According to a preview of the issue we saw yesterday, this Sunday's NY Times Magazine lets us in on the phenomenon of kept women. Good to know someone's on the acquisitive gold-digger beat!
Seeking Arrangement.com is a straight-up business transaction site matching up ‘‘sugar daddies'' and ‘‘sugar babies.'' Of the 300,000 or so site members, about a quarter of the "daddies" are seeking men, and while there are a number of older "sugar mommies," and a range of "baby" ages, it's generally about the traditional older rich, often-married guy/hot young girl dynamic. And, as one dude says, it's "the best fishing hole I ever fished in" - with ten potential mistresses to every benefactor. For one thing, women register for free, while guys pay $44.95 a month - "and an optional $5 to ensure the site's name doesn't show up on credit-card statements. For another $1,200 a year, a sugar daddy can become a Diamond Club member, with his income and net worth verified and his profile featured at the top of the home page."
As in all such cases, after the initial distaste, one can't make any assumptions about the relationships. Transactions range from straight-up sex-and-allowance to one guy who, anonymously, just wanted to help his "sugar baby" with her tuition - in return for her keeping her grades up. Another gives his mistress money to visit her boyfriend. While some of the women want to be "spoiled" and showered with Fendi, others are strict pragmatists who take cleaning jobs on the side. Some women consider it prostitution, others hate the idea and tout their love connections. Ads range from gross to poignant, nakedly acquisitive ("immediate financial assistance needed") to kittenish and coy. As one might expect, the range of dynamics is just as broad: some couples say theirs are real emotional connections; others that it's just for money or sex. Says one "sugar baby,"
‘He pays for it, takes me shopping, we talk, laugh, go out to eat and do whatever we want to do for our days together. . . . I don't bring up mundane problems about my home life, and he does the same. . . . If I wanted someone to talk to about my life problems, I'd get a boyfriend or a therapist.''
The piece makes the obvious point that A) these relationships are as old as time and B) the internet makes them more transparent, is all. The bigger question the piece begs is, why are we so fixated on this kind of thing? Last month, Salon ran a smart article in which Rebecca Traister suggested that our - and especially the Media's - fixation on this kind of traditional, unattractive dynamic is a source of perverse comfort in uncertain times. Pepsi brings back a retro logo to give us the warm and fuzzies; the papers bring back old-school mistresses.
And of course, it's legitimately infuriating: why are we being forced to read about this tiny segment of the population at a time when women, in fact, are especially prominent in the Recession-era workforce? Why instead do we hear over and over about those looking for free rides and clinging like limpets to rich men instead of to jobs like everyone we actually know? This, to women, is offensive and sad. And maybe there's schadenfreude: obviously when the cultural We feels down, it's comforting to play Church Lady and judge: do what you want, we sniff; some of us support ourselves without selling ourselves - although that's your prerogative.
But is that all? I mean, the level of coverage is getting crazy, from our slavering over virginity-vendors to the Times breathless coverage of seemingly every oldest-profession transaction out there. Is there, somewhere, some cultural wistfulness, cloaked in judgment? As the article points out, the Internet takes all this stuff public - and in a way, takes some of the mystery out of it. It doesn't really feel all that different, in a way, from setting up any dating profile - not like the distant world of street corner prostitution and madams, which bore no resemblance to our lives. Ironically, as these stories feed our outrage, they desensitize us to the dynamic. The lurid escapism of such stories also contain a grain of "happily-ever-after" unlikely love - and there's a reason Pretty Woman, objectively predicated on a kind of horrifying premise, was a monster hit. I know I click on every one of these stories, even though they're always the same, and always depressing. What are we looking for, here? Comfort? Judgment? Escapism? Romance? Or just a little "There But For the Grace of God Go I," in these perilous times. You know what? No.
Keeping Up with Being Kept [New York Times - not online]