Sex work and ‘sugaring’
I expected it to be easy. I wasn’t a professional escort but I knew enough about brown liquor, push-up bras and blow jobs to play the role. The men scared me – my notion of them at least – and I liked that. I imagined them in tailored suits, slick like seals, ties loosened after work in dark corporate bars, swilling glasses of something old and expensive, gold rings glinting. I imagined myself beside them, in a nothing dress with the lowest neckline, slightly on edge, knowing I’d be fucked soon, given a fresh wad of cash and returned home.
It was a delicious fantasy. But the reality of being a sugar baby is far removed from this exoticism. The men I’ve met while sugaring are regular men, living in the real world and not the one I’d invented for them.
Newly jobless and heartbroken by the end of a complicated relationship, I took up sugaring as a way to earn money and fuck men I wouldn’t be tempted to fall for. Sex work had interested me in the past but I’d never had the nerve to become a full-blown escort or look for work in a brothel. I wasn’t even sure what my politics about it were. But I loved going on first dates and having sex, so it seemed like a good chance to dip my toe into that world.
For a month or so, it was my dirty little secret. I was enticed by the idea of living a double life. I started an account on Seeking Arrangement (SA), uploaded my photos, changed my age to 25 and renamed myself Emmy. I created an idealised version of myself, a version I thought would fit into that world but one I would also be capable of maintaining convincingly.
In the sugar baby world, you are forced early to decide what your time is worth. Is it enough to have a man buy you a new dress and pay for your drinks all night in exchange for a few hours of your life? Or do you want to conduct a business, apply an hourly rate to your time? Failure to make this decision puts you at risk of selling yourself short, agreeing to any old offer a man makes.
The memory of my first meet-up still gives me the creeps. It was a workday. I’d been on SA for a few weeks, trying to get the hang of it, when David messaged. I’d done my homework and decided on my terms: a public meeting in a bar, cash upfront, my drinks paid for, and then back to a hotel. I wouldn’t make house calls on the first meeting, and I wouldn’t accept less than $300. David looked good in his pics and was youngish, maybe 40. He told me he was hungover and needed some company so I played along. He wanted to know how much. I said $300. He countered with $100. Yes, it was insulting; but I was desperately lonely, heartbroken and horny. And I needed money. So I asked for $200. He responded firmly with $100. I asked him to at least tack on $20 for my Uber. He agreed to do that.
Parking a little up the street so he wouldn’t see that I’d driven, I sent him a message, then perched on the doorstep of his building to wait, incredulous at my own gall. When he came outside, he had a gut that was not visible in his pictures and was carrying a bag of rubbish. A real multitasker. Inside, he said, “You wanna drink?” I gratefully accepted. He returned with a glass of water – there would be no easing into this. I wanted him to be a banker or a doctor; he owned an electrical contracting company. I was there for an hour-and-a-half, listening to him talk spitefully about the sugar babies he’d fucked before me, the two-year-old daughter he’d only just found out about, that time he’d been mistakenly put under police surveillance for being associated with a bikie gang. I kept thinking: “What if I don’t want to fuck him and he forces me? What if he doesn’t pay me?”
He started telling me about a past employee, a hiring mistake, someone who’d seemed like a good bloke but ended up murdering someone, a notorious public figure. I ventured to ask. David paused for dramatic effect then asked, “Do you know the name Adrian Bayley?”
That was it for me: I was out. There was no way in hell I’d be having sex with him now.
I wish I could say I escaped when David went to take a shit. But I sat, paralysed with anxiety, certain that the moment I stood up, he’d come out of the bathroom. He’d asked me to take off my shoes when I came in. I looked longingly at them by the door. He came back and sat super close to me, put his arm around me, started kissing my neck. I wriggled away and told him I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t go through with it, fucking for money. It wasn’t him, it was me. Lies, lies, lies. I lied to protect his ego and to save myself. He looked annoyed, even tried saying, “You know I wasn’t putting a dollar value on you. I really like you.” Bullshit. Lies and bullshit. I fled, bursting into tears on the way back to the car. David didn’t offer the $120. I shut myself up safely in my room and cried while masturbating to a photo of my ex.
I continued with sugaring but I’d learnt a valuable lesson. Thankfully, the experiences I had meeting up with men after David were more positive, albeit not all of them financially productive. Gradually, I opened up about sugaring to some of my friends, made sure someone knew when I was going to meet a sugar daddy. I also campaigned harder to have my terms met. I think this is partly why I’ve had such marginal success in the whole thing. In the year that I’ve been sugaring, on and off, I’ve made less than $1000 from it, but I’ve lost countless hours in messaging.
It turns out sugaring takes a lot of work. It’s not that easy to get someone to pay you for your time. Trust me, I’m a freelance writer. When you enter the sugaring industry, you’re entering into real work: it’s marketing, it’s business administration, it’s stakeholder management. It’s woman’s work exaggerated, balancing two contrasting roles: the sexually liberated, happy-go-lucky girl and the determined businesswoman. It’s trying to persuade a man you are worth parting with his money for, and making it feel like his idea.
When I was in the United States last year for a writing residency, I met Sally, a 24-year-old from Missouri who had used SA to buy shoes and fund holidays. She saw one man regularly who would happily transfer cash to her without necessarily needing to meet. I suspect that a sugar baby’s success is due in large part to her location. In the modest metropolis of Melbourne, your average sugar daddy is just a true blue Aussie bloke: he’s an ordinary businessman or doctor, a tradie, a divorced dad who saves weekends for his kids, a husband looking for a “discreet” arrangement. Honestly, most messages you receive are from a bunch of tight-arses who waste your time by never meeting up, or who hope paying for your drinks will be enticement enough for you to sit on their dicks.
Which brings me to one of the most surprising outcomes of my career: my change in attitude towards casual sex. Like most people, I’ve relied heavily on dating apps to find love and, generally, just get laid. A funny consequence of sugaring for me was that when I started having paid sex, I lost interest in Tinder and Bumble.
It’s easy to think of sex work in a purely transactional way, money exchanged for a service. And it’s easy to imagine that putting a dollar value on your time and body is a way of commodifying or devaluing yourself. But it had the opposite effect for me. Sugaring made me reflect on the boring casual sex I’d had. I started thinking that if I was going to do it with randos, I might as well be paid for it. And if I was going to do it free on dating apps, I wanted to really like the person. Run-of-the-mill casual sex had lost its risqué appeal.
I’m sure that linking money and self-worth is a fundamentally flawed concept, but the fact remains that becoming a sugar baby has given me permission to think of my time and myself as being weightier in value. This has been important for me.
After a year of sugaring, I’m still waiting for my fantasy sugar daddy to appear. But I know he’s out there: that wealthy, smouldering astrophysicist, patiently sipping his 100-year-old Scotch in a leather armchair. I suppose I’d consider a doctor. Or a banker. Or a brickie. But the 100-year-old Scotch, well, that’s non-negotiable. I’ll wait, because I’m playing the long game here.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Sugar coating". Subscribe here.