Amanda Fairbanks of the Huffington Post recently published a lengthy and disturbing report on the rise of websites like SeekingArrangement.com, which facilitate money-for-sex relationships between old, wealthy men — “sugar daddies” — and debt-ridden college students — “sugar babies.” As the article documents, Seeking Arrangement’s success has surged in the past few years, given that college tuition is up, student loans are increasingly necessary to afford college, and it is impossible for many to afford the joint costs of living and student debt. Knowing all this, Seeking Arrangement’s success is no surprise.
In its own words, Seeking Arrangement offers “mutually beneficial relationships,” which would be laughable if the reality of what is happening weren’t so sad. For example, consider this account from early on in Fairbank’s story. Taylor, a student at Hunter College who lives in Harlem, turned to seeking arrangement when her loans and unpaid bills reached $15,000. On her experience having sex for money, Taylor says in the article:
I never thought it would come to this. I got on the train and I felt dirty. I mean, I had just gotten money for having sex….I guess I accomplished what I needed to do. I needed the money for school. I just did what needed to be done.
I’m sure that the cost to the suitor was an equal sacrifice.
Needless to say, Seeking Arrangement is simply a new medium of prostitution. Though it may be safer than conventional prostitution (a generous speculation), and it has a more legitimate sounding name (mutually beneficial relationships), the site owes its existence to the social arrangements in which many young women are financially desperate and wealthy men are willing to commodify them.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before prostitution became so “successfully” transferred to the web. And of course, in other ways, it happened long ago. But there are two aspects of this story that I want to point out here. The first, which is perhaps the most outrageous, is that in many cases, it is entirely preventable. Consider this:
At The Huffington Post’s request, Seeking Arrangement listed the top 20 universities attended by sugar babies on the site….New York University tops the list with 498 sugar babies, while UCLA comes in at No. 8 with 253, and Harvard University ranks at No. 9 with 231.
Leaving aside the issues surrounding state schools like UCLA, bear in mind that New York University is a private school with an endowment of $2.43 billion per year, a tuition of $19,000 per year and 21,000 undergraduate students. So if you do the math, NYU’s Board of Trustees could allocate a portion of the school’s endowment to pay the tuition of every single undergraduate student — undoubtedly covering SeekingArragement’s “sugar babies” — and still have TWO BILLION DOLLARS LEFT OVER. If that doesn’t drive the point home, consider that Harvard, host of 231 “sugar babies” on Seeking Arrangement alone (there are several similar sites), could pay each of their students’ tuition and be left with, oh, you know, TWENTY FOUR BILLION DOLLARS.
Of course, none of either school’s Trustees have been scrambling to give out financial aid since this story broke. And although the wealthiest private schools ostensibly have sliding tuition scales, the numbers of students at Harvard suggests that the reality is otherwise. The Board of Trustees — composed primarily of elderly, wealthy, white men — may not consider women’s rights to be a top priority. Some of them may even patronize Seeking Arrangements.
The other aspect of this story I want to highlight is its origin. Brandon Wade, whose legal name is Wey, changed his name for the website because, in his words, his clientele is “more familiar with Hugh Hefner than some Asian guy from Singapore.” He got the idea for the site while he was attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Fairbanks writes:
Watching from the sidelines as his beautiful dorm mates pursued significantly older, moneyed men, Wade fantasized about someday becoming one such man.
Wade’s idea sprung from his inability to get a girlfriend during college, which, for a young Asian male, can be considerably difficult to do. The characterization of Asian and Asian American males as “feminine” and/or de-sexualized, though without basis in reality, is a strong force that makes it very difficult for Asian men to be recognized as unique individuals — and as potential dates. For example, one Asian American male wrote on his blog:
The Asian-Male stereotype is awful. We are usually seen as non-aggressive, feminine, and my favorite, having smaller than average, ahem, equipment. These are not things that endear the Asian-Male to most females. I actually had a recent experience where a girl told me she was kind of worried about dating me (she hadn’t dated anyone Asian before) because of the horror stories that some of her girlfriends told her. They told her over and over again that the stereotype of Asian-Males was true, that they were horrible kissers, and that they just didn’t “measure up” to other guys.
