When is gold digging prostitution?

A college student explains how she landed her "sugar daddy."

Published December 4, 2008 11:00AM (EST)

Meet Melissa Beech, a young woman who grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, "where the blood is as blue as the sky, and the wealth as abundant." Once at college, she struggled to become financially independent from Mom and Dad. She took a part-time retail job, only to spend more than she made. She took a gig as a waitress, only to discover that it's exhausting work. She turned to prestigious internships, only to find that they were all unpaid.

That's when she decided to make use of the "invaluable tool for success" provided by the privilege of having been "raised with class, sent to the best schools, and taught to be well read, well spoken and well traveled." That invaluable tool? Selling her body and companionship for cash.

That's according to her Daily Beast personal essay, which has, what do you know, stirred the blogospheric pot. It all started with a potential employer, who didn't hire her for the position she was initially interested in, but did suggest another one "that seemed perfectly suited to my attributes and skills: he proposed that he become my benefactor." They met over dinner and, after a speed get-to-know-you session, he presented "his financial package": A monthly allowance (including paying for her $1,600 a month apartment), "a steady stream of desirable gifts" and vacations galore. She agreed on a trial basis, but insisted that they wait a bit until they had sex.

During the trial period, Beech was "swept off my feet" -- by the AmEx Black card, posh getaways, and the Chanel and Dior. (She asks: "How many other college students are wearing Christian Louboutins to class?" To which I respond: Loubou-what-the-eff-is-that?) After three months, they started having sex; they have kept the business deal going for a year now.

It's a story as old as, well, the oldest profession. Beech skirts around that stigmatized word, using euphemisms like "sugar daddy" and "benefactor," until acknowledging that outsiders might see her business arrangement as "the distant cousin of -- dare I say it? -- prostitution." How distant is it, though? We -- or rather, those who like to moralize about such things -- make a classist distinction between high-class call girls and streetwalkers. The difference: Purchased sex that is more expensive, and purchased sex that is less expensive. Which is to say: What, exactly, is the significant difference? Is it suddenly not prostitution if a john takes an escort out to dinner before having sex with her? No, of course not. So, why would it not be prostitution if he establishes an ongoing business relationship with her, in which he pays for her sexual companionship?

As Hanna Rosin points out in XX Factor, this particular "sugar daddy" arrangement is not all that far from those of many self-described prostitutes: "The Internet has made it possible for prostitutes to fly solo and not get burned. They interview potential johns in public places, usually expensive restaurants. They 'date' for a long time -- sometimes months -- before agreeing to pair up. They may even hire a private detective to check the guy out."

Not to mention, sex workers of all stripes will tell you that sex is often just one of the services they offer; it is not at all uncommon to hear prostitutes -- at both ends of the sex work spectrum -- talk of clients who spend the majority of their paid time talking or crying. The idea that "real" prostitutes only sell sex is a myth.

That raises the question of how one draws prostitution's boundaries. Beech has chosen a very strict definition, from which she is excluded, and flippantly argues that "women have used their wiles and charms to get ahead for years." This is true. For ages, men and women have made emotional and financial calculations and concessions before entering into a number of different types of relationships, especially marriage. So, while I'm bothered by Beech's euphemistic handling of her arrangement, I can't disagree with Melinda Henneberger, another XX Factor writer, who suggests that business relationships like Beech's "further [blur] the definition of prostitution."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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