Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. Check out her other posts here.
My good friends Marilyn and Sarah*, two intelligent, charming self-described feminists, were sugar babies while studying in London last year. Most of y'all probably know what sugar daddies are, right? Well, sugar babies are their counterparts–young, attractive ladies who are financially cared for in exchange for their companionship, and sometimes, sexual favors. I'm actually the one who got them hooked when I mentioned that I knew girls who joined websites like Seeking Arrangements and What's Your Price to fund their collegiate expenses, i.e. textbooks and student debt.
Many escort services offer this kind of exchange–youth and good looks for bucks, but what distinguishes this particular deal is that it's so accessible, mediated by free, no-strings-attached websites. Users send a 'wink' or message, get a conversation going, offer and accept a 'bid' for a date, then meet up. It's like registering for OKCupid, except that at the end of the date, if there's a sexual proposition, it comes with the offer of a bonus paycheck (but sexual favors definitely are not obligatory). In a culture that routinely puts a value on young women's bodies, I wondered what it was like to capitalize on that value. Was it easy money? I asked Marilyn and Sarah about their experiences:
Judy: How is whatsyourprice different from typical escort sites?
Sarah: It doesn't explicitly sell sex for starters. You're just selling a first date. That's the only commitment.
Marilyn: But it does explicitly sell youth and beauty. The women are referred to as "beautiful individuals" and the men as "generous individuals." The women are all in their 20s and poor, the men are all older and successful.
Judy: Do you think auctioning your beauty and youth is similar to auctioning female virginity? Like, what is a woman's value?
Marilyn: It's really clear for me at least with this site that women are commodities. You can sample them, you can buy them in different sizes and shapes. They're not treated like humans. It's this hegemony over women's bodies, this conquest thing.
Sarah: And this power dynamic is established with money.
Judy: Is there a chastity category on this site?
Sarah: No chastity category. There's a physical profile: height, weight, hair color, eye color. It asks if you're married or single, and what you are seeking. There's one obvious option that's “Mutually Beneficial/ Sugar Baby,” but there are also some surprising ones like, "Long term Relationship/ Marriage Minded" and "Married Dating/ Discreet Affair."
Judy: This is kind of an obvious question, but what was the motivating factor for joining this website?
Marilyn: Money. It was an easy way to make money, and I really needed it at the time. We were both just so broke.
Sarah: Both of our loans ran out, and London is an expensive city. I jumped the gun and had all these dates lined up on whatsyourprice.com. I was so nervous the first time I went. I thought it was a scam. But I came back from a nice cocktail bar, like so expensive, neither of us could have ever afforded to set foot in there.
Judy: What was the dude like?
Sarah: He was very charming and worldly, but also secretive. I felt like a whore the entire time. I knew everyone was looking at me like I was a whore. Never heard from him again, but he owned this huge chocolate brand in London or something.
Marilyn: A lot of rich guys were using whatsyourprice.com in London. It's the financial capital of the world, so many guys trying to lead a double life, men coming from Paris, New York City...
Judy: How was your first date, Marilyn?
Marilyn: I think it was that rich 65-year-old French financier who lived part-time in Paris, part-time in London. Wife in Paris, he told me. We met at the British Museum three different times, and he'd give me a guided tour that he had prepared in writing. It was all very redundant, and he'd pretty much prepare the same routine for each date. He even took Sarah out on a date and pulled the same moves.
Sarah: That guy was a character! He probably dated every girl on the website.
Judy: Did he ask you to fuck?
Judy: How did he ask?
Marilyn: “Do you want to...you know?” He couldn't just spit it out.
Judy: Did most of the guys ask you to sleep with them?
Marilyn: Every guy I went on a date with eventually asked me to fuck. One guy that Sarah and I went on a “double” date with to London Fashion Week invited us back to his place after such a cool, crazy night. He told us, “Models are sugar babies off-season. You guys get all your stuff paid for, totally taken care of”...if you just give in, basically. He asked us to fly to Italy with him the next day to go to his villa for a weekend and fuck.
Sarah: I was definitely thinking about doing it.
