By: Ashley Niccolai
“You should never date anyone half your age plus seven.” Age may only be just a number, but when it comes to romantic partnerships, having a large age gap is something that is imbued with stigma. It is commonplace for age discrepant relationships to be perceived as transactional barter: a young woman trades her beauty in exchange for an older man’s elevated socioeconomic status. As various fixtures of pop culture demonstrate–ranging from Hugh Hefner to Real Housewives–this pairing is quick to be caricaturized and parodied. Consequently, age discrepant relationships garner a variety of labels to describe this type of status exchange: sugar daddy/sugar baby, playboy, gold digger, and trophy wife.
McClintock’s (2014) results debunk the existence of beauty-status exchanges in romantic relationships. She argues that the commonplace acceptance of this model ignores and/or subverts the prevalence of desirable-trait matching, which is defined as “selecting a partner with similar characteristics to oneself” (p. 575). McClintock uses archetypical trophy wife to contextualize her results, noting that this stereotype has unjustly popularized the notion that “pretty women marry high-status men” (p.575)
The idea that beauty-status exchanges are more social myth than fact is a powerful one, as it unearths cultural assumptions about romance, love, gender, and sex, and begs them to be further re-examined. McClintock’s findings prompted me to further investigate other assumptions of beauty-status exchanges–particularly as they apply to sugar daddy/sugar baby relationships. I wanted to explore how these exchanges (or, rather the perception of these exchanges) shape and reinforce the normative paradigms from which society views these topics. Not only do sugar daddy/sugar baby relationships exemplify the transactional aspect of a beauty-status exchange, but also the presumed presence of an age discrepancy in these relationships entertains a unique dynamic housed in the margins of collective ideas about love and romance.
Seeking Arrangement, a popular online dating service aimed at facilitating sugar daddy/sugar baby relationships, promotes a style of coupling that emphasizes individuality and autonomy: “Relationships on your terms,” is written in bold letters across the homepage. Like a business merger, the intention of a sugar daddy/sugar baby relationship is to bring mutual benefit to both respective parties. It is clear that individuals who elect to use Seeking Arrangement are not creating profiles in search of a partner to share in a clichéd long walk on the beach, or sunset picnic in the park–unless it becomes a negotiated, contractual entity.
Watch Video: Interview with Seeking Arrangements Sugar Baby
Sugar daddy/sugar baby partnerships are not necessarily meant to be “romantic;” instead, they are pragmatic. When it comes to how American culture frames romantic partnerships, pragmatism is viewed as a big problem. In the context of marriage, Cherlin (2004) explains that there has been a great increase in the symbolic value of marriage in recent years, meaning that there is a growing emphasis on romantic love as the foundation of relationships. However, the sugar daddy/sugar baby subpopulation is a sort of throwback to a pre-industrial model of coupling where arranged marriages were the norm. People did not choose to get married for love; they married because the partnership presented an economic opportunity (Coontz, 1992).
In a discussion of beauty-status exchanges among sugar daddies/sugar babies, it is important to consider how gender shapes the dynamic of these partnerships. In terms of a power dynamic, there is not a clear direction as to which direction the scale is going to tilt. Clearly the relationship is exploitative, but who in this equation is being taken advantage of? Traditional gender-role expectations reinforce stereotypes aimed sugar daddies and sugar babies. Sugar daddies are labeled as “dirty old men” that use their position of power to take advantage of a younger woman. Sugar daddies are typified as only being able to bring their financial resources to a relationship. Otherwise, their desirability in the dating market would be greatly limited.
By contrast, sugar babies are framed as a siren that weaponizes her beauty in order to attract the attention of a wealthy man. Hakim’s (2010) theory of erotic capital conceptualizes beauty as a form of power and manipulation. This is reflective of the dominant discourse surrounding sugar babies–they are characterized as gold-digging seductresses who drain men of their resources. The Madonna/Whore complex further dichotomizes sugar babies, comparing them to prostitutes, whores, and sluts. This is illustrative of a sexual double standard that calls these women out as having lost their integrity and self-respect–after all, money is not supposed to buy love.
But money can buy status. For sugar babies, the allure of the “sugar” lifestyle promises the elements of a fantasy life that can include luxury vacations, designer clothes, jewelry, and expensive cars. The sugar lifestyle is a version of a Cinderella story. An ordinary girl stuck in an ordinary circumstance is able to catapult into a world of extravagance, sophistication, and indulgence. Her Prince Charming may be twice her age, but he may embody an aristocratic sophistication that appears removed from the troubles that go along with a so-called “peasant life.” Participating in the sugar lifestyle provides an opportunity for a rags-to-riches transformation, and there may be a certain degree of magic that goes along with that fantasy.
While McClintock (2014) did find that beauty-status exchanges are not the norm for the general population, it is important to note these arrangements still happen among a subgroup of the population. The average age of respondents in McClintock’s sample was 22 years for women and 22.3 years for men. I would argue that using a sample size comprised of young adults is not the most effective way to gain a clear understanding of the prevalence of beauty-status exchanges within the population. This is especially true for her analysis on the prevalence of beauty-status exchanges among age discrepant couples. I would also argue McClintock’s conceptual definition of age discrepant relationships (five or more years between partners) is irrelevant since she is essentially comparing a college freshman dating a college senior.
Perhaps the most compelling angle of McClintock’s study is that it sheds light on the cultural tropes that shape perceptions of romantic partnerships. Beauty-status exchanges involve partnering for mutual benefit, and these arrangements value status over true love. Those who choose participate in a sugar daddy/sugar baby arrangement are not necessarily romantics, but their hearts are fueled with a desire to pair with someone who shares in the same affinities for beauty, status, and–most importantly–sugar.
Link to McClintock Abstract and Article: Beauty and status: The illusion of exchange in partner selection.
Cherlin, A. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family. 66: 848-861.
Coontz, S. (1992). The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York, New York: Basic Books.
Hakim, C. (2010). Erotic capital. European Sociological Review, 26(5), 499-518.
McClintock, E. (2014). Beauty and status: The illusion of exchange in partner selection. American Sociological Review, 79(4), 575-604.