Like the images of women I discussed in a previous post, the common conception of how men “should look” or what qualities make them sexually attractive are incredibly unrealistic and hurtful. The constant pressure to prove one’s manliness is not only a force of insecurity in masses of men and boys, but can lead to destructive behavior like fighting (not to mention the abuse of women). In the case of many Asian males, it is doubly powerful, since they not only have to be concerned with proving their masculinity in general, but also with subverting an “emasculated” conception of their group. Wade’s personal account exemplifies this issue.
Seeking Arrangement’s story brings out some of the hidden-yet-powerful ways that masculinity works in our society. There are the wealthy men who, unable to attract young women in genuinely mutually beneficial relationships, and knowing the conception of “real men” as those who continually “score,” pay disadvantaged women to fulfill their fantasies and relieve them of their sexual insecurity. There are the private universities’ Boards of Trustees, who fail to address that hundreds of its students are having sex with elderly strangers to pay their tuition. And there’s Brandon Wade, who started Seeking Arrangement because he felt unable to get laid in college.
Among other things, this story should show us that masculinity isn’t some lighthearted concept, nor one that should be ignored by feminists. It’s one of the strongest social forces we know and it drives the most powerful people in the world. While masculinity shapes all of us, it is particularly important to consider how it shapes men — and particularly, white men — the single group that controls most of the world’s wealth and occupies the most positions of social, political and institutional control. After all, they are the group whose members are likely to create prostitution businesses, or allocate the endowment of Harvard.
The long-time feminist icon Gloria Steinem is promoting her new documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, and some of Steinem’s recent remarks, about models and reality TV stars the Kardashian sisters, are getting attention in the mainstream press. A few headlines read, “Kim Kardashian Ripped by Gloria Steinem,” “Gloria Steinem Sounds Off on Kardashian Sisters,” and “Kim Kardashian Gets Slammed by Gloria Steinem.” So what were the terrible, awful things that Steinem said?
Brace yourself. A reporter asked specifically whether the Kardashian sisters, a group of walking, talking Barbies, empower women. And Steinem, a long time advocate of authentic women’s empowerment, said no. “[T]hey’re not empowering other women, but there’s no point in blaming the people who take advantage of the system without changing the system,” Steinem said. “Imagine if this were a family of boys. If men were rewarded for the same things, they would be doing it too.”
Obviously the statement isn’t as juicy and fierce as publications like Entertainment Weekly make it sound. Most feminists would take it for granted that Kim Kardashian specifically, propagating the very limited-yet-typical standard of female beauty and objectifying herself in the interest of respect, money, and privilege, is not empowering anyone but herself. But while Steinem is right that Kardashian shouldn’t be blamed for her life path, she also shouldn’t be perceived to be simply utilizing the system to her advantage. Of course, it is true that in terms of money, fame, and privilege, Kardashian has “taken advantage of the system.” But in much more meaningful ways, the system has taken advantage of her.
Let’s put our star into context. Kardashian is symbolic of a much larger issue: our society and/or media’s unrealistic and limited standard of female beauty. Our TV screens, movies, and billboards are saturated with images of over-beautified women in sexually suggestive clothing and poses, of which Kardashian is only one. Women don’t look this way in real life, of course, but that doesn’t stop these unrealistic images from infecting the lives of ordinary women and girls. Almost half of all 3-5 year old girls worry about being fat; eating disorders among girls are up and self esteem down; anorexia and bulimia are on the rise among young women; and 25% of young American women would rather be America’s Next Top Model than win the Nobel Peace Prize (source).
Gloria Steinem is right that there is a “system” in place here – a complex web of factors that include media companies who profit the most from Kardashian’s reality show, the cosmetics companies whose sales are dependent on women’s desire to measure up to the billboards, the women’s magazines’ ability to promise the best tips on how to look like Kim Kardashian and please their men sexually, and so much more.
But Kardashian didn’t enter that system from the outside. She grew up within it. Like most girls, she spent her formative years exposed to hyper-sexualized images of women. She probably learned, via the media and the people around her, that in many cases a woman’s appearance is more important than her character. And judging by the career path she pursued, she was probably encouraged to focus more on her appearance than any other aspect of herself.
