Behind the young women offering the ‘girlfriend experience’ to affluent suitors
“What’s your most expensive bottle of champagne?—$700.”
“What’s your most expensive bottle of wine?—$900.”
“Can we get both?”
So begins the trailer for The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh’s 2016 drama series that follows Christine (Riley Keough), a law-student-turned- escort, as she juggles gourmet dinners and steamy hotel encounters with the commitments of everyday life.
Though Christine’s lifestyle might seem wholly fictional, existing only within the imaginations of Hollywood screenwriters, a growing number of university students are turning to the sex industry to pay their bills.
SOMETIMES SWEET, SOMETIMES SOUR
They call themselves ‘sugar babies:’ young women who meet older men online—most often through the dating site SeekingArrangement.com—and offer their company in exchange for extravagant allowances.
Sex, though often expected, is not always the endgame. Instead, these men are in search of a beautiful woman to laugh at their jokes and hold their hand during dinner. In other words, they’re looking for the ideal companion, and they’re willing to pay big bucks to find her.
Jessica*, a 19-year-old studying at Thompson Rivers University, benefits from the financial perks of working as a sugar baby.
“I get $1 000 a month and we only meet once a month,” she says of her encounters. “[We go] out for dinner and then drinks at their place. Sometimes we just talk and sometimes we have sex.”
As with any dating site, expectations and personalities vary greatly from client to client. While some men request face-to-face meetings, others are satisfied with explicit videos, photos, and Skype chats. No matter the arrangement, fees rarely dip below the three-figure mark. Older, high-earning men are preferred, but the only universal mantra among sugar babies is this: the richer, the better.
“I never settle for less than $400 if I’m actually sleeping with him, but that’s separate from shopping sprees, meals, and coffees,” says Megan,* an 18-year-old UVic student who ‘sugars’ to support herself financially. “I’ve actually been invited to come to Mexico with one of my sugar daddies.”
A quick glimpse through a private sugar baby Facebook group is proof of the extravagant salaries these women are capable of demanding. Countless photos of crisp hundred-dollar bills, makeup, and expensive clothing captioned with Heart Emojis are the norm.
But just as often, there are horror stories—screenshots of ‘daddies’ to avoid—of creepy, entitled men who demand sexual favours for cheap and become aggressive when turned down.
“I’ve had a 22-year-old who wanted to be my daddy but couldn’t afford it. He got really mad when I wouldn’t lower my price for him,” says Jessica. “I was called a bitch and a prostitute.”
Megan is undaunted by these less-than-savoury encounters, which she considers an unavoidable aspect of the sex work industry.
“[My most memorable experience] was probably the man who wanted to suck my toes while I insulted him,” Megan says. “But don’t get me wrong, I’m not shaming him. You kind of have to be open-minded as a sex worker.”
Any form of online dating entails an inherent danger to women, although this risk is particularly elevated for escorts. According to a recent study by the American Public Health Association, 45–75 per cent of sex workers will experience sexual violence while on the job. Although escorts are relatively protected from the violence faced by street-based prostitutes, they remain vulnerable to assault and harassment at the hands of their clients. So why do they do it?
WHEN MINIMUM WAGE ISN’T ENOUGH
University tuition in Canada has been on a steady rise for years. Statistics Canada announced that the standard undergraduate tuition fees for the 2016-17 academic year were 2.8 per cent higher than the year before. On average, undergraduate students are paying 40 per cent more in tuition than they did a decade ago.
With these rising costs and other basic expenses, it’s no surprise that the sugar daddy industry appeals to students like Megan, whose mental and physical illnesses prevent her from finding a conventional job. Compared to B.C.’s hourly minimum wage of $10.85, ‘sugaring’ might seem to be a sweet deal indeed.
How does Victoria stack up to the rest of Canada? On SeekingArrangements.com, the University of Victoria ranked #20 for new student members in 2016. With Victoria’s large retiree population, there’s no shortage of older men with time and money to spare. Though the image of the typical retired Victoria man — think dad sandals and fleece vests — might not scream ‘daddy’ material, a 2015 SeekingArrangement poll of 12 700 Canadian men showed that 76 per cent of men surveyed from Victoria had over seven sexual partners per year. And in 2012, Victoria bragged the wealthiest sugar daddies in Canada, beating out major cities like Toronto and Ottawa.
Financial strain isn’t the only factor driving these women to pursue sugar daddies. The media often glorifies escorts—Pretty Woman, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and Young & Beautiful are notable examples — by casting gorgeous actresses as typical, down-on-her-luck working gals who are fed champagne and caviar by their ruggedly handsome clients. The sex scenes portrayed in the media are often humorous or enigmatic candlelit affairs that take place in five-star hotel rooms. By glossing over the ugly and normalizing the glamorous, mainstream media greatly influences young women’s attitudes towards the sex work industry.
CAN SEX WORK BE EMPOWERING?
It’s an ancient debate: is sex work feminist? While it’s difficult to reconcile the traditional image of a prostitute—poor and vulnerable, under a pimp’s control—with modern feminist ideologies, sugar babies are in a completely different league. They operate under their own terms, dictating their payments, the men they see, and the extent of their services.
“I think [working as a sugar baby] is the epitome of female empowerment,” says Megan. “I’m taking control and owning my body, I do what I want with it, and I use the sexuality imposed on me by the patriarchy to make money. If men are going to be creepy because they feel that they’re entitled to, I might as well profit off of it.”
Although some modern feminists are approaching sex work with an increasingly progressive attitude, others remain unconvinced. Feminist writer Rosie Boycott offered criticism for Secret Diary of a Call Girl in an article for the Daily Mail, writing:
“A series like this turns women into sex objects: regardless of whether it is written by women or by men, it perpetuates the myth that women’s prime reason for living is to service the wishes and desires of men.”
Despite such objections, the strong sense of female solidarity among sugar babies is undeniable. By exchanging advice and experiences, these women create an encouraging, judgement-free environment for one another. Transactional relationships will always be a topic of contention for feminists, but as escorts seek to destigmatize sex work, it’s clear that the industry is in the midst of a revolution.
*Editor’s note: All names have been changed for privacy reasons.