(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Years ago, at the height of what in the Western world was known as “women’s lib,” I remember a defector from the Iron Curtain scoffing at the Soviet Union’s claim that it had achieved complete sexual equality: “When a woman advances in the factory, it’s only after they hold a beauty contest.”
Perhaps the story was apocryphal, but it made me think about Invisible Man, in which the black narrator is awarded a college scholarship for his oratorical skills, but is first required to come to a white men’s club, strip and engage in a boxing match styled as a “battle royal,” and then scamper across an electrified rug chasing tossed gold-foil tokens. When he is finally presented with the scholarship scroll, he reflects on the text and imagines that it really reads “To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”
The brute survival economy of booty or boxing competitions came to mind recently when I read about rapper Juicy J’s offer of a $50,000 college scholarship to “the best chick that can twerk.” Despite Mr. J’s lasciviously descriptive flair, it struck me as not all that different from Miss USA contestants parading their bikini’d bodies in hopes of a similar prize. Which is more ludicrous, having the exchange rate of one’s assets fixed by Juicy J or by Donald Trump?
I cite these examples not to debate the propriety of selling one’s body—an open question—but to consider its perceived necessity. Amid a squeezed labor market and stratospherically rising tuition costs, new flesh markets are burgeoning among the middle class, particularly upwardly aspiring young women. I have written before about how many of my students “donate” their “Ivy League” eggs to wealthy women who pay upward of, yes, $50,000 per “harvest” if they can meet certain metrics of height, weight, eye color, athleticism and SAT scores. Egg extraction is risky and invasive, but it is, I am told, an easier way of putting oneself through school than a job at McDonald’s.
Consider a poll by the website SeekingArrangement.com, which pairs older, wealthy men and young women—or “sugar babies”—for “mutually beneficial relationships.” The site claims that the average sugar baby receives $3,000 a month and that 44 percent of its US clientele are college students, with a significant minority of them single mothers. Of the 900 female students at Arizona State University polled, 68 percent said they would use such a service. Indeed, one YouTube video shows a procession of students holding signs reading I Need a Sugar Daddy for…. The litany includes books, tuition and law school. Some seek more frivolous things, like designer clothes or “boobs,” but despite their giggly demeanor, they recall the images of cardboard placards in Hoovervilles reading Will Work for Food.
The number of such sites is exploding; while the companies deny that they are engaged in pimping, there’s a wink-wink element to the coy policy of leaving it up to each couple to define what is being sponsored. Sex is never mentioned, but it’s hard to make a clear distinction between the playful come-hither posture of the young women and the overly practiced smiles of prostitutes in the windows of any given red-light district.