This is why it is overly simplistic to characterize Kardashian as an individual who has “taken advantage of the system.” Whether it is because of luck, looks, privilege, or whatever, Kardashian has simply taken the dehumanizing importance of women’s appearance to its pinnacle. She grew up within the system, her personality and self was shaped by it, and now she is helping fuel it.
Granted, Steinem might agree with me on all of this. You might say that her point was simply that when there are incentives to do something, there will be people who do it. But there are more significant questions to be posed here. Should we so simplistically see Kardashian as someone who has been “rewarded,” or is it more complicated than that? Hasn’t her life been directed by the confines of binary gender roles and her career been defined by her “beauty”? Could her life have been more fulfilling had she been encouraged to explore other avenues? Will she always be able to tolerate feeling like a “zoo animal,” as she put it in a recent interview? Is she truly happy now, and will she be when her youthful image inevitably withers away?
Probably not. When her beauty fades, her fame disappears, and her money runs out, the sexist system that brought Kim Kardashian from birth to fame will still be in place and she will have helped keep it strong. But what will she have left? She has done little else but pose for cameras, shop and gossip on a reality show. Other than a cameo in a trashy comedy movie and a single song for charity, she has not pursued any meaningful interests, creative outlets, or means of personal development. She may feel content when her fame goes away, but she may also feel unfulfilled and unappreciated.
If it continues this way, Kim Kardashian’s life will have been confined to and in the service of an unrealistic and harmful conception of womanhood and beauty. To “the system,” she will have served her purpose: being a piece of eye candy for onlookers to ogle as she creates wealth for a privileged few, producing both lustful and envious desires in men and women, while she will be left with little. We needn’t pity this celebrity, but we also shouldn’t necessarily see her as one of the system’s “winners.” Ultimately, it will not appear that she has taken advantage of the system, but the system has taken advantage of her.
When Barack Obama was elected President in November of 2008, a consequence was that a senate seat would open up. Replacing then-Senator Obama seems like it would be a straightforward procedure, but if you’re following the trail of the impeached Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, you know that it wasn’t. Blagojevich (AKA Blago) allegedly attempted to “sell” Obama’s senate seat, leading to the second impeachment of an elected official in Illinois’ history. Almost a year ago, he was convicted of lying to investigators, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on the remaining charges. A new trial was scheduled for this year and Blago took the stand again on Thursday.
Time will tell whether the jury will hit the former Governor with additional convictions, but it’s not looking good. Since the beginning of the whole fiasco, Blago has offered little evidence or substantive arguments in his favor, while instead, he has compared himself to Shakespearean protagonists and his trial to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Of course, it’s not unusual for pathetic, self-righteous absurdity to spew from the mouths of formerly powerful officials while they are being brought to justice. And it’s understandable that we would be uninterested in what is, frankly, self-pitying tripe. But while many have made up their mind about Blago’s guilt, his behavior is worth examining. The details of Blago’s case may not interest us, but what his behavior says about white masculinity and power should.
Blago’s first day on the stand, according to the Chicago Tribune, was “marked by tears” and peppered with personal stories about his triumphant performance in marathons and his failings in Little League. He portrayed himself as the “self-effacing son of immigrants,” and nearly cried when he talked about his parents. “I got a chance to be governor of the fifth biggest state in America, and I always thought my parents were part of that, helping from heaven,” Blago said. After introducing a softer version of himself, he moved on to talk about insecurity. Blago revealed that he doesn’t jog for his health, but because of vanity, and that he felt out of place in college. “Some of what I am, deep down there are certain insecurities,” Blago said. “I always felt that these kids at Northwestern, they came from wealthier families and better schools. I always felt they were smarter than me.”
The first thing one can point out about this situation – with justified frustration – is that Blago is focusing on things that are clearly irrelevant to his trial. Rather than frankly taking responsibility for his actions and answering to both the prosecutors and the public he was supposed to have served, Blago is drawing out the trial with solicitations of sympathy. And it’s not as if these were just a few offhand remarks: he digressed into personal tangents so often that the judge, “exasperated,” told him to “see if you can answer a question yes or no.”
