[Since I posted this, Mac McClelland has written about the great risks, physical and emotional, that she braved in order to report from the crisis zone of Haiti. I thank her for her courage and wish her success in her life's work and a peaceful heart.]
It’s the dark of the year, and time for some dark thoughts. Two years ago I read journalist Mac McClelland’s article ‘SugarDaddy.com: Old Dogs, New Tricks’. It hurt my feminist feelings quite severely, and I always wanted to respond, but couldn’t find the words.
Last month I read a post on a site called Junkland that articulated my thoughts so well, expressing ideas that I had been churning around but never quite put together. I linked to the author, Penny Sociologist, in a post here called ‘Power and Choices’. This was read by a sex worker advocate called sixtoedkitties at SWOP Colorado Blog, who found my post offensive and hurtful. I wrote to her and we discussed issues of law, respect and choice. We may not agree on everything, but I’m glad we corresponded. I gave extra thought and care, and reigned in some of my own hurt feelings as a result. She reminded me that I am responsible for not using well-worn slurs against people who are stigmatized enough, and responsible for not making assumptions about how people feel about choices they’ve made.
Perhaps it was fated. This week I got an email from Mac McClelland herself. She wants money. For Mother Jones magazine. I’d love to talk to her about all of this, and would have answered right away, but it’s one of those noreply emails. And she didn’t give me her phone number. So I’ll just have to write this and get it off my chest.
Can I call you Mac? I got your email asking for money, so I guess we’re on a first-name basis. I used to subscribe to Mother Jones. They do fine reporting. You’ve done some very good work for them as a journalist, including going into disaster zones. I’m proud for you and all the women in journalism who face the hazards of reporting as well as the invisible traps of gender bias.
Have you encountered those traps? The boss who orders you to ‘smile’ because girls should look pleasant, the male co-worker who tells you as an article of faith that most young women are willing to sell it– that’s how the world works, and only ‘strident feminists’ think otherwise. The guy in the diner sorting out the ‘ugly’ women? You think you’ll ever be a ‘perfect ten’?
I’m dating myself, that movie was before your time. I hope you never have and never will experience a world where you are a second-class person. A person who’s ‘for’ someone more important. A spunky lady reporter, smart and cute, too, by golly.
I’m glad that a bright and hardworking young woman has been able to contribute so much and to be respected for it. I’m glad that your good looks are not the key to your success or a hindrance to it. That’s how it should be.
Maybe it’s from a place of physical and emotional safety that you wrote an article two years ago that hit me like a punch in the stomach. It pains me to re-read it. Maybe there’s a dry irony there that I’m missing, but you were not Gloria Steinem going incognito as a Playboy bunny when you wrote ‘SugarDaddy.com: Old Dogs, New Tricks’.
You write about men who offer money for sex and the temptation to college graduates in a time of high unemployment and insane cost of living. You leave unchallenged the disparity that leads ‘Jill’ to turn herself into a commodity, and you leave unquestioned the culture that tries to buy our best selves and sell us back what’s left. Jill, you say, ‘has blonde hair, amazing lips and is 19.’
Using the logic of the market, Jill can get top dollar. I wonder if Jill totaled up the value of the care, the orthodontia, the good middle-class education, the right accent and manners when setting her price. Parental love translated into a product good enough for Sugar Daddy.
I’m re-reading you and thinking that your stomach was sending you a wiser message than your brain. “Few things are less appetizing than a man four years my father’s junior, a dumpy, pasty, greedy-eyed man in a grey suit…” you write of your interview for a job selling sex to this guy. “I keep my tight young a-s in its place, laugh politely, and pick up my fork.” Like a good reporter, you were there to get the story. Like a good girl, you smiled and played up to him so he could go home to his wife more arrogant than ever.
“When I arrive home to a houseful of twentysomethings, we rail against the lowball. The lone male in the group asks, “Would it have made a difference if he’d been attractive?” Nobody answers for a second. “Probably,” I concede, and everyone reluctantly agrees; we are all sex-positive feminists here, offended not that he offered me money for sex, but that he offered so little and was so gross, and if the idea of doing him were palatable, and I were single, it’s possible he’d be doing double duty as my boyfriend and payroll officer.”
I hate the be the horrible old woman ragging on youth. I guess ‘sex-positive’ is supposed to assure men that you are not like those aging women who fought institutionalized inequality and were not always polite about it. But your take on ‘sex-positive’ reminds me of a racist joke– I’ll paraphrase it here–
‘The women are free!’
‘You mean we don’t have to pay for them?’
Again, I think you and your housemate’s ‘ick factor’ is a deep wisdom speaking to you from a history you seem not to be aware of. In your fantasy you can create an attractive man who will make love to you and give you money. In reality, prostitutes work for their money. In reality, someone you’ve allowed access to your body can hurt you in ways that a lousy boss can’t.
We all have to play the hand we’re dealt, and we’re lucky if we even get to establish boundaries. We all have to decide what compromises we’ll make.
A sex worker who has chosen that life would probably tell you it’s not easy money. The power disparity and the lack of protection from abuse make it a dangerous occupation. I support human rights and equal protection under the law for all people, regardless of what they do for a living. But in our very unequal society, the ‘choices’ we make are always influenced by what we believe is possible, even by what we believe we deserve. We can create real sexual freedom in relationships we choose, but it is not the mainstream of our culture. We have a heritage of deep inequality and a deep fear of sexuality that can’t be labeled or bought.
Imagine that you graduate from college, and are told that you’ll make a fine secretary till you catch a husband. Imagine that your interview with Sugar Daddy was not investigative reporting, but your last chance. Imagine that you need to please him, and any others you can play up to, because this is the only way you have to earn money and youth is fleeting.
This is history. The privilege of higher education, a professional career, an independent life– these gains are recent and hard-won.
And yes, it’s a disgrace that we let so many kids graduate from college with a burden of debt. It’s a shame the economy is so bad. This generation has been shortchanged and robbed by speculators. And the jobs out there pay so little it’s a struggle to get by.
You mention that you have a job at Mother Jones, low paying no doubt, but on a career track. You play with the idea of trading sex for money. Maybe any good-looking woman would be a fool not to, a ‘sex-negative’ prude.
Next time you go for a cup of coffee, next time you are in a public space that is cleaned every night, next time you stay in a motel and the bed is made for you, next time someone you love is washed and dressed and cared for by a nurses aid– think of the women who do those jobs. They hold up half the sky.
I’ve done all those jobs. I’ve lived on minimum wage. I’ve listened to men who were no better off than me congratulate themselves that women can be bought– in their minds, all women if only they were rich enough. Gloria Steinem is still writing and Hugh Hefner is acquiring another wife– very young and blonde. It’s not such a brave new world.
I kind of wish you had thrown a dart at Sugar Daddy on your way out. You left him feeling pretty good about himself, and you did it for free.
I should read through all your Mother Jones writing. I know it’s not fair to judge you by one article, and that you’ve reported from New Orleans and Haiti. I know you’ve interviewed rape victims whose humanity is not respected and whose choices are nonexistent.
Just consider that abuse of power is universal, and patriarchy is one of its aspects. If the objectification of women is carried out by more subtle and indirect means, it does not mean there is not an iron fist behind it.
I hope you’ll take a look at the women who work for you, who make your daily life possible, who don’t expect to get rich, or to get a Sugar Daddy. I hope you’ll write about them. Then I’ll subscribe to Mother Jones again.