Monday, August 08, 2011

"Sugar Daughters" and Autonomy

Hugo Schwyzer recently wrote an article for The Good Men Project about the phenomenon of young women in college making arrangements with older men (usually more than a couple decades her senior) in which she provides him with a sexual relationship and public dating, in exchange for a financial stipend.  These men and women are oftentimes utilizing various websites (which claim to safety-check the men who create profiles) to get in contact with one another.  Hugo describes the phenomenon, and describes an experience told to him by a student he calls Nicki, who seemed to have no qualms about her arrangement, and who also adamantly insisted that the arrangement did not qualify as sex work (even though she's clearly being paid for sex).  Hugo discusses some of the potentially problematic aspects of this type of arrangement, many of which I agree with, but here, we part ways:
It’s easy to understand the motivations of young women like Nicki. It’s harder, however, to excuse the actions of men twice and three times the age of the college students they pursue. The quasi-romantic nature of the sugar daddy-young girl relationship is troubling. The rich old man isn’t just buying sex, he’s buying status (if, as some of these men do, he chooses to “show off” his college student). If he’s buying her listening ear as well as her body (something that Fairbanks suggests is likely), he’s treating emotional intimacy as a commodity that can be purchased. 
I find this to be a terribly patronizing perspective, as well as too demonizing of these older men.  I don't doubt for a second that a sizable proportion of the men who consistently seek out much, much younger women for sexual relationships in exchange for money are motivated by a darker and potentially dangerous desire, but are many of the motivations of these men much different than those of the women, who are often faking their affection and attraction to these men entirely for money?  I'm not really interested in that at the moment, though; I'm interested in the motivations and intentions of these young women, and whether or not we should really be worried about them, or trying to protect them from these supposedly evil men.  Are these young women really being coerced into this type of relationship?  How much of their decision to create a profile and deliberately seek out these relationships is rooted in an actual desperation for money that is wholly necessary to continue their college career or livelihoods?  ...And how much of these assumptions are rooted in the tired-but-widespread notion that women are incapable of enjoying non-emotionally intimate sex?  This sounds disturbingly similar to the decidedly radfem theories of women's autonomy (which, to them, absolutely does not exist under any circumstances).  As I wrote in the comments on the article (edited slightly for clarification):
I’m torn on this.
First, it’s pretty clear that, generally speaking, most of these young women wouldn’t consider dating much older men (I’m talking 15-30+ years her senior, not just a few years) without the financial incentive. The men, on the other hand, are not in it for a financial incentive; they’re in it because they have wanted a younger women to show off or have sex with for a long time, regardless of any benefit he may get, but haven’t been able to without the monetary commitment, because there aren’t many super-young women willing to do that. For the most part, these men having regular sex with these young women is blatantly a transaction where sex is exchanged for money. That’s called sex work.
Of course, whether or not this being clearly sex work is good or bad is not going to be agreed upon on this thread, but given the higher level of safety of the transaction, the willingness of the young women to engage in this transaction, and the open nature of the transaction, I can’t judge too harshly. As long as everyone is in agreement about what everyone expects form one another before agreeing to it without coercion (and I’m not sure I consider a young student wanting extra money to be coercive, because let’s face it– they’re not all doing this just to pay tuition), I don’t see much of a problem.
All of that said, I also don’t think that the motivations of these young women are necessarily more “understandable” than those of the older men. They’re usually both quite pleased with the benefits they receive from these arrangements. When I was 22, I made plenty of decisions about sex that I wouldn’t have made now as a 27-year-old; this doesn’t mean I deeply regret, or am haunted, by those experiences. I also think it’s unwise to assume that these young women are doing something against their own better judgment in using their sexuality in this way. Women, as well as men, have individual and highly personal views of their own sexuality. While some may cherish dearly every sexual interaction they have, others view sex in a much more casual and “free” fashion. I don’t think either of those approaches is inherently bad. For the young woman who is happy to enjoy her sexuality in this way, whether it be in exchange for money or a relationship or simple sexual gratification, I don’t see this arrangement being problematic.
I'm not trying to downplay or ignore the very real problem of sexual coercion among young women-- especially on college campuses, or pretend that it doesn't exist.  I'm also not being willfully ignorant of the fact that many women who choose sex work do so because they are in desperate situations financially, or who turn to the industry as a result of a history of sexual abuse who otherwise wouldn't choose the profession.  But I am troubled by the insinuation that all women in situations like the ones described in the article-- or those who are involved in overt sex work that is not debated -- are not acting of their own accord, and that the men with whom they exchange sexual favors for money should all be demonized.  This type of assumption only perpetuates the notion that women are emotionally fragile creatures with no mind or strength of their own, and who are unable to separate feelings of romance, attachment, and intimacy with a physical act of sex.  Women -- just like men -- vary in their perspectives and experiences with sex.  The assumption that all women feel that their sexuality is so precious as to only share with only specific types of people for the sole purpose of emotional intimacy leads easily to our current and apparently never-ending problem with women's expression of sexuality being maligned, punished, and contributing to the ever-present problem of street harassment and other issues women are faced with as a result of being deemed the "sex class."

In order to treat women as equal, individual people, which is essentially the goal of feminism, we can't continue perpetuating this notion that women are too emotionally fragile and put-upon by society to make free decisions about our own sexuality, and with whom -- as well as under what circumstances -- we should be expressing it.