A lot of men like to think that they’re paying for something else, but women who have done the work say there’s no question that sex is part of the package—along with emotional labor.
His scandal has been free advertising for the sugar daddy site Seeking Arrangements, which claims to match beautiful young women (sugar babies) and successful older men (sugar daddies) in “mutually beneficial relationships.” While the direct exchange of sex for money (i.e., prostitution) is against the site’s terms of service, Seeking Arrangements doesn’t shy away from asserting on its front page that the benefit for sugar babies is being pampered. “Indulge in shopping sprees, expensive dinners, and exotic travel vacations,” the site promises. You can guess what the benefit is for the daddies, including Gaetz, who is alleged to have used Apple Pay and Cash App to pay multiple women from the site for sex—and also a 17-year-old girl—with payments funneled through his close associate Joel Greenberg, who the Beast reported this week drafted a confession letter, while trying to purchase a presidential pardon from Roger Stone, admitting to those payments he made for himself and his friend Matt.
While I’m loath to defend a creep like Gaetz, as a sex worker myself I’m well aware of the complexity of client-provider transactions and relationships, something that prosecutors have also wrestled with and another reason—along with the widespread moral panic about “trafficking” that doubles as a way of keeping adults from deciding what to do with their own bodies—that facilitating prostitution is often more legally dangerous than simply engaging in it. Was he buying sex or being a generous partner? In this context, is there a difference? I asked three women who’ve done sugaring work for their perspectives, and while they wrestled with the same questions they were also clear that sex is at least part of what’s being bought and sold here.
When former sex worker Adrie Rose began her career in the industry 12 years ago as a college student on Seeking Arrangements, she recalled that “You got a free premium account if you had a college email address.” And, she says, it was common for people to try to obscure the sexual nature of these relationships.
“People were selling the narrative that you could be a platonic sugar baby, whatever that is,” she says. “That you could just hang out with these guys, and they would give you thousands of dollars, they would pay your rent, blah blah blah.”
But past the blah, blah, blah, says Rose, was the fact that as a sugar baby “obviously it wasn’t explicitly spelled out, but there was the expectation that you were going to have sex.” She goes on: “Being a sugar baby is being an escort with a contract,” with its terms decided on between the daddy and the baby.
Luna, a 21-year-old who has been sugaring the last few years, agrees, but notes that the job also requires a lot of emotional labor. “Sugaring is fully making a man’s fantasy your responsibility in exchange for money,” she tells me over the phone.
Current cam girl and online sex worker and former sugar baby Lydia Love agrees that sugaring requires a lot of extra relationship work that isn’t necessarily required of other forms of sex work (though, let’s be real, all sex work is emotional labor to some degree). She says, “I know escorts who don’t want to be called a sugar baby because they don’t want to put in the effort of a relationship. It’s more time and more emotional labor.”
Yet, Love adds, the fact that sugaring services go above and beyond sex isn’t to say that they don’t include sex: “The people who want to say that sugaring is not escorting are in denial.” Or, as Rose puts it, a sugar baby is “a prostitute that is on-call 24/7.”
But is this the way the daddies see it?
“I don’t think that they think they are paying for sex,” Rose says. “A lot of these guys have a whole lot of money, and not a whole lot of time and even less in the way of social skills. They have spent most of their formative years building a business and becoming obscenely wealthy. I think that they think that through their money they are building connections and having genuine relationships.”
“They are paying me because they like me and that is the only way they can show it,” Luna says. “Money is the way they know how to extend affection to me.” Simply put, money is what these men are bringing to the table.
Sugaring is also a complicated dynamic because while sex is part of the equation, it isn’t a one-to-one transaction. Luna describes the nature of her arrangements, “You may do something with this man several times a month, but you only fuck him twice. If he is just paying for the sex, you don’t have to be there to boost his ego.”
Or, as Love puts it, “they are paying to spend time with someone, quality time. They are wanting sex, but a big part of it is the time up to sex. If they just wanted to fuck, they would go a different route.”
All sex workers can tell you that clients are often seeking things that they don’t know how to ask for. “Most people that I met through escorting, they are looking for someone to spend time with them. It usually comes in the form of trading sexual gratification for them, but often more than half of it is spent having a conversation,” Rose says. On a personal note, this squares with my experiences in sex work as well.
Gaetz’s claim that he was not paying for sex and simply being generous with women may very well feel true to him. And yet, in a culture in which women have been systematically denied resources that wealthy and powerful (predominantly white) men take for granted, women of all sorts (not just sugar babies) have learned to use their sexuality to gain access to things they want or need.
The entire premise behind Seeking Arrangements is that women use their youth and desirability to gain access to knowledge, power and money that is in the hands of their sugar daddies. In this regard, prostitution, sugaring, or being a trophy wife may just a matter of degree. Similarly with paying for time, paying for attention, paying for fantasy fulfillment, or paying for sex.
Indeed, Love recalls, “Something that my mom told me when I was in high school is that every man is paying for pussy even if they don’t know that they are.”
For those of us who recognize that the decriminalization of sex work is the only path toward safe working conditions for sex workers, the entire conversation about whether one congressman paid for sex or not is beside the point. How consenting adults negotiate their relationships, sexual or otherwise, should be up to them. I stress adults since one of the women Gaetz allegedly paid to participate in his ecstasy-fueled exploit was underage, and therefore not in a position to consent. But there are already laws about that having nothing to do with transactions between adults.
Did Gaetz pay for sex? Yes and no. But honestly, we should probably be asking different questions.