DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #62: We Are Here to Build the House


Dear Sugar,

I am a young woman in an American city. I’ll be out of a job in a few weeks. Gulp. I’m in the process of entering into an arrangement with a man: we will rendezvous once or twice a week and he will pay me an “allowance” of $1,000 a month.

About this, I have many conflicting thoughts. There are the practical questions: is what I am doing illegal? Is what I am receiving taxable income? If so, how do I report it? Am I being paid fairly?

But also, more importantly: is what I am doing immoral? The man is married. He offered me this old saw: he loves his wife, he is going to take care of her forever, but she doesn’t want sex like she used to; she’s not the jealous type, and he’d tell her but he doesn’t want to rub her face in it. To me this sounds cowardly. I am a person who believes in non-monogamy; I believe in people making the choices that are the best for them. But I also believe in communication and respect and integrity. Am I complicit in something awful?

And my last set of questions, Sugar. Is this something I can do? Is this something I should be doing? I am theoretically pro-sex, but I’ve never really enjoyed it. I have all sorts of ugly issues involved–I know we all do–and I don’t know if this will make them better or worse. I am trying to approach the whole situation in a meta way, as an exploration of my feminist ideology–but every time I think about him touching me I want to cry.

And yet I am very poor. And though I thought myself employable, I am very soon to be unemployed. How much can/should I take my desperation into account?

I think I am going to go through with this, Sugar, so I don’t know what my question really is. I think I just want to know how people negotiate all this shit, and how I am supposed to be OK.

Thank you so much.


Dear LTL,

I said yes to this gig immediately. Within the hour, I realized I’d made a mistake. I was way too busy to be Sugar. The job pays nothing. I earn my living as a writer. Mr. Sugar also earns his living as an artist. There is not a steady job, trust fund, savings account, retirement plan, parent willing to pay any portion of our preschool bill, free babysitter, not maxed-out credit card, employer-paid health insurance policy, paid sick day, or even a middle class childhood between us.

Between us there are only two beautiful children and ten mountains of debt.

I can’t work for free. I can’t work for free. Of course I can’t work for free!

That was the mantra screaming through my head after I agreed to be Sugar. So, an hour after saying yes, I composed an email to Stephen Elliott and the former Sugar and told them that, while I was flattered they’d asked me to be Sugar, I’d replied too rashly when I accepted the job. I explained that—fun as it sounded—writing an advice column for no pay simply didn’t make sense at this point in my life.

The unsent email sat on my computer screen while I paced my living room thinking about all the reasons that it was perfectly unreasonable for me to become Sugar. Every reason was punctuated by a silent exclamation point. I had other writing to do! Writing for which I was being paid! Writing that would need to be pushed aside on a weekly basis so I could crank out a column! And what was a column anyway! I didn’t write columns! I didn’t know anything about giving advice! Plus, there were my kids! I was stretched thin already, my every not-writing moment consumed by caring for them! The whole Sugar idea was ridiculous from the start!

And yet I could not bring myself to send that email. I wanted to be Sugar. I was intrigued. Sparked. Something powerful overrode all the silent exclamation points in my head: my gut.

I decided to trust it. I gave Sugar a shot.

I thought of this when I read your letter, sweet pea. It made me think about what’s at stake when we ponder a gig. About what work means. About the fine balance of money and reason and instinct and the ideas we have about ourselves when we imagine we can be “meta” about our bodies and lives and the ways we spend our days. About what’s at work when we attempt to talk ourselves into things we don’t want to do and out of things we do. When we think a payoff comes from being paid and a price exacted from doing things for free. About what morality is. And who gets to say. And what relation it has to making money. And what relation it has to desperation.

Your letter unsettles me. There is the husband, in a yawning predictability that borders on hilarity, casting his decision to deceive his wife as a benevolent one. There is your own naivety about the logistics of prostitution—which is the correct term for the act of providing sex for money. Even if you refer to it as a rendezvous. But most of all there is you, dear fathomless bird of truth, telling me exactly what you know you must do.

And then turning away from it.

You don’t need me to tell you whether you should take this gig. You need me only to show you to yourself. I am theoretically pro-sex, but I’ve never really enjoyed it, you write. Every time I think about him touching me I want to cry, you say. Do you hear that, darling? It’s your body talking to you. Do what it tells you to do. Be its employee. It doesn’t matter what your head is working out—the monthly grand, the uncertainty of unemployment, the meta/feminist gymnastics. Putting faith in that crap might pay the rent, but it’s never going to build your house.

We are here to build the house.

It’s our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do. You know what’s right for you and what’s wrong for you, honey bun. And that knowing has nothing to do with money or feminism or monogamy or whatever other things you say to yourself when the silent exclamation points are going off in your head. Is it okay to be a participant in deceit and infidelity? Is it okay to exchange sex for cash? These are worthy questions. They matter. But the answers to them don’t tell us how to rightfully live our lives.

The body does.

There might be women out there who can fuck men for money and be perfectly fine, but you are not one of them. You told me so yourself. You’re not cut out for the job, sweet pea. When it comes to sex you say that you have “all sorts of ugly issues” and that you “know we all do,” but you’re wrong. We all don’t. You do. I once did. Not everyone does. By generalizing your problems regarding sex and sexuality, you’re running from yourself. You’re covering your wounds with a classic it’s-okay-if-I’m-fucked-up-because-everyone-is-fucked-up canard. It’s a lie you’ve told yourself that has flattened down whatever hurts.

But what hurts remains. Something inside of you that has to do with sex and men needs to be healed. And until you heal it you are going to have to open and patch and cover and deny that wound over and over again. This job offer is an opportunity, but not the sort you think it is. It’s an invitation to do the real work. The kind that doesn’t pay a dime, but leaves you with a sturdy shelter by the end.

So do it. Forget the man. Forget the money. It’s your own sweet self with whom you must rendezvous.