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When I was walking back from Trader Joe’s on a late Sunday afternoon, I saw the usual suspects splayed over the Anderson Memorial Bridge admiring the sunset: couples walking their dogs, college students taking pictures for Instagram, large groups of runners. I wasn’t going to stop because I’d seen the sunset dozens of times (and my paper bag of mostly Pirouline cookies was getting heavy), but the sight of something unexpected made me slow my march.
An older man was standing hand-in-hand with a younger woman on the bridge. I didn’t think much of them at first, but I became increasingly aware that I was noticing them over the other couples. Was it their lavish style of dress, the shiny Hermès belt, the printed Burberry scarf, the leather gloves?
As I continued my hurried walk, desperate to get my grocery store goodies safe and sound to my Canaday dorm room, I kept mulling over my own reaction. I didn’t know anything about that couple and had no reason to notice their pairing over the others, but I did.
When I got to my dorm, I recalled the many times in high school my friends and I spent circled around lunch tables, half-joking about the possibility of joining websites like Seeking Arrangement or Miss Travel. We were, of course, giggling among ourselves over the possibility of signing up for sugar daddy websites. I had no reason to think the couple I saw on the bridge was in a similar arrangement, but seeing their pairing drew up memories of this frequent high school discussion. We often marveled at the possibility of absolving ourselves of future student debt while getting a few luxury items thrown in the mix — all for the price of companionship.
Sitting in my dorm room while munching Pirouline cookies alone, I was left wondering whether our glamorization of the sugar baby relationship was wrong. We didn’t strictly see ourselves as glamorizing these relationships. If anything, we thought we had a heightened respect for the sugar daddy complex: How feminist of us to support other women who took advantage of every opportunity, sticking it to the man for the sake of advancing herself. But my immediate reaction to the idea of sugar-babying, like many people, was coarse surprise creeping into judgment.
Why do we stigmatize these relationships? Even I, someone who considers herself a feminist, find myself thrown off-kilter at the idea of a sugar daddy. Now, as a student figuring out how to finance college like 42 million other Americans, I am left wondering why we immediately dismiss these relationships with judgment, shock, and revulsion. After all, my friends and I don’t honestly consider these websites — we, too, hide a similar disdain for sugar baby relationships behind a facade of woke-ness.
Perhaps we stigmatize these relationships because we conflate the idea of the sugar babying with prostitution. Though not explicitly paid arrangements for sex, some of these relationships involve varying degrees of physical exchanges. Fundamentally, however, the sugar baby-sugar daddy structure distinguishes itself from other relationship models through the transactional exchange of money and gifts for companionship. Seeking Arrangement, for example, allows users to define their own terms on what they expect from the relationship. “Sugaring” shouldn’t be associated with sex work.
Why should this concept be strange? We pay people — therapists, notably — to talk to us about our problems and help maintain our mental health. Why do we consider the acceptance of money for companionship, essentially conversations and time, as inappropriate?
Another element of our stigmatization results from our disdain for materialism. Certainly, if we paid our therapists in Hermès belts or Gucci loafers, we would judge these women less. Sugar daddies, however, don’t exclusively pay their babies in gifts, as many of these relationships involve allowances. In any case, there is no reason to dole judgment for a practice akin to our normalized use of therapists.
We don’t need more reasons to judge young women for their decisions. In fact, we should turn our discussion on sugaring away from solely analyzing the woman to including the man as well. If a woman is to be looked on with disapproval for accepting a Louis Vuitton scarf in exchange for a two-hour dinner date, indeed, something must be said for the man purchasing the scarf and paying for the dinner.
Though sugaring is based on the exchange of companionship, it still purports to reduce the woman to an object — otherwise, the age differences wouldn’t exist. The sugar daddy’s pursuit of a sugar baby can be driven by a desire for youth, which is a physical and not personal aspect of the sugar baby. Signing up to be a sugar baby is not accepting a man’s sexualization. It is, fundamentally, a clever means for women to refute the same system that perpetuates catcalling, unwarranted, explicit private messages, and harassment by demanding payment. We need to stop judging women for how they choose to spend their time and with whom they spend it.
I am still troubled by the fact that I noticed the couple on the bridge in the first place. I have long since finished eating my Pirouline cookies, but now I must contend with my own unconscious judgments — and so must we all.
Gabrielle C. McClellan ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.
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