Concerned about that HECS debt, ladies? Worry no more, because here’s a great new way to afford your education. Get yourself a rich old guy to pay for it!
That’s the message from a recent press release sent to me by a dating site that pairs young women with “sugar daddies”. As the website says, all you have to do in return for your free education is “cater to [his] needs” with “no strings attached”.
“These men and women are taking a proactive approach to tackle their student debt, while so many other students will be haunted by it for years to come,” squeals the press release.
I know what you’re thinking. There must be a catch? And there is: a never-ending risk of blackmail. Because even though you might not be “haunted” by a HECS debt, there’s the lifelong risk of being outed as a sugar baby.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with young women hooking up with rich old men. If that’s what floats your boat, then more power to you.
But exchanging sexual services for an education isn’t likely to play out well when these sugar babies hit the workforce and start to rise in seniority.
Imagine if a sugar baby were to enter politics, become a CEO or get a job in the media or public life. One phone call from a jilted sugar daddy, his wife, or a disgruntled employee at the dating website, and she would be accused of sleeping her way to the top faster than you can say “Monica Lewinsky 2.0”.
Hell, he doesn’t even have to be jilted. The guy might just be mischievous or decide that he doesn’t like his former sugar baby’s success. Because that’s what men often do to women they decide are too powerful: they use a woman’s sexuality to discredit her.
A woman’s level of education, experience, and track record of success counts for nothing if she can be portrayed as relying on sex to achieve her status and power. She becomes the water cooler joke as the Boys Club wonders aloud about who she had to blow to get her job.
By contrast, there’s seemingly no downside for powerful men who have sexual arrangements with less powerful women.
In the corporate world a man can even end up with a pay rise after being forced to settle a high-profile sexual harassment case, a footballer can be involved in infidelity and a group sex scandal and be rewarded with his own radio show, and a president’s affair can improve his approval ratings.
While sugar daddy funded education is being sold as empowering to women, businesses like this dating website are actually appropriating sex-positive language to exploit women.
Let’s be clear: sugar babies have no status and no power. And the power imbalance for the women lasts well after the arrangement has been terminated.
There is a big difference between supporting women who choose to be sex workers, and a business model that sells women the least-crappiest short-term option to avoid a debt, but may potentially ruin the careers they worked so hard to achieve.
Because as wrong as slut-shaming is, it exists. It ends careers and it can be financially and socially devastating to women.
It would be interesting to know how many young men have to rely on providing “no-strings-attached” romantic services to anyone in order to afford their educations. And how many sugar daddies have exchanged sex for qualifications? Most likely, when they were at uni, education was free.
It’s not surprising that business has latched onto education as a way to entice young women to submit to a sugar daddy.
On average, women will earn significantly less than men in their careers due to the gender pay gap and taking time out of the workforce to have children. And given the ever-increasing cost of a tertiary education and the constant threat from successive Liberal governments to reduce the HECS repayment threshold – which will disproportionately hurt women – a tertiary education is fast becoming a risky financial gamble for many women.
Women retire with half as much superannuation as men, so having someone cough up tens of thousands of dollars for your education at the beginning of your working life could quite literally mean the difference between living above or below the poverty line at the end of your career.
Dangling the carrot of financial security via a free education in front of young women, who may not yet fully appreciate the gendered barriers they will face in the workforce, is a cynical abuse of male power.
The idea that a sugar daddy is an easy and sex-positive solution to lifelong student debt isn’t progress. It’s an expression of the fundamental inequality between men and women.