Sexual relationships have always been fraught with confusion. The vagaries of love, its obstacles and its limits are as old as time itself. In danger of stating the obvious, no one half of a relationship is the same: each of us has different needs, instincts, aspirations and desires, because we are all composite individuals.
In recent, more enlightened times, it has been argued that relationships are more outwardly complex than they have ever been before. You can have two dads, or two mums, or be polyamorous. You can make a test tube baby, be friends with your ex without wanting to ride him, have a range of different sexual partners, divorce, remarry. Hell, you can do all of those things at once without even cancelling your anarchist book club meeting.
The right wing press would have it that such developments have occurred in a world gone mad. They would like us to revert to a simpler time - a time when you were stuck with the first person you’d ever shagged, waiting happily in a fridgeless kitchen for him to bring home the bacon. They’d like you at your husband’s economic mercy, because hasn’t all this liberation lark got a little out of hand? Aren’t you tired of trying to have it all? After a hard day at work, don’t the apron strings, the baking oven, and the china tea set look like a welcome relief?
Which is why the outrage at programmes such as Channel 4’s "Sex, Lies and Rinsing Guys" has been so puzzling. The programme follows three women (three makes a trend, remember?) as they, as the Mail would have it, ‘trawl the internet for rich men to fund their extravagant lifestyles.’ The women get sent designer clothes, jewellery, underwear, and sometimes cash. In return, they offer a bit of chat, a bit of flirting, but certainly no sex. In a slightly more depressing echo of these sentiments, reports have come around again that more female students are turning to the sex industry (mainly stripping) for tuition fee top-ups than ever before. And by the way, selling your dirty knickers on the internet, a phenomenon Glamour magazine described this month in not exactly discouraging terms, could net you seven grand.
Then we have the launch of Sugar Daddy locating website seekingarrangement.com, which matches women with rich men in need of a good "rinsing." When Channel 4 News interviewed a self-proclaimed "sugar baby" on Thursday, asking candidly whether the term is merely "shorthand for prostitute", the well-to-do manager of a successful events company replied that even though she enjoys the financial side of benefiting from a "sugar daddy", she doesn’t actually require the funds herself. Rather, she continued, it was the underlying idea of "tradition" that attracted her to the sugar daddy/sugar baby relationship dynamic: the male as a provider and as a "gentleman", who pulls out a chair for his girlfriend before he sits down to eat. As an entirely self-sufficient businessperson economically, she had sought this treatment because she felt that it had been "lost" from her own generation, or certainly at the very least her own peers.
We may live in a world where sex sells, and sells in a much more up-front way (no pun intended) than it ever has done before. But our ideas of what it means to be in a relationship are stubbornly stagnating in a tepid puddle of conservativism (surely just what the right wing press would want?), obscured by complaints about specifics like the qualities of porn when there’s a more pervasive disease afoot. The rehabilitation of the sex industry into the mainstream can also be blamed on how technologically available pornography has become; certainly it muddies the waters when it comes to our own sexual relations. Relationship issues have been so wrought with unnecessary complications nowadays that "my employer asked if I wanted children" has become drowned out by "my boyfriend wanks in the disabled toilets at work to my face superimposed on an anime character, courtesy of the latest iPhone app." Magazines are full of tales of women whose sex lives have been ruined by their husbands’ porn addictions.
But it isn’t technological advancement or even skyrocketing availability of the "plastic porn" so loathed by Alain de Botton that is to blame for our recent social throwback to daddies with wallets and babies with boobs. PornHub may fail to excite our higher virtues, but the illusion of choice in the new age of stripping for pocket money and rinsing for goods is just as dangerous as the shiny, hairless aesthetic pushed by repetitive dirty videos.
No wonder men are sometimes confused. We thought you wanted liberation, but now you want a Cartier watch, paid for by me? We’re confused ourselves. The capitalist system has meant that consumer goods, especially those which enable that generic "sexiness" so often demanded of women, have become the key to empowerment. In a time of economic decline, is it any wonder that women are manipulating the qualities that they have been told for decades are their most desirable, in exchange for economic "freedom"?
Selling your sexiness might seem like a powerful notion, but in fact it exemplifies the regression to 1950s values that has taken place in this economic downturn. Being adopted by a sugar daddy but keeping your job and sleeping with who you want doesn’t preclude the fact that a transaction has taken place, in the context of a value system that places women’s bodies and men’s minds as their most respectively attractive commodities. Sexiness is brilliant, but collating it with empowerment is just an extension of objectification that we don’t need. And women-as-ornaments is just outdated interior design.