“With the first time, I just remember so clearly thinking about that scene in House of Cards where Kevin Spacey is going down on Zoe Barnes. Like I kept half imagining [the Daddy] would stop to do some insidious to-camera monologue,” Stella said, as we laughed over cheap wine and exchanged war stories. Stella’s a third year Science student at the University of Sydney. She’s a good friend and is obsessed with salted caramel popcorn. She’s also a Sugar Baby.
It’s a Tuesday night and we’re at Stella’s parents’ place in the Eastern Suburbs with Cassie, who I’d met a few months earlier as we studied at the State Library for our final exams. Cassie’s phone keeps going off – her current Daddy is incessantly texting her. Unlike the average night in with friends, I’m recording them both (with their consent of course), bearing their caveat in mind: “Just don’t make it sound more fucked up than it is.”
Sugar Babies aren’t exactly a new phenomenon, but the term is. It describes young women who, through websites or bars or occasionally through their dad’s investment banker friends, make “arrangements” with older, much wealthier men. “They don’t always have to involve sex!” Stella wants to remind me. Has she ever had a Sugar Daddy she hasn’t had sex with? “No,” she laughs.
Recently, there was an explosion of media coverage on these relationships. “Like, just about every fucking white middle-aged, middle-class male journo had to write a thinkpiece on Sugar Daddies. It was just this half-hearted veil of covering a ‘social phenomenon’ so people could imagine themselves fucking hot young girls,” Stella says.
Even the University of Sydney has had its moment in the coverage, with SeekingArrangement.com – one of the more popular sites facilitating these relationships – announcing that, with 300 registered Babies, the University ranks higher in usage than any other Australian university.
I already know the story of Cassie meeting her first Daddy. It was in the bar line at the Sheaf – a Double Bay pub. A 50-something-year-old she called the “perfect gentleman”. He ended up fingering her in the back of his BMW.
Stella’s already regaled many tales of awkward small talk with the pristine Eastern Suburbs wives of her Daddy’s colleagues. She knows what people think when they see her – a 20-something, loaded with jewellery, and on an older man’s arm. What I’m wondering though, is what does she think of the relationships themselves?
“I understand the parallels to sex work, and I’m not going to pretend they don’t exist,” Stella admits, “But Sugar Daddy relationships aren’t just prostitution.” Why is that? “Ok well first of all, and I mean, I’ve never been a prostitute so I guess I don’t know 100 per cent, but there’s a very different power dynamic. When it ended with Simon [her first Daddy] I started using Seeking Arrangement, and, like, I had an account for about a day and I get like 15 or 20 offers straight away. I got to be pretty selective,” Cassie explains. “But it’s also the relationships themselves. It’s not just about sex, it’s about them wanting some emotional attachment, or at least a really good fake of it. I’ve never become attached to these men in the way most of them have gotten attached to me.”
“Look, we can sit here and pretend that Sugar Daddies are this fucked up perversion of ‘true romance,’ but to do that we’d have to forget the fact that sex and relationships already have these transactions anyway,” Cassie tells me. And she’s right. As uncomfortable as Sugar Daddy relationships make us, for many young women, sexual relationships already occur in structures of transaction and obligation. She owes boys blowjobs, but they don’t owe her an orgasm. He pays for her drinks, expecting her to entertain him.
“Is it actually that different that I’m giving this guy head because I want, like, a fucking handbag out of him, or because I owe it to my ‘boyfriend’. There’s always give and take in a relationship, but girls, especially girls my age have always got the shit end of the stick.” Either way I owe them something.” This is where she catches me though. If I accept that in my circle of privileged white friends that heterosexual relationships already come with gendered power dynamics, is formally agreeing to these obligations, in return for cash, handbags or cars, subversion of these structures or acquiescence to them? “Does it even matter anyway?” Cassie asks. “If I’m going to fake orgasms, I may as well get a Birkin out of it.”
Within the world of well-off Sugar Babies, subverting patriarchal constructs of female sexuality in this way is often argued as empowering. Cassie’s position is more ambiguous. “Honestly I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. I generally don’t go through my life and constantly ask myself if this is empowering to me and all other women ever.” Stella adds, “Women have to justify and answer for their sexual actions more. That’s obvious. I mean I’m a feminist but I don’t make all my decisions, like, ‘as a woman’. I did the Sugar Daddy thing because I thought it’d make me happy,” she says.
Stella doesn’t actually have a Sugar Daddy right now though. “I guess I just recognised that what I started doing it for – to be able to go out and see friends – was completely sacrificed to get money I didn’t actually need out of a guy I didn’t actually like really. The point at which some boring old white guy became the centre of my life, that was when I knew I had to quit.”
It’s probably telling that neither Cassie nor Stella really needed the money. Sites like Seeking Arrangement are specifically targeted to young, attractive, upper-middle class women, who, despite the fact are facing the upcoming burden of HECs debt, are likely not to need the money.
“I don’t want to say that I’m not some privileged white girl, because I am, but it was a shitty situation [living paycheck to paycheck]. So I reckoned that like a couple of dates wouldn’t be a big deal, and I just wouldn’t have to stress,” Stella explains. Stella had initially looked for a Sugar Daddy when her rent was impinging on her social life. Now, sans-Daddy, she’s been able to temporarily move back into her parents’ sprawling Vaucluse mansion.
There should be no obligation on Sugar Babies to justify their decisions to society. After all, feminism has certainly moved away from the idea there’s any “right way” for women to be empowered. The question of why women are drawn to this – to pay for their rent, for their HECS debt – and why older men get off on this sort of arrangement, is a different question though.
Art: Brigitte Samaha