Calling it sex work

Nina Dillon Britton catches up with a friend six or so months on

Woman with tall legs isolated on white Woman with tall legs isolated on white

“I mean, was I a sex worker? I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it like that. Honestly, I don’t know if I can.”

This is Stella, a USyd student like me; a white, privileged, ex-private schoolgirl, like me. Unlike me though, she’s been a sugar baby. This is what she’s struggling to talk about right now.

“I guess, I don’t know. It’s so weird to think about that part of my life now, because it feels like a completely different person [was] going through that?”

“I guess maybe the deceptive thing about it is it’s not exactly a communal thing you know? I guess working in a brothel, like, you probably would know other girls working there. You probably get to talk to or at least know about other girls in your position. I guess something that is like more ‘traditional’ sex work, there’s not really any illusion about it.

“But with being a sugar baby…I just feel fucking dumb saying this in hindsight, but like, it’s just you and this guy. And yes, it’s weird. And yes, when you’re the only 20 year old at a corporate function, brushing shoulders with women who essentially play tennis with your mum it’s sort of obvious what you are.

“But, it’s also sort of just like a relationship. I mean, people date older people. It’s not revolutionary. There’s just money or gifts involved. And its feels so detached to what I think of as sex work.

“But it was sex work. At least how I went about it. I had sex for money.”

Stella says her experience changed a lot about how she saw sex work.

“I guess I didn’t really think about what I was doing when I started getting involved. I think it was easier for me to say that what I was doing wasn’t a big deal than to really challenge how I thought about sex work.

“I mean what’s sort of horrifying is that I don’t think I should be ashamed of what I did. Like coming to terms with sex work is coming to terms with the fact that it was work?

“But it honestly makes my skin crawl, and I don’t know what I can do about that. Maybe what was easier about not thinking about it as work, was that I didn’t have to think about how much I internalised all that shit. Like I never regretted it while I was doing it. I never even thought about it this much. Maybe it’s linked with worrying about people finding out, like what they would think of me? Maybe it’s innate. I don’t think women should have to feel this way.”

Since stopping her involvement with sugar daddies, Stella’s began seeing someone. When I ask her if her boyfriend knows about it, she laughs, “Ok well I wouldn’t call him my boyfriend just yet.”

“But no, it’s not something that really comes up when you first start dating. Only a couple of my friends know. My family doesn’t know. And I just live with that anxiety. Maybe some people don’t care. I think most people would eventually accept it. But it changes the way people see you. It changed how I saw myself.

“And I don’t even know how that plays out in a relationship. Do people learn to love you? Do they get over it? I just don’t know. Maybe with enough time it could just be something that you laugh about, but it didn’t really hit me that people saw babies as sex workers.

“I’m really sorry. I didn’t want this to be a sob story,” Stella laughs. “I guess it’s a lot to process in hindsight? It’s not the end of the world.”

I ask her if she has any advice for other women who are or have thought about being a sugar baby.

“I don’t feel like I have any advice for how to go about it. I don’t think there’s any one way to go about it. Be good in bed and good at small talk? I think those are the only two skills you need. Don’t do what Cassie [another friend with a sugar daddy] did.1

“And think about it. I think that’s what I regret. Not thinking about it in blunt and realistic terms. It’s an old man paying a younger woman for sex. That doesn’t mean it’s an immoral thing. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad feminist. It’s your choice. But you need to think about it.”

When I first spoke to Stella about her experience as a sugar baby, she argued she wasn’t a sex worker, trying to differentiate her experience with that of more traditional forms of sex work, like working in brothers. Quite fairly, this led to outcry from a number of sex workers who saw this as indicative of the way in which the most privileged women who engage in sex work – as sugar babies so often are – can reap its benefits whilst distancing themselves from the stigma attached.

For Stella, it was recognition of her own experience as sex work that has allowed her to start unpacking her fear of the stigma attached. Stella, nor any baby, invented the stigma that surrounds sex work; nor did they create the hierarchies within it. That said, they do have a role to play in challenging the way sex work is understood in our society.

1 I realised I never asked her what Cassie did. “She fell in love with her daddy. She went too deep.”