Note: I’ve written the bulk of this post at the beginning of March, where there were only 10 episodes released. So some of my ‘interpretations’ here have been solidified in the story in the more recent chapters. I also updated some parts accordingly. I wasn’t planning on releasing this post, but a friend on Twitter was interested in reading it so I said why not wrap it up. Thank you for tuning in, and don’t forget that the post contains lots of spoilers.
Helloouuu, nice meeting you again. I don’t think I’ll be able to make a proper entrance because as much as you who just started reading this, I have no idea where I’ll end up with this post. It’s kind of about a new webtoon I’m reading, some recent discussions I’ve had with friends, and somehow they intersect in some aspects in my jumbled and constantly disoriented mind. I love flying off to space with the given material to a point even I sometimes lost my own train of thought, but hopefully, I’ll turn this post into something.
The BL webtoon I started reading is called Love for Sale. It’s about a university student Namwoo, who’s been working 3 to 4 part-time jobs at the same time, for as long as he can remember. Yet he still has to live frugally to get by, always cutting back on food or socializing. During a momentary breakdown, he meets Sieon, the CEO of a publishing house. Namwoo, in a drunken state, keeps mumbling about how a thousand dollars could turn his life around and Sieon says he’s willing to give it to him if that’ll make him happy. And he gives the sum to Namwoo, just like that.
The next day, Namwo meets Sieon to return the money, bright red in shame and ready for getting beat up because he drunkenly exerted money from a stranger, dragged him into his apartment, made Sieon take care of him and some other shenanigans that he can’t fully remember. But instead, Sieon says he wants to date him! Sounds like your run-of-the-mill fake-dating to lovers story, I know. However, there are certain details in the story that connected back to some thoughts roaming inside me.
If it’s not your first time reading my posts, then you’d know my love for literature. And I’m always in a couple of different reading/discussion groups. We’ve recently read a short story compilation with queer & feminist themes, also had the chance to sit down and talk with the author herself. Although people who joined the discussion were women from very different backgrounds and ages, we all felt the very same thing about one particular story because it involved a young woman, a young man, and a closed space. And as women, our daily experience equates that to danger. The author said it wasn’t her intention to add such suspense, and when I went back to re-read the story there really wasn’t anything that could signal something bad was going to happen. But all of us expected things to go wrong. And that is a reaction engraved in a lot of us through everyday experience.
And I find these intersections between fiction and personal experience and the way it shapes how we interpret it genuinely interesting. In chapter 3, upon seeing Namwoo’s surprised expression and inquiry on why the hell he wants to date someone whom he just met yesterday, Sieon says he thinks he can give what Namwoo wants. He, in turn, asks if he means money and the answer of the publisher is “If that’s what you want.”
This is how I interpret it: Even from that remark, it’s easy to pick up that it’s not exactly an ‘I’ll pay you if you date me’ situation. It becomes especially clear in chapter 7 that he mainly means emotional support and making Namwoo’s life easier, which would include lending a helping hand for his financial problems. However, much like in any other aspect of his life, Namwoo can only interpret this in a transactional context and the ‘labor’ he has to provide in turn for the money.
The feelings he shared in that vulnerable moment in chapter 7 were quite relatable since there was a period in my life where I’ve been in his shoes, minus meeting a hot, kind, and loaded publishing house CEO. We are very similar in character as well, especially in having a hard time relying on others even if it’s just sharing feelings, but feeling stuck and alone all the more. That was when I asked myself what I would do if I was in the same situation. A screaming yes comes to mind because I’m a simple woman and weak for intellectual, book-loving, glasses-wearing cuties, and being babied by one surely sounds great but is that truly a solid yes?
Real life is indeed different from idealized/romanticized fiction, but we can catch its glimpses. Whatever Sieon tries to do for his now-boyfriend, Namwoo’s only take of the situation is “He wants sex in return,”. Because it’s generally thought that one wouldn’t pay for a relationship since that’s something you can get out there and experience, plus it wouldn’t be ‘genuine’ to buy someone else’s ‘feelings’, and that leaves us with sex. Heck, transactional sex has been around since ancient times or was traced in primitive societies. While I know sex work and transactional (or sugar) dating are not the same, with regards to money, consent, and boundaries, they can be viewed in a similar light.
When I played around with the sugar dating idea in my head, I found myself thinking that as a woman, I’d be afraid to do it with a cis man, but would probably feel more comfortable with others. It’s not set in stone of course, but statistically speaking, I can easily imagine a man using that power difference against me and my personal boundaries wouldn’t be respected but it strikes me as less probable with an LGBT person. Well, this is also basically how BL became a field of exploration for women. I had two options in mind as to where this overstepping problem might stem from.
