Sugary Slope“The New Romantic” Recycles Tired Tropes about Transactional Relationships

Jessica Barden as Blake in The New Romantic (Elevation Pictures)

In Carly Stone’s feature-film debut, The New Romantic, Blake (Jessica Barden), a college student who writes a lackluster sex column for her school’s newspaper, befriends her classmate Morgan (Camila Mendes), who moonlights as a sugar baby—a woman who dates (mostly older) people who lavish her with gifts. At the behest of her editor, and despite conflicted feelings about exchanging companionship for money, Blake begins her own transactional relationship with a wealthy older man named Ian (Timm Sharp). Morgan insists that sugar dating isn’t sex work, but Blake worries that being “pimped out” by her editor will change the way she’s perceived by her family, friends, and peers.

And she’s not wrong: She overhears two of her classmates mean-spiritedly discussing her sugar-dating arrangement, and isn’t reassured when her roommate assures her that sugar dating isn’t the same as being “a hooker” because, as Blake points out, she “doesn’t know what being a hooker feels like.” In other words, Blake wants to benefit from sex work without being labeled a sex worker. While there’s nothing new about transactional romance, sugar-baby dating seems to be entering into a having a cultural renaissance: There are sugar-baby summits, conferences, and networking events that connect young women to potential benefactors, and scores of message boards that discuss the ins-and-outs of being Black in the sugar-baby business. It can be difficult to pinpoint accurate statistical information about the demographics of sex workers, but not all sugar babies are white. As one woman described in an online sugar forum, sugar babies of color often face racism and discrimination on the job, and as a result, they may earn less and lose access to high-profile networking events or luxury goods.

Yet, The New Romantic suggests that only young, mostly white, and conventionally attractive women participate in these transactional relationships. Even Seeking Arrangement describes the ideal sugar baby as “attractive, intelligent, ambitious, and goal oriented.” Though this is the dominant cultural narrative about sugar dating, it’s actually a skewed and classist perception that purposely creates a divide between sugar babies and those who participate in other kinds of sex work—not for gifts or connections, but to buy groceries and pay bills. it isn’t entirely accurate.

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It’s widely understood that sugar dating is a form of sex work, but as Emily Zimmerman notes in “Sugar for Sale: Constructing Intimacy In The Sugar Bowl,” a 2015 paper published in Laurier Undergraduate Journal of the Arts, some sugar babies criticize prostitution in order to distance themselves from the labels and stigma associated with it. The New Romantic recycles the tired trope that sugar dating is a stopgap used by broke creatives, a “smarter” alternative to disappointing hookups or relationships you stay in for access to Netflix, and a step up from other kinds of sex work. Like many an educated, privileged sex-work dabblers before her, Morgan describes sugar dating as an empowering exercise in personal choice—she’s not like the escorts or those who work outdoors who, as she and her peers assume, engage in forced sex work, presumably against their own will, and in ways that are inherently degrading.

For The New Romantic’s sugar babies, their arrangements constitute a form of feminist self-actualization empowerment that exists in direct opposition to the perceived disempowerment of other sex workers. Blake, for instance, initially treats her experiment with Ian as a foray into gonzo journalism that gives her writing and personality an edge, one that emboldens her to get a new piercing and ride the motorcycle that Ian buys for her. But Blake and Morgan’s refusal to acknowledge any proximity to or examine their beliefs about sex work mirrors our own widespread cultural misunderstanding of sex work. In a November interview with The Wrap, Mendes echoed the idea that sugar babies “have a choice,” a statement that plays into a common misconception that all sex workers are victims of human trafficking—the same idea that motivated the passage of FOSTA/SESTA earlier this year and actively puts sex workers’ lives in danger.

Or, Zimmerman writes, “Sugar Babies’ criticisms deflect condemnation of the Sugar World while also perpetuating the stigmatization of sex workers by characterizing them as cheap, dirty, and promiscuous.” The common social and media misconception of sugar dating as an elevated form of sex work undermines the emotional labor that comes with being a sugar baby, notes Kavita Ilona Nayar in the 2016 article “Sweetening The Deal: Dating for Compensation In The Digital Age.” Sugar babies don’t typically charge hourly rates for their companionship and are often compensated in material goods or networking opportunities, both difficult to equate to an hourly rate or wage. Even free rent can mean a time commitment that exceeds its monetary value, and the emotional requirements that come with a dating relationship make it difficult to set a boundary between being off-the-clock and being emotionally on-call.

As Twitter user Goddess Sapphire wrote, the push to distance sugar dating from sex work—both in the media and among some sugar babies themselves—only grants sugar daddies greater control over the financial autonomy of their babies. If a sugar daddy doesn’t believe that his sugar baby’s companionship is work, or thinks that paying for her time is somehow distasteful or beneath him, he likely won’t compensate her fairly. Emphasizing the perceived social and class distinctions between sugar babies and other sex workers, including the idea that sugar babies have greater agency, further marginalizes other communities of sex workers who may not have access to online sugar dating communities or the same level of social capital.

Sugar dating is considered socially acceptable thanks in part to the misconception that sex isn’t necessarily expected or required, or that financial compensation is an inconsequential added bonus. The idea that “it’s about much more than the money,” as one former sugar baby told Business Insider earlier this year, suggests that asking to be paid for both physically and emotionally taxing work is somehow morally wrong. Women who, like Blake, have the privilege of temporary  sugar dating—because it helps pay for college tuition, or because it’s a buzzy story—enforces a dangerous hierarchy of sex work that suggests that sugar dating isn’t “real” sex work and doesn’t require any real skill.

Near the end of The New Romantic, Blake stops by Ian’s house for a surprise visit, but he abruptly turns her away, clearly inconvenienced by what she considered a romantic gesture. Earlier in the film, he’d surprised Blake with a similar gesture and invited her to a wedding, but once Blake understands that her emotional and romantic investment in Ian won’t be reciprocated, she ends the arrangement. The emotional work of sex and companionship that happens entirely on Ian’s terms ultimately exceeds what Blake gets in return, though by film’s end it’s unclear if her views on either sugar dating  or sex work have evolved beyond her own experience.

Sugar-baby stories themselves, however, need to evolve to reflect the reality of who and what real sugar babies are. There’s an entire subgenre of sugar-baby confessional essays, or get-rich-quick stories of sex work experimentation often written by white women, which cite popular sugar-dating sites like Seeking Arrangement as an entry point for anyone looking to make dating more lucrative. Authentic, compassionate portrayals of any form of sex work are unfortunately hard to find, though Tangerine, The Deuce, and Harlots are a few notable exceptions, and during her life, Anna Nicole Smith’s ostentatious presence as a celebrity sugar baby made it clear that she was in it for the money—and didn’t see anything wrong with it. Any groundbreaking or boundary-pushing film or TV show about sex work must acknowledge its subjects as individuals with a range of experiences and backgrounds, rather than a stereotype that only upholds whorephobia and classism.

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by Sofia Barrett-Ibarria
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Sofia Barrett-Ibarria is a freelance writer in Los Angeles