Take out a student loan...or be a sugar baby?
by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
This Sunday's New York Times Magazine had an article about "sugar daddies" and their "sugar babies," focusing on a website called SeekingArrangement.com, which is a something of an alternative to Match.com. The site bills itself as the "premier dating website for sugar daddies, mommies and babies" - although the "sugar mommies" account for about 1 percent of the site's users. Instead, most of the dating "arrangements" are between older (and usually married) men and college-aged women - and 30 percent involve some kind of monthly allowance (you can guess who's paying who). The quotes on the website take care to separate these transactions from what the exchange of money or gifts for sex usually evokes with quotes like "Men my age are too immature. My current arrangement is wonderful. Unlike other cash strapped students, I am pampered with expensive gifts. My sugar daddy is the sweetest man I know. He is my mentor, my benefactor and my lover." But the line between these arrangements and sex work can easily become questionable - SeekingArrangement pays to have ads pop up on search engines whenever someone types in “student loan,” “tuition help,” “college support” or “help with rent.” And many times, women don't seem to have alternatives. Other times, they just seem to want Prada bags.
It's hard to make assumptions about these relationships, because they seem to run the gamut - some "sugar daddies" help their "babies" through school without even mentioning sex. Others seem just to be looking for a step up from prostitutes. Jezebel has a great article about the media's new obsession with "kept women" (Dating a Banker Anonymous, anyone?), and how it's actually pretty distracting and gross, especially because during this recession, it's women who are more likely to keep their jobs. And really, it isn't telling us anything new - unsurprisingly, there are douchebags on this site who advertise for "drop-dead beautiful, sexy, fun and elegantly mannered in a fancy setting. She must turn heads . . . and make me the envy of the crowd." There's something disturbing but inescapable about our obsession with the "Pretty Woman" or "Pygmalion" dynamic - it's a little bit like watching Mad Men, except it's real life. At the bottom of all of these stories, whether it's last Sunday or two months ago, is the idea that these women somehow need to be rescued, by someone if not by the semi-creepy guys on SeekingArrangement.
And yes, it's a problem that some college women need to turn to "sugar daddies" to pay their bills. But I think this is more indicative of a desire to replay notions of gender that may be fast going out of date. In an article from February, Emily Bazelon of Slate notes that 25 percent of wives currently out-earn their husbands. Bazelon goes on to ask, "What if the recession pushes that number up to one-third of marriages, or more? ... And if laid-off dads turn into stay-at-home dads who do the afterschool pickups and get dinner started, won't gender roles become more fluid for everyone?" If gender roles start to get more fluid, some people aren't going to like it - and they perhaps need these old stereotypes reaffirmed by articles like this one - where even if the guys are insecure or unattractive, at least they have more money (and power) than their bombshell girlfriends.
If you're interested, Rebecca Traister at Salon had a great article about this issue last week, even before the NYT Mag article came out. I'm glad so many people are pointing out the absurdity of these articles!