On July 7, 2016 Vanity Fair published the article, “Daddies, ‘Dates,’ and the Girlfriend Experience: Welcome to the New Prostitution Economy.” The article highlights a form of prostitution that college students are engaging in —“sugaring.” “Sugaring” involves older, wealthy men (“sugar daddies”) seeking out younger, college-aged women (“sugar babies”) through online services, such as SeekingArrangement.com. Sugar daddies pay sugar babies hundreds of dollars or more per “encounter.” While sugaring is outwardly described as nothing more than the sale of “companionship,” or “the girlfriend experience,” several of the sugar babies quoted in the article admit that sugar daddies almost always expect some form of sex during each encounter. One sugar baby stated, “If anyone tells you they’re not sleeping with these guys, they’re lying . . . because no one pays for all that without expecting something in return.” This “trendy” concept of sugaring is nothing more than “sugar-coating” prostitution.
The sugar babies quoted in this article admit they are selling sex, but they are not doing so because they are trying to survive in the way most prostituted persons are. More often than not, prostituted persons are victims of sex trafficking—they are sold for sex by a pimp. Prostituted persons are often homeless, under-educated, unemployed, and/or using drugs to cope with prolonged exposure to traumatic abuse, merely trying to survive.
To the contrary, sugar babies typically have more than life’s basic necessities. They are commonly enrolled in college or they are recent graduates. They have apartments, cars, a wardrobe, and a resume. The article admits that many sugar babies engage in “sugaring” so they can afford lavish, designer products to post photographs of on their Instagram accounts. One woman stated, “my friend who does it says, ‘I do it for the Chanel.’” To further drive home this point, the article was accompanied with photographs of a beautiful model with flowing blonde hair, wearing an elegant red dress, fancy high heels, and diamond jewelry—clearly reminding readers of Julia Robert’s character in Pretty Woman—specifically the scene where she is wearing a red dress and being “adorned” with the quarter million dollar necklace.
These images, coupled with the moniker “sugaring” itself, glamorize prostitution, making it appear to be an attractive, trendy, and sought-after lifestyle. What’s worse is that the glamorization of prostitution is far from a simple misconception. It entirely underestimates the act of prostitution itself by focusing solely on the money a woman can make through selling sex and what it can buy. There is nothing glamorous about prostitution. It is always exploitive, always carries an enhanced risk of violence to the seller, and is always a form of economic and gender-based structural inequality—regardless if the sex buyers are lingering on crime-ridden city street corners or websites.
The very act of any form of prostitution—the purchase of a person for the ability to control and dominate them—is always exploitive. To put it plainly: a person with financial resources objectifies and purchases a vulnerable person seeking financial resources in exchange for sexual gratification. This imbalance of power exemplifies exploitation—a man pays for the ability to do whatever he wants to a woman, who, as the party being paid, is expected to comply with his desires. Furthermore, in these “sugaring” arrangements, the women participating are viewed exclusively for their ability to arouse men. The article describes the Seeking Arrangement Sugar Baby Summit, a “sugaring conference” so-to-speak, and quotes a sex buyer in attendance as saying, “I thought they said these girls were gonna be 10s […] But this is like a buncha 5s and 6s. Maybe they’ll take an I.O.U.” This statement alone embodies exploitation; when women’s bodies are viewed primarily and predominantly for their physical appeal to men, men will view women as objects that can be ranked, used, and abused. This mentality inevitably takes a toll on a woman’s psyche. One sugar baby stated, “I haven’t done it in a really long time . . . solely because of how it made me feel. Like it just makes you feel worthless ‘cause they don’t pay attention to your brain, they don’t care what you have to say. They just care that you’re attractive and you’re listening to them. I don’t want to ever have to look back and think, like, I made it to this point just because I used my body to get there.” Perhaps she feels this way because she was being exploited to serve a man’s sexual gratification.
Furthermore prostitution always puts prostituted persons at an increased risk of violence. The article unduly and dangerously glamorizes purchasers of sex. But the truth is not all sex buyers are men looking to spoil a woman with expensive jewelry and treat her well. Sex buyers come from a variety of backgrounds and all walks of life. Just because a “tech nerd” can afford buying sex through SeekingArrangement.com does not guarantee he will treat the prostituted person better than a man who “can only afford” to buy sex from street corners. All prostituted persons face threats of rape, sexual assault, and murder. The article discusses the “private pages” sugar babies look to in order to seek and “give advice on how to alleviate the pain of bruises from overzealous spanking and what to do when ‘scammers’ refuse to pay.” They also discuss “what they carry to protect themselves (knives, box cutters, pepper spray).” If purchasers of sex were not violent, these pages would not exist and women would not feel the need to “protect themselves.”
Finally, undeniably, prostitution is a manifestation of economic and gender-based structural inequality. Yet, prostitution is so engrained and misrepresented in pop culture that people are desensitized by it. Men with adequate financial resources know they can “afford” any woman’s body they want for their own sexual pleasure. They don’t even think twice. Women’s bodies therefore, become just another commodity men—and wealthy men in particular—feel entitled to. Paying for sex is part of the male-desired lavish lifestyle—right alongside paying for fancy watches, sports cars, and all-inclusive trips.
Prostitution is not and can never be glamorous. Regardless of what name it is given, how a woman spends prostitution earnings, or where a purchaser finds her, prostitution is always the same in three aspects: it is always exploitive, it always increases the risk of violence against women, and it is always a form of economic and gender-based structural inequality. Glamorizing prostitution in mass-marketed articles like this is a dangerous disservice to young women because it masks the destructive nature of prostitution. Calling prostitution “sugaring” is nothing more than “sugar-coating” a dangerous and heinous crime that always victimizes a vulnerable person.