Paying money for a person’s ‘labor’, whatever that may refer to, might be equated to buying a commodity, and that brings forth the expectation that that person who provides the said labor is expected to accommodate whatever the buyer asks, even if it means their personal boundaries are breached. Like expecting a sex worker to say yes to everything their client might ask just because there’s payment. Or some people having no problem leaving the tables or toilets they’ve just used a mess because cleaning workers are paid their salaries. And I wondered if “thinking you have the right to treat others in any way you want as long as you pay” was rooted in capitalism, however, a friend reminded me that I just mentioned ancient sexy times and all of these, specifically slavery, existed in pre-capitalist societies as well. Dang, I was annoyed but some points were made.
I didn’t write that paragraph on my reading club for nothing and now it’s her time to shine; my other option was that the fear I felt was a result of shared everyday experience. This seemed more reasonable, but I still had questions. If I feared cis men more than other people, then I kind of knew that I essentially feared having that sort of inequality in the relationship and that would be used against me, as in the paragraph above. But are there any relationships out there that are truly equal? My answer was a no, and it seems like getting money in return for affection and time spent with your sugar partner adds to that difference in power that gender norms bring in a heterosexual relationship. And for some reason I can’t pinpoint, makes it scarier.
Of course, let’s say, marriage institution being a sham doesn’t necessarily mean your marriage will automatically become a confining one; it’s always possible to form a partnership with mutual respect, trust, and shouldering whatever comes your way together. This also means, theoretically, there’s no reason to attain the same balance in a transactional relationship. In chapter 10, after seeing Namwoo still being uneasy about accepting money from him, Sieon says:
What he points out is right, but I wonder if it’s enough to just know what the ideal take might be in this situation. We don’t live in a vacuum and certainly are not exempt from our culture, geography, families, identity, and all that. There have been many times I noticed that although I knew what was the politically correct answer, my initial reaction was still shaped by what I’ve come to learn throughout my life. Might seem like I’m jumping from topic to topic ridiculously but a great example of this is a column on threesome, written by a sex historian. To quote her:
“If you focus on the fantasy and not the reality, your threesome will end up more Walter Mitty than Sex in the City. The first thing you should ask yourself is why do you want to have a threesome? The answer to this might seem obvious – BECAUSE IT’S A THREESOME, KATE! But unless you actually know why you want to experience this, you won’t get what you want.”
Still, no harm in working towards making the reality work for you and your partner(s), right? Right, yet I’d like to hit you with another question. Could we use primitive vs moral capitalism as an analogy here?
“Moral capitalism is based on reversing this shift by refocusing economic activity towards the improvement of human lives and ensuring that nobody is left behind along the way. According to Congressman Kennedy, a moral capitalism would be “judged not just by how much it produces, but how widely it shares; how good it does for how many; how well it takes care of us. All of us.” ” source
Moral capitalism does sound much better than its primitive version, and of course, having improved working conditions and living in a more humane way is something we should all say yes to. But their exploitative structure is still the same. In terms of dating; can we say having a transactional relationship built on care is like moral capitalism? Are we sugarcoating the same underlying theme with respect? Or it is structurally different than the abusive version? I have no idea because it doesn’t change the fact that Namwoo was in need of money to survive after breaking his arm and was fired from every part-time job he had. That complicates things.
Phew, okay. Looking back at the post, apparently, I was aiming to write on transactional dating through Love for Sale. This webtoon manages to provide a rare, nuanced look at a relationship dynamic that’s frequently talked, but still kind of on opposite terms with our traditional understanding of romantic companionship. Namwoo is constantly baffled at Sieon’s kindness and even though he admits that the publisher’s never really been “bad” to him, he can’t bring himself to believe that unconditional love/care exists. I had a couple of more paragraphs on Sieon but took them out because the post is already this lengthy. In the end, it’s quite interesting to read such a take and I can’t wait to see how the rest will unfold.
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to provide something more coherent. I still have more questions about all this than answers in me, and not a clear train of thought so nothing more could come out. I haven’t come across (although I have to say I didn’t search thoroughly either) a decent published paper on the topic but came across this interesting piece that has some statistics and comments from people practicing sugar dating.
If you’ve managed to reach this point, let me just say I congratulate you, wish you a nice day and see you tomorrow for the BL challenge!