Judy: Would you have fucked him if he took you to Italy?
Sarah: Yeah, honestly.
Judy: Did you ever enjoy it?
Marilyn: We both got a thrill out of it, of course.
Sarah: I was thinking, “I'm going out with these older, wealthy men. They want me, and I have them hanging on a string.”
Judy: I think you both feel a little ambivalent about this whole thing, like half of you loved the experience, and the other half just felt repulsed by it.
Sarah: It was definitely foreign and exciting, and there was a power dynamic both sides were playing. I would try to entice them to keep them interested, so they would want a second date and I could get more money. But I couldn't entice them to the point that they thought I wanted to sleep with them. It was a fine line. Then I'd feel used afterwards, yes. Because you're literally holding money you earned through ways society deems "dirty."
Marilyn: It's a paradox. Women are backed into a corner where we're made sexual objects. Then, when you try and use the cards you've been dealt (blonde and busty), you're told by society that you're a tramp. So I thought I was rebelling against the system: going to The London School of Economics by day, being a smarty, and using my sexuality, which society constructed, to pay the bills. But then, when they started asking for sex, and I actually considered it, that was when I felt dirty, it felt wrong. Plus, I had to keep it a secret from my friends, and no one wants to do that.
Sarah: Yeah, but not all of these guys were perverts. I started really liking one. I think between me and Marilyn, I definitely had more fun with the dates. I'm adventurous, I'm wild, and I think it was a nice change from all those dumb, young college boys. These guys would take me out on fancy dates…
Marilyn: There was one guy who offered to pay me 2,000 pounds ($3,013) a month to have sex with him three times a month. I said, "Let me just think about this for a week." That week, every 40-year-old man or older I saw just disgusted me. And this guy, Andrew was his name, had a daughter who was 16. I was 20 when I was going on these dates. I was just so weirded out by it all. I declined his offer when I came to my senses, even though he constantly harassed me with emails.
Judy: How much did you get paid for each date?
Marilyn: 50 to 100 pounds ($75-$151). I got paid 150 pounds ($227) on one date.
Sarah: Same range, but girls can definitely make a lot more on there.
Judy: What were your online profiles like?
Marilyn: I tried to go with an angle of confidence, also intellectual. I'm young, I look good walking into a room. I used a blurred profile picture for anonymity. People wouldn't be able to recognize me, but they'd see that I'm a busty blonde.
Sarah: Most girls try to be sweet, the girl-next-door type. The guys, for the most part, have awkward profiles. They just didn't know what to say. This is in London though, keep in mind. I don't know what it'd be like in the States...probably pretty similar.
Judy: Okay, so you described yourself as a "busty blonde," and you're definitely attractive by society's standards. Can you describe yourself as well, Sarah? Like, why do you think these men found both of you so enticing?
Sarah: I'm thin, long red hair, pretty busty myself. You know, I'm pretty by society's standards for sure. I also studied art, so I could keep up with the "classy" conversations.
Marilyn: Yeah, they would actually tell us they liked us because we weren't "Eastern European prostitutes." Like, they were surprised we weren't some beat chicks that couldn't speak English.
Judy: So they did care about your brains?
Marilyn: I think they were very pleasantly surprised that we weren't only young and pretty, but could have real conversations as well. They were looking to fall in love, half of them. The other half, yes, were just looking for hot little things to bang.
Judy: So how'd you feel about your overall experience, and given these experiences, would you do it again?
Marilyn: You just feel so used after a while and impure. There is a sense of purity that's lost when you commodify yourself. If you sleep with too many people, too–at least for me. It's this Catholic guilt thing…I'd only ever do it again if I got desperate, which might be sooner rather than later. I have a lot of student loans to pay off.
Sarah: I can use my body and charms sexually and entice men to buy me dinner and pay for drinks and pay me to just accompany them. It was simultaneously empowering and disempowering--that I could have so much power over these dudes just with my looks and enthusiasm, but ultimately, they're the ones with the wad of cash who see me as a piece of meat. But I would probably do it again. I mean, it's just so lucrative!
*My friends' names have been changed, and that's not them or their escorts in the photos.