This week, Karley Sciortino—famed sex writer and host of VICELAND's show Slutever—releases her new book, Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World, via Grand Central Publishing. Before you dive into the book proper, though, you can preview an excerpt right now, detailing Sciortino's exploration of the "sugar baby" sub-category of sex work. Read on, and don't forget to watch Slutever Wednesdays at 10 PM on VICELAND.
For decades, the cultural conversation around sex work has been essentially the same: Sex workers are abused, dehumanized victims, and sex work is bad for society. In the 1970s, radical feminists and antiporn crusaders like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon made it their mission to perpetuate the cultural misconception that all sex work is inherently degrading, bolstering both the sexual objectification of women and the patriarchy. Some have gone as far as to say that all sex work is rape. We don’t consider consensual sex violence, and we don’t consider being paid violence, but if you put the two together, you’re being exploited and need to be saved… apparently. While the moralists who preach this ostensibly mean well, what this discourse does is imply that sex workers have no agency. Even if a sex worker insists that she works of her own free will, she shouldn’t be taken seriously, because she must be either lying or brainwashed or on crack.
So, of course, when faced with my own decision about whether to begin sugar babying, all these things were swirling around in my mind—along with, What the fuck would I do if my Catholic parents ever found out? Of course, I had a choice. I was in no way being forced into selling my body in the dark and sensational way that we often imagine is the case with sex workers. I wouldn’t have starved or become homeless or died if I didn’t set up a sugar baby profile. But I might have had to move out of New York. And I might have had to give up on my dream of being a writer, perhaps taking out a loan to go back to school, choosing instead a career that was more practical but less fulfilling. And I didn’t want to do those things. So I made what I felt was the best choice for me at the time. I looked at myself in the mirror and said: “Yo, you have sex with people you don’t like all the time; you might as well get fucking paid for it.”
Madeline—my sugar baby roommate at the time, and ever the whore mentor—offered to help me make my SeekingArrangement profile. I remember that afternoon vividly: We were lying on the living room couch in our pajamas, scarfing gummy bears, as Madeline casually spouted bits of hooker wisdom. “OK, so the most important thing to remember when filling out your profile is that men have small brains but huge egos,” she said, mouth full of candy. “You have to convince these guys that they’re taking care of you, rather than paying for you, because that makes them feel pathetic. You want to make them feel powerful by using words like ‘benefactor’ and ‘mentor.’ Basically, you’re a scared baby lamb in the big city who needs a real man with a big cock and a big fat wallet to show you the way—or you’ll die.” It was all so… predictable.
Madeline explained that there’s generally two types of guys on these sites. She’d nicknamed them the Bleeding Hearts and the Contract Sugar Daddies. A Bleeding Heart actually thinks he’s in a relationship with you—he wants to put his hand on your inner thigh in public, to go to sporting events together, and for you to pretend to come like five times during sex, basically. Bleeding Hearts are often saying things like, “I’m always really generous with my girlfriends, so I don’t see why this is any different.” When the issue of money comes up, you both have to pretend that it’s for your rent, or a camera that will help you launch your photography career, or basically anything to distract from the fact that he has to pay a girl to stand next to him. And then there’s the Contract Sugar Daddies. These guys are more businesslike about it—they pay you a set fee each time they see you, or give you an allowance each month. These guys, she explained, tend to be more confident—they’re not embarrassed about the money element of the relationship, meaning they generally see sugar relationships as a convenience rather than as a necessity. Maybe they’re simply too busy or lazy to date for real, or maybe they’re married. The married guys, she explained, are the best, because they tend to have the least amount of free time to hang out with you.
Madeline prepared me pretty well, but being the good journalist that I am, I wanted to do my own
research. So I set up roughly a million dates. Essentially, SA functions like any other dating site: Everyone fills out a profile explaining who they are and what they’re looking for. The main difference is that, on SA, men’s profiles list their net worth, yearly income, and an estimate of how much they’re willing to spend on a sugar baby (ranging from a “practical” amount of $1,000 to $3,000 a month to a “high” amount of over $10,000 a month). There’s also a box where they note their relationship status—the “married but looking” option is one I assume they don’t offer on most “normal” dating sites.
At first, I wasn’t being selective, and I agreed to meet pretty much every guy who sent me a message. This proved to be a huge mistake and a nightmarish waste of time. I mean, imagine applying the same logic to Tinder—literally terrifying. In my defense, it’s harder to assess who you’re meeting through SA, because the majority of men don’t upload photos, for purposes of discretion, so you’re left assessing them by whatever they write in their profile. But they all write the same fucking thing. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like:
Handsome businessman looking for beautiful young woman to explore the world with. I’m very busy and travel too much to have a regular relationship. I don’t mean to brag, but I know quite a bit about art and fine wines. Travel junkie!! Chemistry a must. No professionals!!
Translated into reality, that means:
Aging, frumpy businessman looking for someone young to have sex with because my wife won’t fuck me anymore. I sometimes go to Florida on vacation. I like drinking and traveling, like everyone else on earth, and I’ve heard of Damien Hirst. I don’t want to pay you by the hour, and you have to pretend to like me.
Of course, I didn’t know all this at the time. I was a newbie. But I was about to embark on what I now reflect on as my second desensitization period.
The first guy I met was Jack. He was 35 and referred to himself on his profile as a “Cary Grant
type.” We met at a dive bar in the West Village, and it turned out he looked less like a 1930s movie star and more like the Unabomber. When I asked him what he did for a living, he told me he was a “student of the world.” It didn’t sound very lucrative. To make a short story even shorter, it turned out that Jack lived in his mom’s basement in Long Island, and had recently been given control of his parents’ bank account, following his father’s death. I told him I had to pee and snuck out the back entrance.
The next guy was a chubby-faced bond trader who, about seven minutes into our meeting, asked me if I wanted to move with him to Fort Lauderdale. After him was the guy from the Texan oil family, who took me for drinks at the Peninsula hotel and told me I looked like a “perfect little Nazi.” There was more than one guy who didn’t even show up, and multiple men who, when I brought up the financial component, tried to make me feel embarrassed about asking for money in exchange for my time—as if that weren’t the exact fucking dynamic that the site was founded on. As it turned out, they don’t call it sex work for nothing—and I hadn’t even banged anyone yet. I felt like I was going on a million tiny job interviews and never being hired. These were not the glamorous rendezvous I’d had in mind.
Excerpted from Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World by Karley Sciortino. Copyright 2018 by Karley Sciortino. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.