On The Ethics of "Sugar Daddies" and "Sugar Babies"

Kelly: Did you hear about this “sugar daddy” and “sugar baby” phenomenon wherein college girls are whoring themselves out through the internet to skeevy rich older men so they can pay for their college educations? It makes me sick to think that for these girls an education costs their bodies. These kids have to sell their integrity just to get something that should be a human right and is, at minimum, an economic necessity. And these rich men who probably vote to defund education get to prey on their vulnerability. It is win-win for these men. They hoard their money and then exploit the desperation of students who enter college broke and forced to come up with tens of thousands of dollars that they couldn’t possibly have from their own labor yet, just to be able to get the degree which is absolutely vital to their ever earning anything. Unless their parents were extremely good about saving up for this and weren’t wiped out in 2008 by Wall Street’s greedy bastards’ market recklessness, these kids are forced with a morally unconscionable choice: a huge debt burden right out of the gate, before they can ever earn anything, or having to pull themselves up by their bra straps as practically sex slaves to their lascivious overlords who would pinch every penny if they came to them for a more dignified job but are more than happy to stuff hundred dollar bills between their rented breasts.

Jaime: Whoah, Kelly! Surely this is not as bad as all that! This is just about sex and companionship and earning a lot of money. These young women are not anyone’s slaves. They are autonomous, sexually liberated women. Many of them come from elite universities. They are smart people making a calculation about what their time and their attentions are worth. Isn’t that what everyone does when they “sell out” and turn their labor—their intelligence, their special skills, their charming personalities, their diligence, their emotions, their time, their ambitions—all for someone else’s projects? That’s what having a job is. It is not always fun.

Kelly: But this is sex! It should not be a job!

Jaime: And why not?! What makes it so holy that it can never be something done for anything but the highest and most personal self-satisfaction and self-realization? We live in an age of birth control, condoms, and demystification of “sacred” things. Why is sex still being put into this realm of things which cannot be commodified without destroying the dignity of the sex worker? Why do we think that when it comes to sex putting your talents to use in order to gain money somehow exploits and degrades people whereas all sorts of other places where we subordinate our personalities and talents to earning a buck are perfectly fine?

Kelly: This is not about these girls exercising their talents for a profit, it’s about reducing them to toys and about turning a deeply intimate, self-expressive act like sex into something where their personalities do not matter. For these girls, in this kind of sex, their desires are basically irrelevant and their real feelings are excluded in favor of patronizing pathetic perverts with whatever niceties they want to hear. This turns an activity which should be the height of authenticity into something cynical and alienating.

Jaime: You don’t think there could be anything reciprocal in these relationships? These are not just one-off, sex-only deals. The arrangement is looser than that. It is technically just about companionship. The men do not even pay directly for sex. Haven’t you seen Pretty Woman?? Maybe these men are charming. Maybe they take these women out and show them a good time and introduce them to interesting people and pamper them with gifts. Maybe all of this makes up for whatever weathering of age on their bodies that might make them not the women’s ideal mates physically. Are you blaming these men for aging?

Kelly: No, I’m blaming them for not growing up. I’m blaming them for not being able to be in real relationships with their equals but instead leveraging their wealth to exploit mere girls who they could not possibly find genuinely interesting.

Jaime: How do you know that?! That’s incredibly condescending to these young women.

Kelly: No, it is incredibly demeaning to all women that men as they age do not find the increasing knowledge and abilities and self-confidence and power of mature women attractive but rather they are only interested in young bodies and inexperience that cannot see right through their piggish lechery. I’m sure these men are extremely “charming” as they go through the paces of pretending to respect these girls. And maybe a few of the girls are suckered into believing that the outward sophistication that money can buy is some indicator of inner-virtue. But let’s not kid ourselves: these men just want access to what they consider “prime meat” and they would skip all the other niceties if these girls from “elite institutions” didn’t need them as part of the deal so they didn’t feel like street walkers.

Jaime: Now that’s demeaning.

Kelly: What is?

Jaime: Putting down all prostitutes like that. These are human beings. They’re not garbage just because they do not superstitiously sacralize sex. It’s just sex.

Kelly: I don’t demean them, exploitative patriarchy and capitalism lead them to demean themselves out of desperation.

Jaime: So you think that it is right that prostitution is illegal?

Kelly: No, that has never made prostitution illegal, just increased women’s vulnerabilities to violence, financial exploitation, prison, and sexually transmitted infections. It should be safe, legal, and happen as little as necessary because we have a culture that gives women far better options. But just because it is better legal than illegal does not mean it is moral or healthy. It is a denigration of sex.

Jaime: Listen to you, “denigration of sex”—sex is many wonderful emotional and physical things but it is not some high and sanctified thing, it’s just sex. And as long as it is consensually agreed to by adults, it’s nothing to be so agitated about.

Kelly: There is no such thing as “just sex”. Sex means things. It is a form of self-expression and you cannot just turn that off without living inauthentically.

Jaime: Again, there are plenty of places in life where we turn off our full self-expression for the sake of pleasing others—even for money! Why is this any different? It’s not like when these young women go back to their boyfriends or girlfriends or husbands or wives and have sex out of love that it will not be self-expression anymore. That is like saying I must always do the same activity the same way with everyone. Just because these young women might have to treat sex as a job while “at work” does not mean they cannot treat it differently in other contexts. What makes sex such a big deal to you? What kinds of magical things do you think automatically happen during it?