If you take it from Bob Secter and Jeff Coen, the Tribune reporters who have been covering the story, the purpose of Blago’s behavior
was to portray a softer vision of Blagojevich for jurors than the foul-mouthed, scheming politician they have heard on government wiretaps, the one who describes the Senate seat as ‘[fucking] golden’ and hurls insults at political rivals. ‘I’d like to apologize to the women and men for those terrible words,’ Blagojevich testified. ‘When I hear myself on tape swearing like that, I’m an f-ing jerk and I apologize for that.’
So far, it seems that Secter and Coen are right: Blago’s incessant personal digressions at least make the attempt to counterbalance the conniving and greedy image of Blago that jurors will inevitably consider. That point may seem obvious, but what’s interesting about it is that it is Blagojevich’s last-resort strategy. Blago is at the end of his rope and, as far as I can tell, there’s little reason to believe that his public image will be redeemed or that he will avoid more prison time. But it’s undeniable that those are his priorities and that this is a kind of last chance to pursue them. So what does it mean that this man – someone who enjoys the privileges of maleness, whiteness, wealth, and also had a fair degree of raw political power – is sharing his insecurities, emotions and weakness as a last resort?
To me, it seems emblematic of how a person, especially a person that occupies multiple positions of privilege, pursues power. As men climb hierarchies of power, they tend to underemphasize, omit, and deny any semblances of insecurity or weakness. Boys learn early in life that crying is an expression of weakness, one that they should avoid. Furthermore, they usually grow up without much training in emotional risk taking, personal sharing, and discussion of insecurity and uncertainty. While all boys are affected by our society’s constructions of masculinity, these lessons are taken to an extreme as one competes to obtain and protect power. In our political context – which values “hardness” rather than “softness,” “firm-handedness” and “unwavering opinions” rather than a willingness to change opinions or admit fallibility – one cannot rise to power by openly acknowledging insecurities.
White, upper-class men in particular form their identities and behavioral patterns under the combined influences of male, class and white privilege. White boys from wealthier families grow up in a society where most of the people in powerful positions closely resemble them. They further benefit from receiving practical privileges throughout most of their life, like not being discriminated against by police or storekeepers, and being treated favorably by teachers, authority figures, and college or job interviewers. As part of a demographic that is implicitly considered the “norm,” they are rarely treated as homogeneous members of groups, but as individuals. One result of forming one’s identity in the midst of these (too often unnoticed) privileges is that one is left inadequately prepared to feel threatened or alienated. When a white man finds himself alienated, he may feel far more unsettled and uncomfortable than others would, and because he has not been taught how to express that discomfort in peaceful and cooperative ways, he is likely to externalize the causes of those feelings and lash out on others. And because so many of those who wield the most power are white men, their lashing out often harms those who have far fewer resources and less power than their “rulers.”
I’d be replicating the patterns I’m criticizing if I were to paint Blago as nothing but a type: a rich, white male who is exactly the same as all others like him (including me). He is an individual with a unique life story, path to corruption and trial. But what’s interesting to me is not the details of Blago’s trial or even Blago himself. It’s that Blago is illustrating what is perhaps the most central tenet of masculinity: the tendency to bury insecurity and weakness, a strongly socialized behavior in the demographic that occupies most positions of power.
The part of Blagojevich’s identity that has dictated most of his life, that of a politician and public figure, long ago came crashing down. He lacks support and, for the most part, sympathy. He is forever banned from participating in Illinois politics, where he made his career and defined his life purpose. And, it is in this time of utter desperation to save face that, in front of a 12 person jury, a courtroom that includes his 14-year-old daughter, and followers of his trial across the nation, Blago decided to talk about how unintelligent he felt at Northwestern. Had Blago revealed the “softer side” of himself earlier, he probably would not have garnered the respect necessary to get elected. But now that he can never be a politician again, he finds it appropriate to unveil his insecurities and cry in public. The curtains of infallibility, certainty, and confidence have been drawn, revealing a person whose insecurities drove him, eventually, to abuse his power. It is at this moment that we can see that Rod Blagojevich, like everyone else, is fully human: he has points of confidence and insecurity, feelings of strength and weakness, and a full range of emotions. But rather than expressing each aspect of his personality openly and healthfully, he did so only when he saw nowhere else to turn.