Money's everywhere, but talk of it remains taboo—particularly when the conversation involves sex and relationships. A 2012 study showed that fighting over funds is a leading cause of divorce among couples in the US. Another determined that nearly three-quarters of Americans are stressed about money. So what do we say to our partners when we talk about money? Why is it sometimes uncomfortable (or unattractive) to communicate about cash and socioeconomic status and what it means to us? How do power dynamics shift as currency flows?
Recent thoughtful reporting in mainstream publications—including cover stories in New York Magazine and the New York Times Magazine—around sex work has, in my mind, encouraged an important discussion about the direct and indirect influences that finances have on romantic relationships. These articles highlight how practically all of our interpersonal relationships—with lovers, parents, coworkers, and roommates—are at some point transactional. Our Venmo feeds, of payments and IOUs, show that whether discussed explicitly or never mentioned, money influences the ways we relate to and desire one another. This month in The Talk, video editor Chuka Chukuma and writers Jenny Zhang, Larissa Pham, Jesse Barron, and I discussed coupling in a world where cash rules.
Ana: We rarely try to reflect our class—the broke get broker, so they can pass as rich, and the rich give themselves away by fetishizing poverty. The sum effect is something like a flattening of class, which makes it easier to ignore or forget. My partner and I come from very disparate class backgrounds and, reversely, earn very different salaries. Yet if you looked at us, you'd never be able to tell.
Jesse: This reminds me of a scene from Thomas Chatterton Williams's Losing My Cool. Williams grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and goes to Georgetown. There's a scene where he is with a wealthy friend he calls Playboy in a grocery store. Playboy tells him to get a baguette. And he thinks, What the fuck is a baguette? He's walking around the store, and he's so humiliated he doesn't want to ask anyone what it is. Finally he figures out that "baguette" must be French for "a small bag," so he gets a grocery bag and meets his friend. He says he will never forget the look of condescension and pity and comprehension of how deep the error is. Class is more than money; it's a whole set of learned behaviors.
Ana: Totally. Class is about what you can get away with, where you'll be included. It's just as much about effect as it is about money. Has class played a role in how you guys evaluate potential friends or partners?
Jesse: Absolutely, consciously or not, because America is so segregated by class. Money determines what your peers and family accept. I know very few people whose partner comes from a vastly different social or economic background. There is a deep resistance to marrying "down." It's something so ingrained and absurd and Victorian.
Larissa: Yes! In college, as a response to that, I dated a lot of white guys who are less financially privileged than I am. That's been really strange. It crosses a race and a class line. I'd argue with one of my boyfriends, a white guy—from an immigrant family, but he is white—who grew up really poor in Queens, about which of us suffered more. I always told him that despite being well off, I've had jobs since I was sixteen.
Jenny: I'm always attracted to someone who seems to exist outside of the work, work, work of capitalism—someone who doesn't dream of upward mobility or doesn't buy into that fantasy. But that is often at odds with my desire for extravagance, for wild gestures, and for someone who can afford to be lavish without being blithely wasteful.
There's also a very significant difference between someone who is wealthy but tightfisted and someone who has to be thrifty. I come from a family that has gone through long periods of poverty, where my parents were extremely thrifty when it came to their own lives but still as generous as they could be with me and their children and family and friends. The most attractive partners and lovers possess this rare quality—they know the worth of each gift because they don't have the privilege of not being calculating with money, but spend money on their loved ones as if they did not need to be calculating.
Ana: I wonder how that sense of having to be "calculated," of having to stress about money, fucks with fucking. There's ease with wealth, and I think, uptightness with scarcity. Or the opposite could be just as true too.
Jenny: In a way, a certain level of financial stress—one that is mostly tolerable and involves being careful and thrifty rather than being constantly sick with worry over finances—can be kind of sexy. Maybe it's a part of my sexuality that remains truly decolonized and is titillated by the gross fantasy of a bohemian love affair—two people who only have each other. That can make the sexual attraction more intense and more meaningful, but over a sustained period of time, the allure of two broke people who seek riches in each other is just that—a fantasy that curdles. The excitement of squalor and struggle becomes just the squalor of struggling.
