Sunday, April 12, 2009

"It's very sophisticated"

-Sugar babies, sugar daddies, should we care? The NYT Magazine thinks so, and only so much of the paper can, after all, be devoted to the far more interesting question of pirates.

The gist of the piece is that couplings between pretty young things and men at or near the age for Viagra are more fraught than you'd think. The real takeaway, though, is that the arrangement is kind of brilliant. Men pay for sex, while convincing themselves they are in sophisticated relationships (cue the "he's sleeping with his maid" episode of Seinfeld - do these men not get TBS?). Meanwhile, women get paid for sex while convincing themselves they're the girlfriends of men who just happen to be rich. Whatever ambiguities such relationships might hold if conceived in a natural setting - sometimes someone fabulous in all ways turns out also to be a billionaire - disappear when you consider that the couples profiled met through a website whose stated purpose is pairing "sugar daddies" with "sugar babies". Sorry, folks, a line can be drawn between couples with income disparities who nevertheless have joint bank accounts and arrangements explicitly about the trade of euphemistic "sugar" of one kind for another. If you have to keep telling yourself that, when it comes down to it, all relationships are basically commercial exchanges, then there's a good chance you either are a prostitute or are paying for one. (And if you are a prostitute, remember: 'I'm putting myself through school' garners a lot more sympathy than 'OMG Jimmy Choos!')

-Though not a sugar anything, I did some serious shopping today, by my own Aspartame standards. First off, a dress, from the semi-permanent Chelsea Market sample sale, oh so temptingly placed across from the Thai food to which I am severely addicted. The dress... is long but fitted on top, with spaghetti straps and a v-neck/leotard-type top. I thought the dress was black, but the tag (and Jo) confirms that it is navy, thus confirming my color-blindness. Obligatory, guilt-induced price citation: Although the printed tag says it was originally $148, I tend to think the $25 it was on sale for is at the high end for a dress, however chic, made from t-shirt material. (Ahem, Topshop.)

I also have a Berlitz German phrasebook and CD gotten. We'll see how that goes.


Matt said...

Is this situation very much different from the one common in lots of late 19th Century literature (and life, I guess), where Swann (or whomever) "keeps" a woman and pays all of her expenses, even pocket money? (Or in many other novels, early 20th century ones perhaps especially, where it's very hard to know who is a prostitute and who isn't.) I suppose the internet makes it easier, but society friends and the like probably played the same role. I wonder whether such situations are more common now or then. (From literature it seems like such situations were _very_ common, but I don't know how well that can be trusted.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"Is this situation very much different from the one common in lots of late 19th Century literature [...]?"

No. But does their presence at an earlier time/their representation in high art make these arrangements any less a form of prostitution?

As for why they might be less common today, the obvious reasons would be: a) women today work outside the home in far greater numbers, and thus do not need to rely on their girlfriend-type qualities to make money, and b) thanks to birth control and other changes, far more women are willing and eager to have premarital sex for free. When only a few women were 'loose', and when the consequences of sex were far more dangerous, women had good reason to ask for something (marriage; kept-ness) in return for even sex acts they physically desired. Or so goes one argument.

PG said...

I like the guy who insisted on setting up a system where the women would get paid regardless of whether they slept with him, but they wouldn't get his mentoring and emotional support. That's a man who really doesn't want to believe he's a john. Perhaps "Sam" will become the new word for a john-in-denial.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"Perhaps 'Sam' will become the new word for a john-in-denial."

Indeed. There really needs to be better language to classify the various forms of prostitution and patronage of prostitutes. A 'john' is a man who pulls over and asks a streetwalker for her price. What about men paying for sex in less overt ways?

The way I understand it, "prostitute" is basically the catch-all for a variety of scenarios/careers. (Cue here the chicken/rooster/hen episode of Seinfeld, once you're on that route anyway. The prostitute here is the chicken, in that they're all chickens. Which, now that I think of it, makes sense in terms of some French slang...)

Anyhow. "Hooker" suggests a streetwalker, and a one-time-only encounter. "Mistress" implies a long-term, but paid, arrangement. And of course, all terms having to do with prostitution shift a level up in classiness if translated into French. Just as a chateau is posher than a castle, a maitresse is more sophisticated than a mistress. A mistress is kept, whereas a maitresse might be kept, but might also just be a woman on the side.

