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Bargains take place in all relationships. The phrase “give and take” is ingrained in most psyches in the nursery school sandpit, or during the sharing of Friday sweets. As time goes on, this comes into play romantically – the buying of cinema tickets and popcorn are discussed squeamishly in front of a bored steward, and nights are a fitful insomnia of compromise as one is woken by the landing light the other just can’t sleep without. But what about when relationships start subscribing to a more extreme type of transaction?
Sugar Daddy culture hit the news this week, following the discovery that 28% of South African schoolgirls are HIV positive, whereas only 4% of the boys were identified with the infection. The country’s Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi was quoted by the Sowetan as saying: “It is clear that it is not young boys who are sleeping with these girls. It is old men. We must take a stand against sugar daddies because they are destroying our children.”
The exchange of sex for money and glamorous gifts, although not a new phenomenon, has been largely attributed to the consumerist boom in urban South Africa. Expectations of glamour are cited as generating a certain kind of relationship. A relationship whose focus is the acquisition of macho power for men, and drinks and cellphone money for the Sugar Babies involved.
If these are the sinister consequences of the rise of the Sugar Daddy in South Africa, should we be more worried about the portrayal of such relationships in Britain?
Some women’s magazines seem to actively promote the concept, running articles like “Six Ways to Snag a Sugar Daddy”. Such pieces sell the role of Sugar Baby as a brand of feminism, targeting women reasonably in charge of their sexual destiny, and apparently keen to disregard any heavy emotional ties a relationship may bring.
Sally, a married working mother, tells me that this desire may be a consequence of women being overwhelmed by juggling a job and a family; successful career women who have come to find that “having it all” is a case of “having too much to do”. She points out that although these women hold responsible professional positions, many find they are stunted domestically by entrenched and hard-to-eschew gender expectations. Housework may be technically equally divided, but Sally found that the “ticking over” of the home – hunting for a PE kit late at night or sending that card to Aunt Agatha in hospital – still ended up being done by her. In light of this, the idea of a man swishing about a credit card and purchasing lingerie (that definitely isn’t either polka dot or from M&S) can become very tempting.
Surely this sort of temptation is borne from fantasy though? Indeed, it appears that the concept itself is rooted in wish fulfillment. Talking to university friends, one law student brought up the idea of the young muse and the older man as another manifestation of the Sugar Daddy and Baby model.
Think of David Luries, JM Coetzee’s protagonist in Disgrace. His fascination with Melanie is an ego massage, designed to combat his dwindling sexual allure to women his own age. “Overnight he became a ghost. If he wanted a woman he had learn to pursue her, often, in one way or another, he had to buy her.”
But what does Melanie see in Lurie? Having left behind the halls of learning not so long ago, I can remember assessing the “sexy dad” potential of some lecturers from behind a pile of notes. This was done in jest, but friends did remark that the Sugar Daddy principal is perfect for young women who are looking for intelligent conversation. Indeed, the Telegraph reported earlier this year that Cambridge University was the top University for Sugar Daddy dating.
For the female student who comes to university looking for sophistication and excitement, the dopey smile of a nervous date offering to split a portion of doughballs in Pizza Express might be a little disappointing. The promise of red wine in an actual house may be tempting, especially if it comes with the promise of a nice wodge of cash. If Channel 4’s Fresh Meat is anything to go by, I doubt relationships like this generally work out in the long run, garlic-butter breath and bad-kissing-technique free as they may be at the time.
Sugar Daddy relationships are based on fantasy. And relationships that are based on fantasy rarely work out in real life. (Think back to how your Disney Princess aspirations turned out.)
But can a real, loving and committed relationship successfully contain elements of the sugar daddy fantasy?
Modern Sugar Daddy relationships seem to play on gender roles now outdated in Western culture. They place a strong emphasis on power dynamics, which, if we face it, is something that all relationships boil down to in the end.
Lots of couples flirt with power and gender dynamics – just take a look at the magazine articles, aimed at both men and women, on how to make your sex life just that little bit more Fifty Shades of Grey. For some people, relationships can be a game, a game in which the women involved are able to wander happily around in a corset one night, and the next night come home from their highly paid job to find the hoovering done and a chummy bowl of Pringles proffered by last night’s corset appreciator.
This game only remains fun, however, if the fantasy stays a fantasy, and both party knows that they hold an equal standing in the relationship.
There are some of us who are in a position to flirt with outdated gender expectations. There are indeed some of us who can take those gender expectations, flip them around, and gorge on the fruits of our own innovation.
Nevertheless, Julie Bindel’s recent article, “Why Fun Feminism should be Consigned to the Rubbish Bin”, was thought-provoking. She cited the new brand of fun, mainstream feminism, as channeled by writers like Caitlin Moran, to be harmful to the collective movement, and damaging to some of the most vulnerable women in the world. I am a great subscriber to modern feminism, but I can also see that Bindel has a point. Accepting stereotyped gender behavior for the white middle classes has a wider effect on the expectations of larger numbers of people.
This applies to flirting with the Sugar Daddy concept too: if some women are vulnerable enough to be used for sex by men, and if some men believe that they have to buy things for women to look good for their friends or find company, then the Sugar Daddy scenario clearly has the potential to cause.
The Sugar Daddy concept manifests itself in different ways; within relationships, through internet transactions, in fantasies in the lecture hall. It’s clear that there can’t be one rule for all. Nevertheless, I think participants should be issued with a manual before they decide to play. And, as such a publication has not yet been provided, we should think long and hard about playing. These exchanges are clearly not a game for everyone.
Gwen is an English graduate from Durham University. She is currently interning for Litro, writing weekly blogs and helping with publicity and marketing. She also works as a school librarian, which provides her with regular opportunities to compare her dwindling intellect against those of people several years her junior.