Kelly: Nothing magical needs to happen during sex. Only normal virtues like self-respect and self-expression and love. To take one of your most precious means for revealing yourself intimately and hock it for money is to say that, in principle, nothing about you is not for sale.

Jaime: So, a woman’s sexual expression is more valuable than her intellect?

Kelly: Where are you getting THAT from? I am arguing exactly the opposite! I want women to be valued for their brains and not just their bodies.

Jaime: If the most valuable part of ourselves is the part that should never be sold and a woman’s brains are the most important thing about her, then why should she ever sell them out? Why should she use her brilliance to sell soap or to sell knowledge? Why, if this is the best part of her, why should she not protect it the most from being a mere commodity?

Kelly: Because in jobs that use her intellect it is her virtue that is being both developed and appreciated. They are about her own flourishing too, not just about her clients or her bosses using her for their own purposes and because she just looks pretty.

Jaime: But these young women—and prostitutes generally—do have to have virtues. They are a kind of caregiver. These are probably pretty lonely men. You have to figure they are not in an optimal situation in life if they have to be paying for intimacy. You don’t know what they are going through that drives them to shell out hundreds of dollars for a little human contact. These “sugar babies”, and even outright prostitutes, are providing emotional comfort.

Kelly: A warm body treated like a toy and paraded like a trophy is not emotional comfort. At best it is ego massage and a chance for the man to have a power trip.

Jaime: Look, we are bodily creatures, human contact is vitally important. Even if it does not come with the sacred perfect love you think it always should, sex and touching and physical and emotional attention can send subconscious messages through those men’s bodies and minds and be good for their well-being.

Kelly: Okay, and what do these subconscious messages tell the woman’s body? That sex is something disconnected from being respected and honored as an equal and loved for her whole self? And forgive me for not being inspired to contemplate women exercising the servile “virtues” of pandering to men’s needs. Those are not the virtues that they should be encouraged to flourish in.

Jaime: So now jobs where you serve other people are inherently “servile”?

Kelly: No, don’t put words in my mouth. We are talking about women not finding avenues to exercise their virtues of the intellect or of leadership and yet finding an ever-present market for putting their own excellence or their own pleasure aside and catering to privileged men’s whims instead. There is always a demand for that. Women’s leadership abilities? Not so much.

Jaime: Well, these are young women at elite schools preparing for those leadership roles once they have the education they need first.

Kelly: Not all prostitutes are so privileged or have such futures ahead of them.

Jaime: Look, not all men are power-brokers either. Who does the hard physical labor in this society? How many men take how many years off their bodies through grueling physical exertion in the service of others—their bosses, their families… It is okay for a man to work like a slave and risk long term injuries and death and wear and tear on his body, but if a woman just has to have some potentially rote sex and has to act all pleasant to help that man relax and get some physical contact and the feeling of female affection, then she has been degraded and reduced to her “servile” virtues only? For most people, male or female, the rule in life is “you’re gonna have to serve somebody”. Yes, men and women should both equally have leadership positions too. But let’s not degrade all those who serve others. That won’t make the need for service jobs go away, it will only diminish respect for those who serve others for a living.

Kelly: You make this sound like being a prostitute is being a nurse.

Jaime: Maybe it is! Or maybe a therapist, someone else who is paid for emotional support. Prostitutes report that many men come in who don’t even want sex, they want “the girlfriend experience”. I once saw a TV show which profiled a sad old widower who mourned his wife for years, tried pitifully to date new women, eventually turned to prostitutes to fill a physical and emotional comfort need that was not exactly around the corner for him through more respected forms of dating. Did you ever stop to think maybe some of these men’s motivations might be more rooted in emotional vulnerabilities than in a callous, exploitative attitude that cares nothing about women?

Kelly: I don’t buy it. There are plenty of single women these men’s own ages. If all they really wanted was some genuine human connection and feeling, they would put more effort into reaching out to those women who are their equals in age and experience. But they don’t—they don’t want the give and take of engaging a woman who can give them a challenge and who they have to put effort into earning respect from before getting access to her body. They want the bodies that the media tells them are the only valuable ones and they want it without any of the relationship complexities that come with dealing with another human. They don’t want people, they want fantasies and reassurances of their status and privilege.

Jaime: And younger women, even ones not offering themselves as “sugar babies” are never more interested in trading their youth and beauty for a man with more experience and power?

Kelly: Even if some do, should they really look at these men as sugar daddies? How perverse is this? They are outright celebrating the idea that these are men who are after women young enough to be their children.

Jaime: But they’re not children. These are grown women…

Kelly: …who these men want to infantalize and use as substitutes for women whose maturity, whose womanhood, is inescapable.

Jaime: Or maybe they just want to fulfill a biologically inescapable need, consensually, with someone they find exciting, and without all the complications of involved emotional relationships that maybe they are not ready for—does everyone have to be capable of intense relationships just to be able to have sexual pleasure?

Kelly: “Just to be able to have sexual pleasure”? I must have missed the part where all these men had broken hands.

Jaime: How many times do I have to tell you that sex is not just about genital stimulation.

Kelly: How many times do I have to tell you that?

 

More debates between Jaime and Kelly:

A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity

Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

A Debate About the Wisdom of Trying to Deconvert People

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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