It’s been half a century since the University of California president Clark Kerr said that a university’s purposes were to provide parking for faculty, sports for alumni, and sex for students. Parking and sports preoccupy educators today pretty much as they did when Lyndon Johnson was president. The fierce debate about the sexual assault and harassment of college students, however, is just one sign that campus sex has become controversial now in ways no one could have anticipated then.
Consider “Belle Knox,” the nomme de porn of Duke University undergraduate Miriam Weeks. This daughter of a Spokane physician became famous in the spring of 2014 after another Duke student recognized her as a performer on a website he frequented. The most striking part of the story is that Weeks, after being “outed,” defiantly portrayed herself as a businesswoman, not a fallen woman. College is expensive, especially a prestigious private institution like Duke, and becoming a porn star made more financial sense to her than working at Starbucks or taking out student loans.
This commodification of sex also explains a website like SeekingArrangement.com. Last fall UNC-Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, put out a “sex issue,” which included the article, “‘Sugar Baby’ Work Offsets College Costs.” It reported that 427 UNC-Chapel Hill students were registered on SeekingArrangement.com, compared to 286 in 2013. Nearby Duke University, a much smaller institution, was home to even more: 438, up from 323 in 2013. (I recently confirmed these numbers.)
The SeekingArrangement website is likely to edify students who have studied semiotics, since it is so resourceful in making clear that its business is prostitution, while never stating this fact. According to the site, an arrangement “allows people to immediately define what they need and want in a relationship. Our profiles allow members to effortlessly state their expectations.” It goes on to offer wink-wink, nudge-nudge definitions of the parties whose relationships it will broker. Sugar Babies are “Attractive people [who] appreciate exotic trips and gifts,” while Sugar Daddies “enjoy attractive company by their side. Money isn’t an issue, thus they are generous when it comes to supporting a Sugar Baby.” Unfortunately but predictably, some members have gotten more than they bargained for, including publicized prostitution arrests, and the death by heroin overdose of a Google executive in the company of an alleged prostitute he found on the site.
* * *
I’m an economic historian—once defined as someone who loves numbers, but lacks the charm, grace, and wit to thrive as an accountant. As such, I can parse the argument of journalist Lauren Smiley, whose article, “I’m Rich, You’re Hot: The Cold Mathematics of Sugar Daddy Dating,” portrayed such dating as a form of “erotic efficiency” appropriate for our hectic, nonjudgmental times. The Daily Tar Heel piece quoted several women who claimed that working as a sugar baby helped to offset rising college costs, which was Belle Knox’s rationale. Furthermore, some feminists view the “sugar baby” phenomenon as empowering to women, and some libertarians defend it as a voluntary, victimless transaction. More basically, Queen Victoria died a long time ago. In our age of campus hookups, friends with benefits, and other forms of what Erica Jong called “zipless” sexual encounters, what’s the big deal about capitalist acts between consenting adults?
For one thing, these students, our students, are barely adults. (Miriam Weeks was 18 at the time Belle Knox became famous.) Can’t we hold back the tide of cynicism a bit longer? Few students at UNC-Chapel Hill or Duke are in the desperate situation of the young Asian women who find themselves pole dancing in Bangkok, or in the escort trade in Hong Kong. Duke has huge resources for financial aid, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s justly celebrated “Carolina Covenant” makes it possible for financially needy students to attend UNC and graduate debt-free in exchange for very modest work-study requirements.
Rather, in our crass times it sounds like sugar babies like the flexible schedule, and prefer being an escort to working for $9 an hour at the mall. As one sugar baby put it in the Daily Tar Heel, “I can earn more in one meeting than I earned in a month in any of the jobs I’ve done in the past.” The fact that many are sleeping with men as old as their fathers doesn’t mean much, it seems, nor does it preclude having a “real” boyfriend. One senior from another university, North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, stated that while working as a sugar baby, she “never told her boyfriends about her job.” As she explained, “I kept it as simple as ‘I’m going out of town with friends, and I’ll be back in a few days.’” One of this student’s sugar daddies lived in Atlanta, and so “she drove down to visit him twice a month and collected the minimum $1,000 that each visit brought her.” And her sugar daddies themselves? “Most of them have already been married, they’ve been divorced. They’re not ready to do that again. They just want someone who is young enough to have fun.”
Yes, “love” always has a cultural context. And, yes, people of a certain age like me can sound self-righteous when evaluating the young. But the SeekingArrangement.com website’s evasive language serves moral as well as legal purposes. Hypocrisy remains the tribute vice pays to virtue.
Harvard political scientist Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012) argued that marketing certain “goods” can change their meaning. No law of man or logic says that “erotic efficiency” can’t also be tawdry, demeaning and degrading the individuals involved as well as distinguished institutions like Duke and UNC. One seldom hears anymore on college campuses terms such as honor and dignity, concepts widely considered anachronisms. That’s a pity. The loss of that vocabulary makes it impossible to recognize the moral coarsening that results from the sugar baby and sugar daddy’s “victimless” arrangement.