When he approached me in the stairwell of the subway, I was holding a milk crate and a bucket, wearing a dirty satin wedding gown, white face makeup, crimson lipstick, and thick black eyeliner. I had just finished a self-appointed shift of “living statue” work: standing in Lincoln Center, singing show tunes for nickels and dimes.
I was an aspiring actress working temp jobs, cocktail waitressing and filling my underwear drawer with cash tips to pay for MetroCards and music lessons. Living statue work could bring in 50 bucks in a few hours, 75 on a good day.
He introduced himself as Pierre and said his wife lived in Paris. They had an arrangement. She lived there, and he lived here, helping young women “find their way” in the city. He wanted to take me shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue and pay a weekly “stipend” in exchange for “hanging out” in his apartment a few times a week.
“The light is perfect. You should come see it,” he said. “I think you’re amazing. You deserve a better life. I can help you get there.”
If he had been Matt Gaetz with a private jet to the Bahamas, he might have had me on the spot. As it was, I gave him my number. His eyes mimicked kindness, and the arrangement was intriguing enough to hear him out.
When I was a kid, my mom forbade me to call boys. They had to initiate, to always give the illusion that they were the ones doing the chasing. Though she didn’t intend it, the idea of men as predators and women as prey — or men as customers and women as merchandise — instilled in me a belief that romantic relationships were inherently lopsided‚ with power squarely under the man’s jurisdiction.
It should be noted that I did not grow up in the 1950s. I came of age in the late ’90s, but the era seems not to matter. Whether thinking about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Harvey Weinstein and his ruthless assaults, or Gaetz purportedly trafficking young women and flashing their nude photos on the floor of Congress, the mechanism at work is an exchange of value dictated by male dominance: I take what I want. You stay quiet, and I’ll make sure you’re “taken care of.”
The power dynamic in these relationships is outlined clearly on Seeking Arrangement — the service that Gaetz’s associate, Joel Greenberg, allegedly used to identify young women for “mutually beneficial relationships.” (Gaetz denies any wrongdoing. Greenberg, who has been indicted on 33 federal charges, reportedly wrote a confession implicating them both in an attempt to get a pardon from former President Donald Trump and is also reportedly considering cooperating with the FBI in its probe of Gaetz.)
The Seeking Arrangement website spells it out: “4 Sugar Babies per Sugar Daddy... No strings attached... Upfront and honest arrangements with someone who will cater to your needs.” And for the Sugar Babies? “Find a mentor: established Sugar Daddies offer valuable guidance for long-term stability... Date real gentlemen who don’t play games... Indulge in shopping sprees, expensive dinners, and exotic travel vacations.”
I never did find out if Pierre followed me all the way from 65th Street or just picked me out on the subway car, but it was clear he wanted a piece of me and thought he could get it — what with my thrift store bridal regalia and the clown make-up and all. He wanted to know me, or so he said, and that made me feel like I mattered.
At 21, I was in serious doubt about my value after two men lifted me on successive pedestals and then left me there with a shrug. They were classmates at an all-male prep school who played dress-up with swords and shiny black shoes.
The first took me to prom. His dad was a criminal court judge who gave me gin and tonics at family picnics before I could drive. He took us on vacations and bought swank hotel rooms for his son and I to dabble in adulting without a hint of supervision.
The second asked me to marry him. He told me he saw God in my eyes and that loving me would be a lifelong practice of devotion. He said the first guy had done me wrong. He would never cheat on me like that. And he didn’t ― until three weeks before the wedding. He left a message on my voicemail to break the news. There was a woman in Santa Fe. He couldn’t cancel the honeymoon in Hawaii, so she’d be going along instead of me.
“At 21, I was in serious doubt about my value after two men lifted me on successive pedestals and then left me there with a shrug.”
The Clown Bride was born in the wake of that betrayal, a satirical brew of heartache and bitterness. If my ex didn’t want me in his arms at the altar, I might as well make a mockery of the situation and earn some cash in the process. I’d had enough of pedestals ― the milk crate would have to do for now. Besides, I enjoyed the bewildered adoration of tourists and steel drummers competing for decibels among the sirens and car horns.
On the day I was supposed to get married, my parents came to the city to distract me by taking me to a Broadway show, but, in the second act, a love story bloomed. I fled the theatre mid-climax like a rocket from a jet propulsion lab, spewing diesel haphazardly on any audience members unfortunate enough to be seated in my wake. Love was full of lies, you see, and lies have no place in the theatre.
I’d rather be on a street corner with a bucket full of change, plastic trinkets and chewed-up gum while strangers shouted, “Get a real job!”
At least that was honest. I knew where I stood.
Pierre was being honest, too. He proposed a transaction. His overture offered the simplest, emptiest kind of love: for profit, for sex, for prestige and Prada. He left messages that I played back on repeat. A sun-filled apartment? Dinners at restaurants where I couldn’t even dream of getting a job? Friendships with “the other girls?”
