Thursday, March 8, 2012

Twenty-Five: Grisettes

A British journalist I've chatted with once published an article not long ago about the websites that offer to bring together "sugar babies" with "sugar daddies". The article itself isn't bad at all, and she does ask a number of interesting questions. One thing that I wish she'd addressed, though, is the question of how one distinguishes a "sugar baby" from the classic idea of a mistress. 

How do we distinguish between "sugar baby" and the traditional--- meaning the 18th and 19th.-century --idea of the mistress? What differentiates one from the other? Is it that a "sugar baby" is simply given gifts, while the traditional mistress is "in keeping"--- living somewhere supplied by her patron, all (or at least most) of her expenses paid? Is it the level of the arrangement--- the mistress expected either to be on call or to abide by a carefully-crafted schedule for meetings, while the "sugar baby" is more able to set her own schedule? I do think there's a level of display that's expected with a "sugar baby" that isn't expected from a girl taken "into keeping" in Paris or London in an earlier age. A "sugar baby" is given gifts by her "sugar daddy" and she's taken out to be shown off, even if that's somewhere where friends of his wife or his business colleagues aren't likely to find them. I might argue that display is a key function of the "sugar baby", that she's there precisely to be shown off in her new dresses and jewels. The classic mistress was kept more discreetly. What's the old phrase--- "the somebodies whom nobody knows"? The semiotics here interest me. There's a difference between a mistress and a "sugar baby" that says something about display and how wealth is to be seen in the modern day.

There may also be a question of class here. In French or English or even Russian novels, the mistress is the ex-governess, the ballerina, the actress, the grisette. While there are fallen gentlewomen who appear once in a while, the mistress is usually from a lower social class than her keeper. The "sugar baby", though, is something different. The idea of the websites is that the girls are presented as university girls, as students who need financial support to finish a degree and are willing to accept gifts from a "sugar daddy" and offer up sexual favours. The girls may be impoverished at twenty, but the idea is that they are from a class that goes to university and can expect to be financially successful on their own in a few years. The "sugar daddy" who visits the websites isn't taking a shopgirl into keeping. He's making an arrangement with someone who comes from his own social class, and it's the middle and upper-middle class status of the girls that's a selling point.

I've never taken a mistress. I've never taken a girl into keeping or been anyone's "sugar daddy". Genteel poverty hasn't allowed for that. I suppose I'd rather take a mistress than a "sugar baby".  If I had the money, I'd prefer to take a girl as a mistress in the 18th-c. kind of arrangement. It's a more literary thing to do, and whatever I may do in the realms of sex and romance, there has to be a literary reference. It'll never be any other way. Though I will note that I'd want the girl to be someone who'd otherwise be the "sugar baby" type, the undergraduate girl with the bookshelves filled with critical theory and high lit. I wouldn't be comfortable with someone who didn't have the right academic (and, yes, class) markers. 

The article noted that so many of the men presenting themselves as "sugar daddies" were in IT that the question really had to be asked: why were IT or tech types so prevalent? I might suspect that the men who'd made serious money in those fields had devoted their twenties to staring relentlessly at computer screens and had never learned social skills. A "sugar daddy" arrangement would allow them to have a social trophy and be with someone who wouldn't mock them for geekery. Or is that only dealing in stereotypes? It's certainly dealing in stereotypes to speculate that MBA and finance types might prefer escorts to "sugar babies" as more efficient and less likely to make any emotional demands. But am I wrong? If you're reading this, do comment. I'd like to hear what you think.

I think I will be acquiring a copy of Marcel Mauss' "The Gift" and David Graeber's "Debt" as reading for a next note here. I find articles out on the web that discuss the idea of "sexual economics" or an "economy of sex", though usually in terms of attacking the idea. I'll have to think about that. I hope you'll comment on that, too. It's a discussion I'd like to have.  

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