Monday, March 7, 2011

Debtors and Creditors in Romantic and Sexual Relationships

Gift Giving. Social Theory - one very useful thing that comes out of two years of communal common core reading.

A friend at one of America's other universities that forces social theory down the throats of undergraduates just sent me this, and we both thought it would be worth sharing here...

In City of Capital's first Chapter, Carruthers explores financial exchange (the loan-debt relationship) as a way of solidifying relationships between states and between debtors and creditors, and how being in debt places debtors in a position of power. 

Debtor Creditor Relationships also exist in romantic and sexual relationships, I think, and I'd like to explore this, and the way exchange influences 3 paradigms of romantic and sexual relationships. 
Society has traditionally considered women to be the provider of sexual services and men to be the consumer of sexual services. Whether this dynamic is based in biological differences between genders, (gendered evolutionary reproductive strategies, the cost of pregnancy and child-rearing for women, etc.) Judith Butler-style gender performativity, or to womens' traditional domestic sphere has been widely and inconclusively debated, and that I've personally spent a lot of fruitless mental time and space struggling with, but, anyways, for this post, it isn't so important. At any rate, this attitude lingers despite women's economic and professional advancement, demonstrated in "Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying," by the authors' main claim that the value of sex has dropped to an all-time low in contemporary mainstream relationships as college-educated women increasingly outnumber men and as casual, uncommitted sex becomes more available. 
Thus, we can think of sex as a good women offer and men “purchase” in a number of ways: through attention and commitment (marriage, going steady), informally (through gifts and meals purchased during a traditional courtship period) and directly (through prostitution).
  1. Through non-financial means: a man shows prolonged interest in and commitment to a woman. In a contemporary relationship, non-financial goods and sexual services are exchanged in an incremental process that leads to increasing levels of intimacy and commitment. This is what the authors of “Premarital Sex in America” have in mind. Taking traditional gender norms as a basis, both the male and female partner exchange “goods” on an encounter-to-encounter basis while subconsciously evaluating a parity of exchanges. The partner who is a “debtor” in this relationship is most likely to hold power in the relationship, and the “creditor” is more likely to be interested in prolonging and intensifying the relationship. Women who have casual sex are more likely to want a long-term relationship with their partner then men who engage in casual sex demonstrates this. Likewise, women are more likely to find marriage partners and secure committed relationships after a long, nonsexual courtship process, typfied in conservative cultures (Christian colleges, Muslim countries) where sex is generally withheld until marriage. In the former example, women desire a longer, more serious relationship because they feel the attention, commitment and interest provided were not of equal value to the “sexual services” offered. In the later example, the courtship process turns men into creditors, where attention, commitment and investment are given prior to the receipt of sexual services.
  2. Sugar-Daddy/Sugar-Baby style relationships. Referencing 1930s, Male-majority college dating culture, Kathleen Boygle writes in “Hooking Up” that “exploitation occurred when one partner was more interested in a continuing relationship that the other and thereby she or he was willing to give in to the other's demands...women might exploit men by “gold digging,” while men could exploit women for sexual favors or “thrills.”” (179) Today, this grey-zone of romantic relationships involves what Boygle would consider mutual exploitation: women exchange “sexual favors” and “thrills” for gifts and allowances. Like in mainstream relationships, the female “sugar baby” holds power if the sexual and romantic “goods” she provides are worth less than the financial goods she receives. Having examined Arrangement-dating websites and blogs interviewed 10 men and 4 women involved in these relationships, both sides attempt to become the debtor in this relationship: women often attempt to withhold sexual services and commitment until a certain number of gifts have been given or the first installment of a monthly allowance has been made; men attempt to receive intimacy (either by talking extensively about their own and their potential partner's sexual desires or kissing or fondling on the first date.) Like in normal relationships, the partner who has given more is most likely to become emotionally attached to their partner and to desire a continuous, ongoing relationship. Often, in order to meet both the Sugar Daddy and Sugar Baby's desire for reciprocity, the relationship begins with the exchange of financial services for romantic and sexual services on an encounter by encounter basis. Generally, because the language of this type of relationship refers to “generosity” and “spoiling” and “being spoiled,” the man holds the power in this relationship: rather than, like in prostitution, stating a price for specific services or chunks of time, the man will suggest a certain sexual encounter with the promise of “being generous” without explicitly stating the level of “generosity.” Thus, in a one-time encounter, services will be provided prior to payment; or, in order to procure a long-term arrangement with a monthly allowance, a potential Sugar Baby will go on multiple “dates,” physically and orally indicate attraction and sexuality, and allow for lower levels of physical contact.
  3. Explicit exchange of sexual services for money. Reviewing a British escort and escort-client website, it becomes clear that male clients of escorts are much more often interested in entering a long-term, romantic and unbounded relationship with a female escort than vice versa. Additionally clients often want to please the escort: there are a number of long topic-threads discussing how to best way to sexually pleasure escorts, escorts receive gifts, flattering hallmark cards, etc. This odd gender-norm-reversal can be explained by the power of the creditor in a debtor-creditor relationship. Clients of escorts become sexual creditors: they pay upfront; they also seek at least the illusion of mutual attraction and satisfaction. (Collins, Interaction Ritual) Further, in the act of selecting and purchasing a sexual encounter, indicate physical attraction and sexual desire for the woman. The dynamic of casual sex, discussed in “Hooking Up,” where unbounded sex implies that the woman is attracted to and values the man but not necessarily vice versa, is flipped. Thus, clients enters a commercial sex transaction desiring mutual attraction and sexual satisfaction, and, in paying upfront, is likely to receive neither. 


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