Chuka: As a guy, I feel the pressure of constantly trying to look "in control." In most cases, men are taught that's what drives attraction from our counterparts, this illusion of having it all together. When that's jeopardized, those societal pressures weigh heavily on the male psyche. Forget the trauma that comes from not being able to provide for yourself, let alone wooing your partner.
There's the argument that money isn't necessarily tied to your interest in a prospective or current partner, but I would say, for people like myself, who really do struggle with money, we don't say shit like that. Financial strain permeates every facet of life when it's real. What do you do when you can't even afford subway fare to take your boo to whatever dumb, free outing you've planned? Let's be real here: What do you do when you want to fuck, and you can't cop condoms because them shits are expensive? I'm just saying, when it's real, shit runs deep. And not far from that point is where you start to doubt yourself.
Jesse: I hear that. I've gone through periods, after being fired or being unemployed, where I didn't feel sexual, or—and this is bad—tried to compensate by being more dominant sexually. For men, I think it's not financial stress as such; it's the feeling of powerlessness or humiliation that our culture attaches to financial stress. Those aren't masculine feelings. They interrupt your sense of fluency in the world. Men are supposed to slide the card into the check without looking at it.
However, associating money with sexual potency feels a little Mad Men to me. It's too transparent, too clearly the concoction of the economic system. I always want to be having sex—when I'm in debt, when I have money, when I'm even. I find it sexy when my wife, Sarah, gets a big check.
Ana: That is hot. How have you guys communicated about how much money you're making?
Larissa: My ex and I would always go on Venmo when we were pooling drug money or something.
Jesse: What emoji did you use? Venmo feels like the steps in front of high school, where we all whisper, "Oh I heard Jenny and Ana went out last night and had beers." It's funny to see the exchange of money as a social spectator sport.
Larissa: It just said, "Thanks, Papi." We basically exchanged the same thirty bucks back and forth. He'd do something nice, like cook dinner, and I'd Venmo him for the groceries. We would Venmo each other because we weren't close enough to let the money be water under the bridge. Venmo became this record of our transactional lives. One week, he was totally broke and asked me if I could buy him groceries. So, like a good girlfriend, I took the train and bought him food. The next day, I sent him a Venmo request. I debated whether I should do that, but it seemed like an important boundary to keep. I also knew he was broke because he was spending money on drugs, student loans, and rent. And I thought, When can I judge you for how you're spending?
Jenny: I usually try to have as much financial transparency as possible with partners, sometimes to a detriment because I'm constantly evaluating who can afford to buy more dinners or pay for a larger portion of a trip by where each of us is with our finances. I've usually been the person who made more money in relationships, which feels cool and powerful but also sometimes I can't help but succumb to expectations of patriarchy, which turn whatever feelings of power and independence I might have into something shameful or embarrassing. It sometimes means an initial romantic gesture of "Hey, let me take us out to dinner tonight" becomes something to refer to later in an argument where I feel some need of mine is not being fulfilled, and I want to blame it on the stress of being the "ambitious" one and I feel the need to be the one who makes more money because I'm working harder (which can be a total capitalist fantasy), and so the one who always treats, who always pays, who always gifts.
Chuka: I'm all about finding that area where you can be honest with each other about financial responsibilities and income, but not overwhelmed by whatever position your partner is in. As someone working in the arts, I tend to be the partner who's way more broke than the other. The sweet spot is where you can be honest with your significant other and create an environment in which honesty brings a freedom that allows you to actually help support each other. From my experience, this becomes easier to navigate with age, but it will forever remain easier said than done. I'm in a new relationship now with the girl of my dreams, and at times I worry I'm not going to be able to give her all the things I think she deserves, but at this point in my life, I know it's really all about honesty. When you're honest, understanding isn't too far behind.