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Feminists of the first wave looked for male allies to get laws changed. Those of the second wave, freeing themselves for the first time from the trappings of normative heterosexuality, had separatist instincts. But those of the present wave see men as pathetic, selfish, hard work — and only good for two things: sex and cash.
“All the sugar babies I know consider themselves feminists,” said Molly. “But it’s more misandry than feminism. It’s ‘men are scum’. Both parties sort of despise each other.” Aria, 25, a Cornell graduate currently in law school in DC, has been on Seeking Arrangements for five years. She, too, despises her clients, telling me over WhatsApp video from a Balkan city: “Men are nothing. They’re just fucking idiots. The hardest thing about being a sugar baby is pretending to give a shit what these older men have to say. Older men are so archaic and out of it.”
For these women, the sex is the ok bit — the easy bit. Aria “can have sex with someone without having any feelings towards them. I don’t even have to like them to have sex with them. Being a sex worker: that’s nothing. I can always pretend. Sex is easy.” This sentiment, almost down to the word, is echoed among other sugar babies.
The callous terrain created by ten years of dating apps and misapplied “sex positivity” seems to have rendered physical intimacy a shiny token whose value lies in shifting the needle of power up or down, while the relationship of sex to things like romance or affection has been cauterised. Increasingly, relationships are seen as exchange mechanisms.
In the 70s and 80s, feminist sociology focused on the extra, “emotional” labour women had to do at work (as constantly-cheerful flight attendants, for instance) or, often on top of full-time jobs, at home (as the family glue and domestic drudge). In a twisted reinterpretation of that sociology, nowadays “women my age see all relationships as sexual labour,” says Molly. “Why not get paid for it?” She points out that Twitter is full of women who think men should pay a deposit before they go on a date with them. Aria put it more scathingly still: “Men have a dearth of people they can share their feelings with… Thanks a lot toxic masculinity. So if I’m performing all this emotional labour — if I have to listen to a man complain for an hour — I should get $500.”
Sex work has been transformed, or rather wishfully squeezed, into the same category as any form of work. At the same time, all relationships have been reduced to a form of sex work. To complete the bitter triangulation, these developments are seen as compatible with empowered young womanhood. Leah, 24, another brainy American sugar baby who messaged me on Instagram from Portofino, speaks the language of ambition: “We want that financial security while we go after our goals. Everybody sells their body. Construction workers sell their bodies. What’s different?”
It is perhaps no coincidence that sugaring has flourished since the MeToo movement.
Frontpage image: Detail from Fredrik Ivansson: Person With Red Lipstick, 2020 (Unsplash)