As prey, I felt empowered in this chase. There was no emotional risk I could detect ― not the real kind ― no danger of falling in love. The physical risk was worrying, though.
When the Matt Gaetz scandal broke — alleging powerful men paid young women and girls to party in hotel rooms and take lavish vacations — I understood why a person might agree to meet a congressman’s “needs” in exchange for CashApp deposits labeled “school.” It made sense to me. I knew all too well the choice the women faced to proceed — or not — and tried to imagine how they might feel about it now, in the aftermath. Many ways all at once, I suppose: thrilled, disgusted, honored, grateful, relieved, scared, alone.
At their age, I spent a week in a one-room apartment considering two divergent paths. The one with sex for money and daiquiris by the beach seemed safer than the one scrounging for cash and looking for an honest companion in an ocean of nightclubs and cubicles.
I deliberated in secret. What is a “better life,” anyway? Could a stranger with a fat bank account provide it?
Pierre forced me to reckon with the nihilistic view of men and love I was threatening to adopt — along with a view of myself as being in need of rescue.
What he was really asking that day was: Do you want a dealer or a partner?
If the answer was dealer, the path was clear. I imagined myself reclined on a daybed near a wall of picture windows, surrounded by other girls, talking about movies and eating bowls of grapes and potato chips. I don’t think that’s what Pierre had in mind, though.
Toying with full-blown cynicism, my body flinched. I did believe in partnership. I believed in my own ability to survive, and I believed in men, so many good men: my father, my brother, a teacher or two, and a host of dear friends who dug trenches in my defense. I was lucky that way. I had some good ones in my life to prove the point.
Powerful men who pay for sex with barely-legal women who are short on cash or confidence aren't so much men as they are parasites, feeding on a false sense of power that disintegrates as soon as money changes hands and they remember how frail they are: not sufficient to match a grown woman who comes to them by choice. Luckily for the guys, there’s usually more money where that came from. They can keep buying the high to avoid the low — until it turns out the whole operation was illegal and the girl was underage.
With every message Pierre left, I got clearer. He wasn’t a man, not one who could provide the kind of life I wanted anyway. He didn’t qualify, and I was perfectly capable of paving my own way. I never called him back, but it took a long while after that for me to figure out that I didn’t have to give chase to attract a man. If I just showed up whole, the feeble ones would bugger off. I didn’t want a stipend. I wanted a companion, a scrappy one that grows a beard and buys sequins for his son and plays Al Green on Sunday mornings.
The decision not to return Pierre’s call wasn’t about maintaining some arbitrary moral high ground. It forced me to decide consciously and on purpose who and what I welcomed in my life. It set a standard for countless decisions I would face going forward — the same standard I teach now to corporate executives, college students and everyone in between.
“The decision not to return Pierre’s call wasn’t about maintaining some arbitrary moral high ground. It forced me to decide consciously and on purpose who and what I welcomed in my life.”
I’m a Mayo Clinic & National Board-certified health and wellness coach and an author. Most folks assume that means I teach people how to have a “better life,” just like Pierre wanted to teach me. But that’s not the case.
“Better” implies there’s something wrong with you, something fundamental that needs fixing. There is always leeway to grow. That’s the interesting part, but believing we’re inherently broken, as we long for that growth, leaves us vulnerable to all kinds of schemes designed to outsource our agency: Pay this money. Follow my lead, and you’ll be fixed. Or so often in the case of sugar babies: Give me your body and your precious time, and I’ll save you from yourself.
I teach people to gauge the choices they make — from the food on their plates to the company they keep — based on kindness and generosity toward their own bodies and the people and values they hold dear. It’s a practice of recognizing the circumstances we face and actively deciding which of many ways to respond — “good,” “bad,” and ugly — rather than living by default.
Consenting adults can do whatever they want within the parameters of the law — as long as everyone involved has the ability to choose their next move and their next meal, free of coercion or necessity.
That’s the point though, isn’t it? We all get to choose — or we should be able to, anyway — all of us, every day in a million different ways. Nothing is broken here, except the idea that showing up whole and heartsick, crooning tearful love songs on a street corner in an asphalt-rimmed bridal gown is anything other than a perfectly acceptable and entirely rational way to be human. I didn’t need to be “better.”
The day I decided not to accept Pierre’s proposal was the last time the Clown Bride of Lincoln Center made an appearance. I didn’t need to go back. I didn’t need milk crates or pedestals anymore.
I didn’t want Pierre’s spare change.
Sarah Hays Coomer is a Mayo Clinic & National Board-certified health and wellness coach and author of three books. Her newest is “The Habit Trip: A Fill-in-the-Blank Journey to a Life on Purpose.” You can find her at www.SarahHaysCoomer.com, on Instagram at @sarah.hays.coomer or on Twitter at @sarahhayscoomer.