Who am I to judge twentysomething women who sell their bodies or their mere presence to older, well-off men for money? I don't judge. It doesn't bother me. It's their business.
What does bother me is a certain type of spin – the presentation of the story of selling yourself for money as a fraught, cautionary tale about discovering that it is emotionally damaging to peddle your body and charm. Of course it's damaging. And if you're 28 years old with a university degree, you're either formidably, implausibly naive or you're just concocting drama out of the bloody obvious.
Sugar Sisters (Thursday, CBC, 9 p.m. on Firsthand) is the saddest thing. And bothersome. It's about the world of "sugar dating." It's made by Hannah Donegan (with Ann Shin), who chronicles her own and her sisters' journey into transactional dating – the search for older guys who will pay them handsomely to go on dates, but the transaction doesn't involve sex. In an essay for the CBC website, Donegan explains, "This story is told from my own perspective – that of a sex-positive queer feminist."
Much of the doc is about Hannah herself, who has a live-in girlfriend, Jocelyn. There is some emphasis, but not enough, about how Jocelyn feels about her partner selling herself to men. It seems she's a tad upset on a regular basis, and little wonder.
Hannah and her younger sisters, Amalia and Caroline, are in this sugar-dating thing together. Why? Well, you know, they're young and usually working two part-time jobs to make ends meet. They're presented to us as "broke," but in reality, they live very bourgeois lives. These are not desperately poor people forced by extreme circumstance into selling themselves. They want it easy and they figure that using their youth and looks is the easiest way to having a more cushy life.
Their adventures begin with a sense of fun and games. They look on their "dates," hopefully, as cash machines. Sometimes they get money for simply having dinner with some guy, and sometimes they don't. And that's the point of the exercise – get money from men for simply being present.
They say they look on it as work and hope for one or two hundred dollars per date. Since it's "work," they won't have alcohol. But, of course, eventually, they do indeed.
Caroline believes she's smart enough to negotiate her way through the minefield of transactional dating. She meets Sandy, who gets thousands of dollars a month from a sugar daddy. "People pay Sandy just for her attention," Caroline exclaims, wide-eyed and jealous. "That is so cool!"
The mixture of greed and naivete is breathtaking. And a scene in which two of the young women sit in the back of a car, cackling about the cash they've just received on a date, is mind-boggling in its depiction of crassness. Oh, by the way, mom and dad disapprove of this "transactional dating," but the disapproval seems to have limited impact.
Long story short, not all of the sisters are either successful or entirely comfortable in the sugar-dating world. But one does persevere. After all, there is a documentary film to be made here. Hannah goes to New York to check out the sugar-dating scene there. Viewers get a glimpse of many creepy guys gathered to meet young women looking for a sugar daddy. The event organizer, a guy more creepy than most, says, "It's a mutually beneficial relationship, that's the mantra!" Right.
Our heroine starts a transactional relationship with a guy in New York named David: "At the end of our date, he handed me $400 cash and said he wanted to do it again. This could be a regular income." And it becomes just that – he pays for her to visit him regularly in New York and pays her when they go on dates.
The inevitable climax occurs when David offers to pay her living expenses and they negotiate. After, he invites her back to his place for a drink. We're told he asks her to stay the night but she flees. And then comes the confession: "I realize if I'm going to do this and get money and there's going to be a big payout, I'm gonna have to sleep with these men."
Well, duh. Nothing about Sugar Sisters rings quite true. It's not an exposé, nor is it truly illuminating. If it were to be truly honest, there would be much more from Jocelyn, who is the one the viewer longs to hear from. She is, after all, the partner left behind while Hannah gallivants about, seeing men for money, disappearing for days and, while at home, spending a lot of time texting back and forth with guys.
The conclusion is no surprise – somebody discovers that it's better to concentrate on the stable relationships in life and stick with caring people. As an attempt at a cautionary tale, Sugar Sisters is ridiculous.
I won't judge twentysomething women who sell their bodies or their mere presence to older, well-off men for money, but I will judge Sugar Sisters – somebody was desperate for a career move with this ridiculous documentary, and that's the sum of it.