By Amanda Marcotte / Alternet
Soaring tuition rates are causing a number of reactions from the public: concern for young people saddled with ever-growing debt, anger at governments for cutting back on education instead of taxing the rich appropriately, calls for system-wide reform to help restore America’s global competitiveness. But some see it as an opportunity to market sexual services to men who find the idea of college women in dire economic straights to be arousing.
The leading company in this market recently sent out a glowing press release — heavy with sexist, outdated terms like “coed” — applauding the explosion of desperate college students and letting its customers know that the pool of available sex workers had grown tremendously. It particularly recommended universities in California as a place where the market is flooded with young women who are willing to pretend to like having sex with you in exchange for the kind of financial relief that used to be the government’s responsibility.
For example, UC Berkley experienced a 67% growth and UC Davis experienced a 220% growth, earning them spots among the “Fastest Growing Sugar Baby Schools of 2012.”
Now, obviously one should take statistics offered by “sugar daddy” businesses with a grain of salt. They are trying to convince potential customers that the market is flooded with young women, alluring them both with a larger array of choices and the opportunity to use the more competitive market to pay each sex worker less for her services.
That said, it’s no big surprise that California would lead the pack. California’s budget cuts have led to an astounding 21 percent rise in tuition at public universities like Berkeley and Davis. Berkeley estimates that it cost the average resident student between $28,000 and $32,000 last year to attend, between tuition, housing and cost-of-living expenses. For this year, UC Davis also puts the cost between $28,000 and $32,000.
The reason for these astronomical numbers is tuition, which makes up as much as half the budgeted expenses for California students now. At least for those students who turn to sex work, the sugar daddy website offers a student discount, allowing them a free “premium” account if they register with an .edu email address. (Though how many students are willing to tie outside sex work to an official email account is debatable.) But the reasons for offering this upgrade shouldn’t be mistaken for generosity; college girls get special treatment because they’re in demand. The website calls it their “special appeal,” but those of us who are less fond of euphemism point out that johns enjoy the fantasy of scoring a “good girl” who would otherwise be out of their reach if it weren’t for her financial straits.
In 2011, Amanda Fairbanks interviewed a customer for Huffington Post and found that was very much the appeal for the 70-year-old millionaire.
“I only go out with girls 25 and under,” says Jack, whose thick head of white hair and bushy eyebrows form a halo around a red, flushed face. “But I can’t walk into a bar and go up to a 25-year-old. They’d think I’m a pervert. So, this is how I go about meeting them.”
It makes sense; the whole point of the too-cute language about “sugar daddies” and “sugar babies” is to make the whole thing sound more like it’s dating than prostitution. The fantasy for the johns is being able to buy their way out of being too old or otherwise sexually unappealing for the women they want to have sex with. To have someone who, if not for soaring tuition rates, would probably be spending this Saturday night with a boyfriend her own age spices things up.
There’s nothing wrong with going into sex work as a career, or as most women view it, as a temporary stop-gap to pay the bills, but the power imbalances in this situation should give anyone pause. The website sends out cutesy press releases and gets free publicity from content-hungry news organizations that enjoy a little titillation. But while the johns go mostly unmentioned and the website gets free publicity, the young women themselves get treated poorly by the press. A Google search of online write-ups of this press release revealed an array of nasty descriptions of women who go into sex work: “women…of a certain moral caliber,” “kept women,” “looking to sell their dignities,” “declining cultural morals,” and failing to meet university standards of “student integrity and leadership.”
Needless to say, the young women are also bearing most of the legal risk of these kinds of operations. The website merely bills itself as encouraging companionship and shifts the responsibility for negotiating the payment for sex–the actual illegal behavior–onto the backs of the women, who aren’t in a financial place to deal with legal fallout if they get caught, unlike their rich clients.
Reading through the website’s take on college women is a wonderland of contradictions. Sometimes, they defensively deny exploiting financial desperation by claiming this is a choice of first resort for the women: “This is a preferred lifestyle. It’s a relationship in some form, not an unsavory business proposition. They forget that we are all adults and at the end of the day we choose to be here. There are hundreds of other ways to make money, this isn’t a job or a solution to a problem, it’s a way of life.”
The problem is that their clients want the fantasy of the girl who isn’t “really” a prostitute, so despite these claims, they heavily market the idea that the women wouldn’t be here if not for their financial insecurity. Their marketing materials dwell on maxed-out credit cards and exhaustion from working “double shifts.” Student loans and rising tuition are heavily highlighted. For men who are considering paying for sex, the site wants to make it very clear: These women are desperate.
There’s an easy analogy in all this in an era where ordinary people find middle-class dreams increasingly hard to achieve while the rich preach “austerity” and clamor for permanent tax cuts. Growing income inequality is less than an unfortunate side-effect of conservative policies. For the rich, it’s an opportunity, a chance to extract concessions that the rest of us would otherwise not give.