Matt said...

Oh- I didn't mean to say it wasn't prostitution, or even that the 19th century style stuff wasn't prostitution, or close to it, either. In truth, the world of late 19th century sexuality, at least as depicted in novels, where it's often quite unclear who is a prostitute and who isn't (often for the reasons you mention in the send part of your comment) seems much more unpleasant to me than the modern version, where the prostitution element seems more blatant.

PG said...

The prostitution element only seems more blatant now because of women's greater independence. Where even these women profiled in the article might not like having their very homes set up for the pleasure of the man who keeps them, and many of them seem to take as given that they will have an additional, "real" relationship that involves uncompensated sex with a boyfriend, the quasi-wife seems to have been more what mistresses were in the 19th century. They were "set up" in an establishment and expected to be sexually faithful to their protector of the moment.

It's the difference between writing a check to the woman to disburse all obligations to her at once, and writing a lot of checks to cover the rent, grocer, modiste, etc. The former seems more obviously commercial because you're paying the sex provider directly. Or as it went on one of the best Boondocks episodes:

Huey: Riley... All women are not 'hos. We're talkin' twenty... twenty-five percent tops.

Riley: Okay. But if they not all 'hos, then why I got to pay to take 'em out to eat, then? I mean, I'm payin'. That's payment.

Huey: I... I don't know. 'Cause that's just what you do. You meet a girl, you take her out to dinner, but... you're not paying the girl. You're paying the restaurant.

Riley: But I'm payin'. Which makes her a ho. Why don't I just give her the money I was gonna spend on dinner, and that ho can go grocery shopping?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that there's a continuum of decreasing tawdriness, between listening to Mom -'Dear, he'll never be able to support you with that guitar, it's just as easy to love a dentist'- and being one of a line of weary dry-wall guys waiting at an apartment for $30 access to a scared sad illegal who does fifteen guys in a night.
The sugar babies think they are distant from the sad illegal, but they are not.
I think you are onto the most important thing with your remark about women working: we have had a far closer to equal financial power between individuals in the post-WWII period than was ever the norm any time else (except when everyone was starving). When you have relative equality, it's harder to have a market for sex. At least, I think it's kind of unpleasant to let a guy have sex with you because he is giving you money, rather than because you like having time with him - the money needs to be a lot, relative to the girl's assets, and that's easier to reach when the guy has a lot.
I read the NYT article too, and was struck by the girls' seeming to think that they ought to have nice things - my guess is that more will be offering their sex for sale this way as the economy tanks, because this is the most obvious way to reach the expectations they had formed for what material life should hold for them, and no one is hiring mortgage brokers anymore. dave.s.

Anonymous said...

Other people's sex lives, always a wonderful subject. Here are two stories, one recent, one old: ""I met a few female lawyers who told me that they had extreme -- like $240,000 -- debt and yes, that would be an impediment," said Mel Hutson.

Finance guru Suze Orman shared her advice about that with Oprah and guests.

"Before you get involved in a relationship or anything, FICO first, then sex," she said, producing laughter in the audience. "That's a new dating question," replied Oprah, "'What's your FICO score?'""

Older story: Friend of mine in the late 70s told me this story of her grandmother, family was eager to get out of the shtot and go to America, they had no money. She was a cute little thing, 13, and there was a businessman in his 50s, wanted a young wife, paid the family's way to America. The payment was they gave him their daughter in marriage. Her grandma had died not too long before in her 90s, so this places the events around the turn of the last century. He got a cute wife, and sex, and a late family. She got out and her family out, and a family, and a 30-year widowhood. Not a dreadful deal, in the spectrum of things, but one that would not have been made in a situation of greater income equality. My friend never met her grandfather, he was dead long before she was born. dave.s.

Anonymous said...

Now THIS bothers the hell out of me, and far more than the story of the 13-year-old:
and I am trying to figure out why. That I can somewhat see a 13-year-old as having agency? That the 13 yo had a family, and a decent (if far too long) widowhood? That if the family had not gotten to America they would have still been in the shtot to be killed by Nazis 40 years later? That my own daughter is 7? That one is a long time ago, and one is last year? They both seem icky, but the purchase of the 8-year-old seems more revolting, and I can't really come up with a rational basis for that. dave.s.