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What’s Does ‘Gold Digger’ Mean These Days?

It’s hard to know what a gold digger is anymore. But news that Cosby retrial judge Steven O’Neill will allow witness testimony from a woman who claims she overheard accuser Andrea Constand say she could make false sexual allegation claims against a celebrity to scam dough, confuses the matter. Just look at the headlines: “The Bill Cosby Defense Will Be That She’s a Lying Gold Digger,” Jezebel writes. “Cosby judge will allow witness who paints accuser as gold digger,” NBC reports.

But someone who cries false rape for money is a criminal. A gold digger fakes love for money. Or in modern form, like with the founder hounders of Silicon Valley, also status and prestige. In other words, gold digger is just another term for a female grifter who pulls a long con. Love and sex are her weapons, and she’s looking for an ATM. But it isn’t a smash and grab. Gold diggers don’t tend to go in for a one-shot, one-kill money grab like a typical thief would. Rather, they date or marry wealthy men whom they do not love in exchange for a “lifestyle.” This isn’t exactly a jewel heist, unless jewel thieves move in with their victims and play house. True gold diggers are willing to ride it out as long as necessary to get the lifestyle and the payout upon death.

But now that women are more capable than ever of paying their own way, or more likely to openly admit when they want transactional relationships, it’s increasingly less clear what being a gold digger means. If anything, we should probably banish the word altogether and simply use sugar baby for women who openly wish to receive payment for companionship or more, and sex worker for women who are happy to accept cash on a per-service basis.

And everyone else is just being as shallow as they like, which goes two ways. If there are women shallow enough to really only want money, there are certainly plenty of rich men shallow enough to only want attractive women who like money, and to believe those women would love them just as much if they were baristas.

The term gold digger showed up in the lexicon in the early 1900s, and first described anyone materialistic enough to care only about money. But in 1915, it started to only apply to women. Nickolaus Hines writes in a history on the term that “Virginia Brooks’ 1915 novel My Battles With Vice refers to a woman who is the queen of attaching herself to men for their money: ‘She can get money from a ‘Gypshun’ mummy, believe me.’”

From there, it’s near exclusively used to describe women, which is ironic because for most of history, women were completely dependent on men for any financial security whatsoever. So it’s a weird form of gaslighting to deny women the right to earn money, vote, or own property, education or anything else that would allow them to earn on par with men — and burden them with total responsibility for child rearing — but then accuse them of being ruthlessly shallow when they look for a guy with plenty of money to go around. Cut to a hundred years later, and the meaning of the term has barely changed, except that now some women proudly self identify with it.

Probably the most famous gold-digging example is Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall. She was a high school dropout-turned-Playboy and Guess jeans model; he was a billionaire oil tycoon and widower who fell in love with her after seeing her strip at a Houston nightclub. The 89-year-old and 26-year-old married after she divorced her then-husband, but allegedly the marriage was never consummated. Even though everyone saw gold digging, and even though he allegedly showered her with more than $6 million in gifts, Marshall died without putting her in a will. According to his lawyers, he never intended to give her anything, so it’s still unclear who used whom. (Since both Smith and Marshall are deceased, his remaining heirs are still battling over his money.)

But gold digging gets thrown around in civilian divorces, too. Here, a woman takes a man to the cleaners, usually after he cheats, to exact justice. But experts say even these stereotypes ignore the fact that divorce is overwhelmingly more likely to leave women destitute for years, especially when they don’t have the earning power of the men they’re with. Add children to the mix and a woman who sat out years of her career to raise them, come divorce time is rarely able to re-enter the workforce at the same pay.

Back to the self-proclaimed gold diggers out there. The 43-year-old Kim Perez proudly peacocked her own story for the Daily Mail, pictures and all, explaining how she remade herself by fixing her working class accent and scouring eBay for second hand luxury outfits and handbags to seem rich enough to attract a millionaire. It worked; she’s now married to rich American named David. Perez explains her motives, as if simply being poor and wanting a nicer life is justification enough:

I worked in my local pharmacy, but I always felt I deserved a better life. Just like people who believe they have been born the wrong gender or in the wrong era, I felt like I’d been born into the wrong social class.

I had this hunger for the finer things in life, and the lives I read about in glossy magazines. I wanted to live in beautiful houses and own designer clothes and jewelry.

Like a true con, she studied the lives of the rich through glossy magazines and tabloids, down to their accents and table manners, to make sure she came off as rich herself. She locked in on a dude, and talked him into buying her plane tickets, dinners and gifts. She downplayed her own background until she snagged him. But don’t feel too sorry for him — he’s way into it:

David peppered his emails to me with tales of flying business class and expensive champagnes. I knew he had to have serious money. This was the man I had been waiting for.

Three months later, he proposed. Why neither of them cared about the ruse is their problem, but the only important takeaway is this: she was just as into his rich American thing as he was into her fake British affluent thing. I don’t call that a con; I call it a match.

What’s more, we call women gold diggers when they already have a bunch of money to start. When already rich supermodel Jerry Hall (worth $15 million) married rich old guy Rupert Murdoch (worth $11.3 billion), she too was implied to be digging for the precious metal. After news of the engagement, The Guardian wrote:

Hall is wealthy in her own right but does not come near the billionaire league with a relatively modest £10m settlement when she split with Jagger 16 years ago. She also got half of the 26-room house they shared in Richmond but can only stay until she is 65, co-habits or remarries, prompting the cliched speculation that she is after a slice of Murdoch’s money.

We also still instruct women to be gold diggers, not just by telling them it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man, not just by valuing men entirely by the money they earn, and not just by making wealth one of the most important metrics of a person’s value, but also sometimes literally. For $3,000, the Chinese school The Beijing Moral Education Centre for Women actually trains women on how to be more appealing to wealthy guys by showing them how to sip tea and have fancy conversations. Wealthy men pay $5,000 to meet them in the hopes of locking it down.

The problem is, if there is one — and, critically, it never affects any of us — is what happens when the money runs out? What happens when someone marries you for your looks and you get old? Or your body, and you become disabled? What happens when a wealthy man buys a sugar baby and accidentally falls in love? The exact same heartaches and headaches anyone else experiences in a broken relationship, it seems, only with far, far less money involved.

All that said, and in spite of the cattle call of women seeking financial arrangements and men seeking trophy wives on shows like Millionaire Matchmaker, dating experts say scamming for dough is not most women’s modus operandi. “I’ve been in business for five years,” president of Chicago’s Smart Dating Academy Bella Ghandi told the Chicago Tribune. “And I’ve never had a woman come to me and say, ‘I need a rich guy.’ Not once.”

She concedes her female clients do want men who are financially stable, but that this means that they want men who actually enjoy what they do and are successful at it. (This is hardly the same as self-proclaimed sugar babies who ask for headshots and five years of bank statements when looking for boyfriends. And again — they are totally transparent about this.)

What’s more, given the proliferation of women who make bank these days and often out earn their husbands (Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Britney in the Federline days), it’s clear men can be “gold diggers” too. (Such is the premise of an upcoming TV show about a twentysomething man pursuing a much wealthier 60-something woman.)

But all the other rich men out there who happen to like pretty women should probably realize that you’re actually both in a very similar boat. Attractive women are just as likely to be used for their looks as you are for your money. That’s just the gross, gross world we live in, and most people wouldn’t have it any other way.

As Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes put it: “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”

Spoiler: Lots of men would marry a girl just because she’s pretty; lots of women would marry a man just because he’s rich. The rest of us will muddle through somehow. And until then, let’s all just stand back and let them find each other, and consider it a valuable service to the rest of us.