Another week of recession terror, another week of media wallowing in stories about the tiny populations of people clinging desperately to vintage models of gender and economics in order to meet and mate.
This weekend it was the NY Times magazine, with its piece headlined "Keeping Up with Being Kept," about a website called SeekingArrangement.com on which self-proclaimed wealthy "Sugar Daddies" pay money for online access to a pool of self-proclaimed "Sugar Babies." The babies do not pay money to swim in the pool, from which they may be plucked by some rich dude who wants to keep them in cab fare and college tuition in exchange for some no-emotional-strings companionship. The site claims to have 300,000 users, with babies outnumbering daddies 10 to 1, and yes, 50 percent of its "daddy" users are married.
The story, by Ruth Padawer, lingers most heavily on "Lola," a college senior with a boyfriend who regularly gets her pockets stuffed by a married man, "B.K.." The relationship is satisfyingly packed with cliches: Lola has had a couple of other daddies before B.K., one who was a terrible kisser and bad in bed, one who didn't even want to meet or touch or talk to her, just check her transcript and send her monthly checks, and finally B.K., a man for whom she cares and who doesn't make her feel like a prostitute. B.K. in turn feels great about helping Lola out with her tuition and even giving her money to fly to see the boyfriend she wants to marry as soon as she graduates; he needs Lola because he doesn't get enough attention from his wife. But his affection for Lola quickly begins to erode his position of economic power; he winds up craving her slightest acknowledgement, leaving unanswered messages for her, having his heart broken by her occasional indifference, wondering if she's just in it for the money. He deals with his pain by putting "arrangements" in place with other babies whom he'll start to shell out for as soon as Lola moves on.
Still, B.K. and other men quoted in the story wonder, are these babies just spending time with them for the money? (Hints to men who are wondering this: If you are meeting these women on a website that bases its business on a tradeoff of money for young, fit, attractive companionship? Then yes, these women are spending time with you because of the money. If they have boyfriends that they claim to love and plan to marry? Then yes, they are spending time with you because of the money. Try Match. Try Craigslist. Try not mentioning your net worth in your ad. Try fixing your relationship with your wife, or getting a divorce and meeting someone who chooses you without knowing your finances first. Otherwise, stop wondering if she's in it for the money. Because she is.)
Lots of the women whom Padawer talks to in this piece are students like Lola, looking for tuition money, happy to talk with their daddies about Camus and Nietzsche. "That you can help me get through school and achieve financial stability through support and mentoring is more important than wowing me with diamonds and Prada," advertises one would-be baby. Padawer reports that advertisements for "SeekingArrangement.com" pop up when people search terms like "student loan" or "help with rent." And according to Padawer, about 30 percent of the "sugar relationships" involve the daddy paying the baby an "allowance" of upwards of a thousand dollars a month (skeeved out yet?) though the site advertises that some allowances go up to ten grand. Got that, babies? Are your money-hunting little snouts quivering with anticipatory glee? Those daddies who don't give allowances, reports Padawer, "provide the baby with incidental cash, shopping sprees, gifts, travel or the fleeting illusion that theirs is a high-end, easy life."
Oh yes, because not all babies fit the gold-hearted hooker model. And those that don't are naturally after the other things that (non-Camus conversant) babies really want: "the Fendi bags, the to-die-for shoe collection or the breast enhancement."
Yes, we're all -- ladies and gentlemen alike -- reductive cartoons now.
It's hard to tell who comes off worse here: the virtuous fresh-faced college seniors, their silicone-seeking sisters who just want to keep living in the manner to which their (actual) daddies made them accustomed, or the short, bald, halitosis-afflicted kiss bunglers who pay for fake girlfriends and then become addled by Sally-Field-inflected fantasies that the young women really like them.
I wrote about the vogue for precisely this kind of story -- familiar, hoary gender stereotypes, unquestioning adherence to ancient models of sexual and economic transaction -- a few weeks ago. And as I said then, and I will repeat here, I have no doubt that the women and men Padawer writes about in this story exist. These kinds of youth-money, sex-cash transactions have existed since the start of time, and have appeared in a dizzying variety of professional, social and technological forms.
I also don't fault Padawer for writing a long, thoroughly researched story about this website, its founder, and its users, all of which seem to have conformed in narratively satisfying fashion to every conceivable stereotype we have in our heads about what this kind of business might involve.
The problem here isn't an individual story, it's the recent rash of pieces -- as Jezebel points out, everything from virginity for sale articles to the DABA stories I wrote about previously -- that adds up to a deeply distorted and outmoded look at what sexual and financial life is like for women and men in the midst of a recession. Newspapers are rolling around in this shit as if there are no greener pastures in which to graze. Women and men are losing jobs; women are losing fewer jobs than men, making them breadwinners in more relationships than ever before; the domestic and professional assumptions about heterosexual partnerships are being turned on their heads. The vast majority of women (and men) in this country are a hell of a lot less worried about their Fendi bags and boob jobs than they are about their mortgages and vanished IRAs.
Padawer writes that defenders of the site against charges of prostitution "say being a sugar baby is no more an occupation than dating is, especially when the goal of dating is to find a rich boyfriend or a wealthy husband...Some sugar babies also insist that wives who stay in miserable marriages for an American Express black card, mansion or country-club membership are more like prostitutes than they are." This may contribute to a jubilantly hate-able caricature of what women want from life and from their husbands, but it doesn't address the realities of wives and husbands who stay in miserable marriages because, say, they need health care or grocery money or because they can't afford to move out.
The rash of stories that fall along these nostalgically shallow and affluent lines are more evidence that in times of huge social shift, we retreat to comfortably numb and static visions of our social fabric and our gender assumptions and our power hierarchies. Mainstream media has become the Olive Garden's neverending salad bowl of stories about women who are seeking men with money.
This, as the economy crumbles and men and women are both seeking security, love, comfort, jobs, hope. As Sadie Stein at Jezebel put it when writing about this Times piece, "Why are we being forced to read about this tiny segment of the population at a time when women, in fact, are especially prominent in the Recession-era workforce? Why instead do we hear over and over about those looking for free rides and clinging like limpets to rich men instead of to jobs like everyone we actually know? This, to women, is offensive and sad."