‘Sugar Sisters’ exemplifies the failures of third wave feminism

sugar sisters

A CBC documentary called Sugar Sisters: Confessions of a Sugar Baby aired on Thursday. The film claims to “explore the globally popular phenomenon of sugar dating,” something we’re told is “heavily stigmatized.” In watching Sugar Sisters, though, it became clear that “stigma” is not the problem, when it comes to sugar dating.

The creator of the film, Hannah Donegan, was also the central character, placing herself in the center of her own experiment. That experiment involved Hannah and her sisters, Amalia and Caroline, signing up for a “sugar dating” site in an effort to deal with their debt, without having to work multiple jobs.

Their efforts seemed either insincere or naive from the get go, as all three women seemed shocked when the men they went on “dates” with expressed interest in “more than just conversation.” Caroline, 20, and Amalia, 23, backed out pretty early on, deterred by middle aged men who expected to be dating only 19-year olds and who didn’t pay them for their time, which consisted only of dinner and conversation. In fact, all three sisters seemed entirely shocked when they weren’t immediately offered hundreds of dollars after sharing a meal with an older man.

Caroline was particularly grossed out by one man she went out with who started “making sex eyes” at her over dinner. The men were clearly, she complained, “just looking for someone to sleep with,” despite the fact she said she wasn’t looking for “anything physical.”

Hannah, 28, persevered. (I assume, for the interests of making the film.) A “sex-positive queer feminist” in a relationship with another woman, Hannah is super open minded about “sex work”… She just doesn’t want to have to do it herself. After talking to her mother about her decision to “sugar date,” she explains that her mother doesn’t approve because she is a “baby boomer who is uncomfortable with sugar babies and sex work.”

So this is what third wave feminism has brought us: the idea that cool, liberated, “feminist” women should be “comfortable” with prostitution. Interestingly, Hannah, like her sisters, turned out not to be so “comfortable” with the actual reality of having sex for money. She told the CBC that she was “empowered by the idea of owning her sexuality and making money off it,” but alas the reality of selling sex is not just a fun idea to talk about with your queer friends.

While Hannah believes that sugar dating isn’t only about sex, because “a lot of [men] are also just looking to talk and use you as a kind of therapist,” she admits that those men “try to push your boundaries, take advantage, and get more than agreed upon.”

Hannah eventually meets David, an older man who she gets along with enough to feel comfortable asking him to buy her jewellery and purses. He soon offers her exactly what she was looking for all these months: an allowance and trips to New York, where he lives.

But after flying out to New York to visit him, he takes her for dinner and asks her back to his place for a drink. Once she is at his apartment, she feels pressure to sleep with David, so takes off. “It’s hard not to feel obligated to sleep with him,” Hannah says. “He put so much money into me just being there.” Hannah was worried David wouldn’t feel like it was “worth it.”

What these “sex-positive queer feminists” seem not to realize is that an older man paying a much younger, financially vulnerable woman to spend time with him is not an egalitarian relationship. The reason these men are paying is because they don’t want a relationship with a woman who is their equal, who disagrees with them, challenges them, or holds them to account. These men pay because they want a woman to stroke their egos, to fake interest in him, and to acquiesce to his desires. They pay because they don’t want to have to be accountable, or to have to prioritize a woman’s needs, thoughts, and desires (outside the superficial). They also pay because they don’t want that power dynamic to change — if women had real power in this world, men would no longer have access to young, compliant women.

Hannah and her sisters come off as privileged, ignorant young women who have no idea how money and power work in patriarchy or in the sex industry. The fact that they could choose not to follow through and have sex with the men they “date” is a slap in the face to all the women out there who can’t “choose.” Nonetheless, they opt to use their privilege to perpetuate the idea that young women should feel not only “comfortable” but empowered by the idea of the sex trade, regardless of the actual realities of women and girls in it.

Not only does Sugar Sisters fail to explore the reasons why older, wealthy men seek out these kinds of “arrangements,” but it fails to question the assumption that supporting the system of prostitution is “empowering” and, therefore, a given for young “sex-postive queer feminist” types.

Hannah calls sugar dating “cashing in on patriarchy,” leaving me to wonder: How does selling your body and self to men who hold more power in this world than you do confront patriarchy in any way? The very basis of patriarchy is that women are things that men can buy, trade, own, and use, for their own purposes. The fact that sugar daddies are men and sugar babies are (largely) women, should be a tip off, in terms of where the power lies in these relationships. The notion that money somehow interrupts the basis for male supremacy is one of the greatest lies ever told.

Hannah concludes, “I realize that if I’m going to do it and get the big payoffs, then I’m going to have to sleep with these men.”

Indeed. And not only that, but you’re going to have to accept male dominance, within your relationships with these men as well as in a cultural sense. That third wave feminism seems unwilling to grapple with the larger context for their personal imagined “empowerment” has been one of its biggest failures. Hannah and her sisters are an excellent, if not depressing, example of this.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.