The sugar daddy upholds the fantasy of unconditional love by masking the very real conditions of lovability
My extended family has all but withered away. Their love contracted and contracted and now there is no one left to give it to. They loved in a totalizing and aggressive and painful way, heaping love on people who didn’t deserve it and withholding it from people who did. These random acts of exclusion and inclusion seem cruel, but they form the founding conditions of a family. In order to love people unconditionally, there have to be conditions regarding who can receive that love.
Love’s conditions are invisible and arbitrary—they have to feel non-existent so that the love can feel true. To believe that “love is blind” is to believe in a realm of human connection free of power—we fetishize stories where love overcomes differences in race, class, age, and gender to allow people to really feel. In fact, love is not “blind.” Marriage, the consummation of traditional romantic love, is often a tool for concentrating wealth in the hands of people who already have it. This is why resources like healthcare, citizenship, and tax benefits are distributed through marriage, and why married couples can share money without paying taxes on it: love compounds wealth. But we talk about it as if it is a magic spell that just so happens to bewitch people of similar racial and economic backgrounds.
We like to believe that the market is also unconditional—free market ideology makes the rules of distributing resources invisible. For example, one of these rules is race, a caste system invented to steal wealth from people of color and give it to white people. With the invention of blackness and the commodification of black people, white people literally invented a new source of wealth for themselves to buy, sell, and exploit. This exploitation continues today, and probably all wealth in this country derives from slavery in some form. But national discourse continues to focus on the “cultural differences” between black people and everyone else, as if that explains the staggering wealth divide. In order to continue concentrating wealth in white hands, we must continue to believe that race is a set of cultural practices that just so happens to correspond to different groups’ differential access to resources.
The patriarch of my family was a first-generation Italian-American: an anti-fascist, feminist, anarchist sausage-maker. For him, money was the most important thing in the world, but only so that you’d able to give enough of it to your children so that money wouldn’t have to be the most important thing in the world for them. Work is the most important thing in the world, but only so that the next generation doesn’t have to work as hard as you.
Three generations later I am left with a lot more invisible rules that just so happen to benefit me. I was brought up with these implicit beliefs: If your parents love you, they’ll make sure you don’t have to worry about money. But your parents shouldn’t have to work too hard for money, because then you’d be able to tell they were sacrificing for you, and that itself would mean you should worry. One resolution to this problem is to learn the two secret passwords into the bourgeois liberal class: either just so happen to have rich parents (like me), or just so happen to have highly compensated work that fulfills the neoliberal ideal of perfectly egosyntonic labor (like my parents) so that it doesn’t feel like work.
The coercive power of capitalism is so strong that these rules of respectability and power always felt like they grew organically out of my family’s story—desperate to escape the instability and emotional violence of her family, my mother accumulated capital of all kinds until she could create a family that was seemingly protected from the influence of money and work. Care that left a sign of its effort was repulsive to me because it made love seem transactional—if something had to be sacrificed in order for me to have something, then I was in debt. Real love should erase all other considerations. Care was only authentic when it was in a vacuum. My family’s love was supposed to provide a break from the cruel, hateful market, but it only reinforced the truth of the market’s rules.
Under these conditions, learning to hustle was an erotic activity. It was a deliberate, empowering, exciting exploration of something that had always been repulsive and forbidden to me: the transactional nature of relationships. Always judgmental and magnetic, since I was young I’ve been able to make people think that supporting me would have some immediate reward for them: my kindness and my approval. I walked around the cafeteria in high school getting quarters to buy lunch just because I could and I made teachers believe I respected them so much that not giving me an A would be a mark against them.
This power depended in large part on maintaining an unassailable, easily digestible normality. In my case, this meant being held hostage by my masculinity. I never felt good being male and strove, with best friend after best friend, to find someone who was so expansively, totally masculine that he would forbid me from even trying to be male at all. But, in my eyes, a correctly masculine boy would only like me if I, too, were correctly masculine. I dreamed of becoming male enough to no longer have to be a man at all.
This is the material that formed my desire for sex with men. As in my search for a best friend, in sex I sought a partner who could vanquish my masculinity once and for all. I always wanted to be fucked as a woman, whatever that means. And I started to fantasize about getting paid for it because getting paid to be a woman would mean I finally got to have it both ways: I would get undeniable, immediate proof that I was worth something and it would be because my masculinity was weak, not because it was strong.
The only kind of sex my sugar daddy and I had for a while was me jacking off while he told me about letting me use his credit card. That’s the only thing I could cum to. Afterwards he would sometimes ask me, “Would you still want to be with me if I didn’t have money?” and I would respond, “Would you still want to be with me if I weren’t gorgeous, thin, kind, and permanently tan?”
Bourgeois white women—the standard-bearers of the regulative ideal of femininity—have traditionally had to find financial support from a partner rather than from a job, or rely on a male partner’s income to supplement their lower wages. In exchange, they have been expected to do the emotional work that their partners need in order to go on producing value for their boss. So the resources women have traditionally needed from relationships are easily quantifiable, while the resources men have needed are not. Women are easily depicted as gold-diggers for getting what they need from a man, but it seems inevitable and natural when men plunder everything they can take from a woman.
Sugar daddy relationships affirm both the illusion of unconditional, blind love and the illusion of a fair free market. They distribute love on the logic of money, making love seem like the hard-earned prize of all your hard work, daddy. And they distribute money on the logic of love, making money seem benevolent and unconditional, sweetie.
In order to believe that you deserve the glut of resources and love that comes with being a respectable member of the middle class, you have to erase the true cost of that status—the exchanges, violence, and power that earned you that care. Bourgeois liberals will admit that the world is a violent place, because they’re liberals, and they’ll admit that they did well in that world, because they’re middle class, but they won’t often admit that succeeding in a violent world must mean employing violence for your own benefit. This is what I mean by erasing transactionality.
My struggle with gender made the transactional nature of earning care unavoidable. People assigned male at birth learn young and quickly how much we stand to lose if we so much as talk to girls too much. Staying masculine was the result of a cost-benefit analysis. Gayness was as close as I could get to being a woman while still maintaining my power. Before ever doing sex work, I had been “selling myself” to maintain access to resources my whole life.
Of course, nobody should have to sell ourselves or our labor in any way to earn care, because no one actually deserves food, housing, or love more than anyone else. My fixation on earning the love and resources I have access to comes from a lifetime of selling my labor and my image in ways I was so unaware of that I internalized them as natural behaviors. And yet I’m white and have rich, caring parents—I could never earn all the care I was born to receive. Money turns me on because the illusion that I deserve it is my ultimate fantasy.