I don’t have flat rates, for example.
I’ve heard escorts complaining that people who use sugar baby sites are unprofessional, and I think that from an escort’s perspective they probably are.
Clarisse Thorn: If people are unwilling to actually talk about sex for money, it must be hard to negotiate your encounters. Do you have a set of steps for negotiation?
Olivia: I haven’t been doing this for very long. It’s varied so far. Usually, I meet them for some kind of meal, and we chat. We have a perfunctory conversation, like — “How was your day?” Then one of us will say something like, “Tell me a bit more about what you’re looking for. Why are you on the site?”
Then we’ll explain our deal to each other. Like, he might say: “I’m divorced, I’m looking for companionship.” At some point, money comes up. I am always extremely vague when I talk about money. I’ve found a good deal of variation in how squeamish people are about money.
For example, one client was saying that he wanted to get married again, but not yet. I said, “Huh, well, if you’re interested in a more emotional relationship, how do you feel about involving money?” The way he explained it to me was that people are attracted to each other for all kinds of reasons, probably including money, so why not be up front about the fact that money is attractive. He seemed almost confused about why I asked. With that guy, I ended up sleeping with him before we even talked about money — which was a huge risk, but I thought it might work, and it did. We had the money conversation immediately after we had sex — at some point when we were taking a break, I asked what he was looking for more specifically from this relationship, and he said that he wanted to see me again, maybe once a week. I think I asked him his preference for a monthly allowance as opposed to every time we meet, and he said he’d rather do something monthly. Then when we were getting dressed, he pulled out $1000 cash and handed it to me, and said, “I’ll give you the balance next time we see each other.”
With other people I can be more straightforward. Maybe they aren’t sure how to set up the relationship, so maybe I talk about another client, like: “I have another client I see 3 times per month for $3000,” and they might say, “That sounds good.” But some guys will just negotiate it per encounter. One guy brought it up very quickly after we’d exchanged some emails. He said that he prefers to do a “per meet” of $300 — he called it a “per meet” — I told him that was too low and quoted him $1000, and he said he’d meet me in the middle. Another guy told me that he would just slip $400 into my purse when he saw me, and that’s exactly what he did.
I have one client I’ve never explicitly discussed money with at all. I had lunch with him, and we didn’t negotiate anything, though we talked a little bit about our reasons for being on the site. The next time I saw him — we were deciding where to meet, and he asked if he should get us a room. I said that I would like that, so I met him and we had sex. He knew it was my birthday soon, so as we were getting dressed, he said, “I know we haven’t talked about money, so I got you some birthday spending money,” and he handed me an envelope with $400. The next time I saw him, he asked about my plans for the evening. I said I was having dinner with a friend, and he handed me $400 in an envelope and said, “Maybe this will help pay for it.” I’m lucky that I’m willing to accept $400 — it’s my lower bound, but I’m willing to accept it. Imagine if I hadn’t been willing to take $400 — that would be super awkward. Probably I should have negotiated that situation more clearly, but it worked out okay.
I’ve heard about situations where unclear negotiations did not work out okay. There was a “New York Times Magazine” article about the site published in 2009. In that article, there were some examples of unclear negotiations that didn’t work out well. But it sounded like that woman didn’t really know what she wanted, and didn’t really enjoy the work. But I do. And I know other women who do, too.
I have a new client who paid me $3000 up front to see me 3 times a month. But I haven’t heard from him since our first meeting. If I were his girlfriend, I’d call him, but he asked me not to call him. So I don’t really know what the deal with that one is. Maybe he’s gonna flake out on me, but he already gave me $3000, so that would be weird.
Clarisse Thorn: So, your husband. You mentioned him briefly. How does your husband feel about this?
Olivia: He does not seem particularly threatened. We already have an open relationship. I think he sometimes feels very visceral jealousy, but that’s just like any other time one of us has sex with somebody else. We just have to talk about it.
Part of the deal here is that I’m doing this because I’m broke. My husband really wants to be able to support me financially, but he can’t right now, so I’m supporting both us doing this. I think that’s a real blow to his ego. To the extent that he gets bothered, I think it’s because I’m allowing other men to support me and give me money; he doesn’t care about the sex. Even though I see this as work, he sees this as “here’s this rich successful guy who just gave my wife a bunch of money, and she slept with him — so probably she’s attracted to him.”
I am kind of attracted to my clients, and I kind of get off on making them happy, and I happen to think that the age difference is kind of hot. I like having sex with them; it’s not unpleasant. I like hearing about these guys’ life stories. I think it’s interesting. But these guys would never be a threat to my husband. I would never be sleeping with any of them except for the money. And I love my husband. I’m always very up front about the fact that I’m married and I love my husband. My clients accept that.