Trading the Purse for the Purse Strings

THIS COULD BE YOURSWhile the lackluster courtship rituals of the overclass may not be box-office gold these days, they do exert endless fascination for the proprietors of luxe magazine brands. Witness, for instance, Melanie Berliet’s Vanity Fair online testimonial, “Desperately Seeking Sugar Daddies.” The conceit of the confessional piece is to combine the writer’s impatience with her stalled day-job prospects with her willingness to undertake a “social experiment”-registering as an enterprising gold-digger at a dating site called “Seeking Arrangement” (“the elite sugar daddy site for mutually beneficial relationships”). Berliet makes a pro forma show of ethical introspection as she prepares her profile. Sure, she may be “walking the line between dating and prostitution,” but our twentysomething correspondent nimbly makes with the pop sociobiology.

The idea that mixing money and mating is inherently bad, I reasoned, was a fallacy based on our collective obsession with moralizing sex. . . . .It is only natural for males to target cues to fertility such as youth and beauty, and for females to be drawn to displays of resources. Why sneer at suspected gold diggers like Heather Mills or the late Anna Nicole Smith if they were merely following their evolutionary instincts?

Well, then. With this rationale-which Berliet puzzlingly deems a “progressive” line of thinking-out of the way, it’s on to setting the bait for the swanning plutocrat. The male clients of the service are supposed to muster a new worth of at least $10 million (women make up just one percent of the demand side of the operation, while the “sugar babies”-whom Berliet declines to break down by gender–make up two-thirds of the 420,000-member service), so the procedure devolves largely into posting a couple of photos and some open-ended characterizations hinting strongly of loucheness. “Open, amount negotiable,” is how Berliet describes what she’s looking for, figuring evidently on the basis of her hurriedly acquired devotion to evolutionary biology that all the Type-A testosterone floating around on the far side of her ISP connection will take care of the rest.

And sure enough, “Hank”-all the principals in Berliet’s yarn are pseudonymous, as is our correspondent herself over the course of her Seeking Arrangement career-turns up via a semiliterate text message: “i think i maybe waht you r looking for; read my profile and if you r interested drop me a wont be disappointed.”

Since our correspondent is an aspiring writer, she finds Hank’s cavalier way with punctuation and orthography “suspicious,” but she soon overcomes her fastidiousness after consulting his profile, which fixes his net worth at between $100 million and $200 million, and reports that he’s prepared to devote 10 to 20 grand a month to sugar-baby maintenance. That sum, Berliet reckons, “would be enough to cover my living expenses and leave me with thousands in disposable income.”

So it’s off to Megu, for “perfectly cooked Kobe beef” and a quick discussion of prospective balance sheets. “If I want to go with my girlfriend to St. Barth’s for two weeks,” Hank starts in, “she’s not going to be left behind because she needs to write copy all day to make 500 bucks to pay her cable bill. A girl, if she’s going out a lot with me, cannot be wearing the same thing all the time, so of course I’ll buy her her Louboutins and Gucci handbags.”

Of course. But Hank also offers a caveat that sticks oddly in Berliet’s craw: “I don’t want to feel like I’m paying for her company, though. The less she asks for, the more she gets.” The fledgling sugar baby assents in principle, but holds back a glum judgment to herself: “It… struck me as hypocritical for a man to sign up to be a sugar daddy, put a dollar figure on his girlfriend budget, and then refuse to write checks.”

But it seems far stranger for someone on the make, in what’s billed as nothing more than robust, evolutionarily satisfying display of male resources, to be decrying hypocrisy, or any other moral failing. Indeed, shouldn’t an aspiring sugar baby be gratified to have reeled in a prospect who doesn’t “want to feel like I’m paying for the company”? Just a cursory survey of the types who do want to feel that way should kill any indignant charge of hypocrisy taking shape in the sugar-baby brainpan. Why, Rush Limbaugh was just married yesterday, for God’s sake. And not to dwell on the most lurid sort of counterexample, but it was only last summer that Ryan Jenkins disqualified himself from the cast of “Megan Wants a Millionaire” in quite sobering fashion. All I’m saying is that a little genteel hypocrisy can itself serve some useful evolutionary purposes, in brute terms of individual and species survival.

Not so for our Melanie, though. After a listless makeout session at Hank’s lavish Manhattan spread, she bolts for the exit, deciding in fact that she “hated him”: “no amount of gifts or pampering could compensate for dealing with so controlling a person.”

The Hank encounter proved fairly typical of Berliet’s Seeking Arrangement outings. At another meet-up at the Soho Grand bar, she learns that a guy she calls Darrell lied about his age, his appearance and his physique-so who knows if he was actually worth $50 to $100 million? The only live one turns out to be an older gent she calls Charlie, who graces her with a “token” date favor of an iPod on their first meeting, and offers a refreshingly candid account of his recourse to Seeking Arrangement: “I can’t separate the fact that I have resources from who I am,” he said. “It’s part of me. And it’s something I have to offer twentysomethings.”

Now that’s the stuff. Over the next two hours, Berliet reports, “we truly clicked,” bantering about “everything from the challenge of monetizing an Internet business to how laughable it is that one of the biggest distributors of pornography in the U.S. is the devoutly Mormon Marriott family (thanks to the in-room entertainment they offer at their ubiquitous hotels).” Like many a twentysomething, Berliet seems to have a Holden Caulfield-style fixation with phoniness in all its many hypocritical guises. But she drops the ball when, during a later date’s unsentimental-seeming badinage about getting it on, Charlie asks her why she’s prepared to make the beast with two backs him, and all she can summon up is the curt reply, “Why not?” Again, not exactly the sort of outlook that the delicate business of courtesanship requires-as Charlie himself senses instantly, with an equally terse response of “Bad answer.”

Berliet decides that the unbidden shadow of moral scruple has invaded her cash-and-coitus emotional playground; as appealing as Charlie was in other ways, when it came to the, um, nuts-and-bolts prospect of a sexual liaison with the guy, “I couldn’t mask my apathy.” Subsequent dates with him fizzle out as Berliet frets about the “sexpectations” they bring. Indeed, even when she goes off the Seeking Arrangement circuit entirely, kismet puts an honest-to-god Forbes 400 billionaire in her amorous path-and again, nothing, even though, she concedes, she let “our romance drag on far longer than I would have had he not been a billionaire.” She seeks consolation, as all good freelance writers must, in the advice of an expert-namely, one Helen E. Fisher, whose “pioneering work has shown that love is not an emotion but a drive, and that what we experience as love triggers the brain’s reward system in much the same way cocaine does.”

From the bald display of dude-ish resources to a jolt of virtual cocaine: As moral evolution goes, Berliet’s saga traverses the distance from Mystery to Amy Winehouse. It’s also hard to see how this ready-made transposition of drives delivers the newly romantic-minded Berliet onto any safer dating grounds. Emma Bovary, after all, the restless bourgeois wife of a pharmacist, was fed on wan literary simulations of romantic transport and thereby became the protoype of the modern addictive personality who ended up killing herself with drugs. It may just be that pecuniary drives actually do corrode the key elements of human intimacy-and that the dogmatic insistence to the contrary is far less liberating than it is, well, hypocritical.

Chris Lehmann is open to your transactional offers.