Maybe you've heard of us — the Ivy League babes who date men for money. People call us sugar babies to distinguish us from escorts and hookers, but it all falls under the general umbrella of "prostitute."
I fell into my sugar-baby role after graduating from college, a decision that I'm still hard-pressed to explain when people question it. It just seemed like the best option at the time. No internships or previous experience were required; starting salary would match the level of my hustle. I walked away when the money wasn't worth the effort anymore.
I never expected to leave the sugar-dating profession as a more vulnerable, wide-open person than when I started. I didn't expect to develop fond feelings for some of the men I dated, and I certainly didn't expect to learn anything from the experience. At most, I thought I would get a glimpse at the depths of depravity the human body is capable of. Instead, I walked away with newfound lessons about life. In nutshell, here is what I learned:
1. I learned how to value myself.
A strange side effect of being paid for sex was a strong disinclination to have sex for free. Once I started getting paid, it became apparent how transactional my sexual relationships usually were; I'd been trading sex for things my whole life, but it took formalizing the process for me to see it. I had sex to feel wanted, desired, powerful, and in control. I had sex to feel appreciated and worthwhile. In short, I had sex for the same reasons most people have sex, which had little to do with the experience itself.
When I stopped giving away my insights and lip-skills for free, I gained respect for myself. I had to price myself in an open marketplace now rather than playing the unspoken games of exchange and sex that characterize dating (e.g., Dinner and drinks implies a make-out at least. Do I owe him something if I think I like him until his pants come off? He's in my friend circle and I don't want to make things awkward, etc.). No more how do I make him like me or what if I'm not good enough? I am what I am, and if someone didn't want to pay for it, someone else would. This has bled over into my dating life now — if people were willing to pay to be around my authentic self, the idea of acting like someone else for free just seems silly. I don't have time to please anyone but myself and doing just that has made the people I care about in my life happier too.
2. I am free.
Existing in the relationship market as the ultimate socially reviled profiteer was the most liberating thing I've ever done — far above going topless in public or discussing my bisexuality with my parents. I learned what it feels like to create a calm eye in the middle of a storm of judgment. When I spoke publicly about my activities, I was chewed out in the media and in personal messages by various strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family members. I was told I shouldn't be who I am, I shouldn't do what I've done, and if I won't change, then I should at least shut up about it.
I think we all get these messages over the course of our lives, and usually we bow to the pressure. Snapping back to my own shape hurt at first, but now I couldn't imagine any other way. I feel like the hero after you've completed the Master Quest in a video game — familiar with the chaotic order of the universe and utterly confident in my ability to walk through life without worrying about why this is happening to me or what I could have done to be somewhere else.
3. It's OK to ask for and accept help.
The types of relationships I chose were usually with older, married men, predicated on the idea that they were "sponsoring" me, just lending a helping hand while I got on my feet. They wanted to believe I was a student or an artist who couldn't quite hack it on her own, who needed someone to show her how to exist in this man's world. They wanted to share the spoils of their hard work: money and knowledge.
It was a heady experience, being suddenly given most things I asked for. It taught me to continue to ask for what I need, whether it's emotional support, honesty, quality time, or respect. I learned that people want to help and have the resources to do so. I learned that there is no shame in not being able to do everything myself — that, in fact, no one can, and those who try end up lonely and stressed. Sugar dating helped me to accept that all of us need help, and asking for it is a skill that can be cultivated.
4. Everyone is the same.
I never expected to see reflections of my parents, friends, and other loved ones in my clients. At first I thought of them as belonging to a category removed from me, a group of sad sacks who couldn't hack it emotionally and so they turned to sex-on-tap for a fee. As time went on, their confessions belied their humanity — these men with high-powered jobs and children were just as lost as I was. I learned about the everyday anxiety that still plagued the middle-aged adult: Will I be accepted? Will my contribution be enough? Am I worthy of what I've been given? How badly have I failed? — and the patchwork ways we cultivate habits designed to help us escape.
I was a drug to these men, a respite from the grind of everyday life, and through their offhand accounts of their lives I peeped through the keyhole at the average American marriage. The experience confirmed for me the danger of always doing what's expected of you — at some point you realize that you've forgotten where you end and your persona begins.
5. Everybody wants the same things.
I was surprised that none of my clients surprised me with their desires — no hard-core kinkiness or fairy-tale love aspirations. Mostly they just wanted to be seen. They wanted to pour their thoughts and emotions into my empty vessel and see understanding reflected back at them in my eyes. Isn't that what sex is for most people, anyway? A search for validation within the fortress of another's body?
My anxiety and fear about taking what I want from life dissipated when I saw that men who had the solid life so many of my peers envy are still facing the same questions we millennials are asking: How do I find happiness in a consumerist society? Is money worth the sacrifice of happiness? Is it possible to be happy?
Maybe we'll never find the answers, but to me, it's immensely comforting that age, gender, status, class, and education don't forestall the same existential angst we feel as teenagers. If we're all just trying to find our way in the world as best we can, I feel lucky to have discovered that all paths lead to the same place. All this money for sex has taught me that it never really is about the destination — the journey is the part that shapes the constantly changing work of art that is you.