A controversial new trend in “sugar dating” has recently gained attention again. Sold as somewhere between a business relationship and dating, the practice involves young, attractive, predominantly female “sugar babies” – many of them students – exchanging their companionship for financial support from older, wealthy predominantly male “sugar daddies” or “mommies”. Expectations and boundaries for both people are outlined upfront, and if they proceed to an ongoing relationship it becomes known as an “arrangement”. Although arrangements commonly involve sexual intimacy, this is not always the case.
Angela Jacob Bermudo, spokesperson for one of the most popular and self-promotional international sugar dating websites, SeekingArrangement.com, told me over email that the site now has 5m members, of which 1.4m (28%) are students. In the UK specifically, 160,000 (40%) of the 400,000 members are student sugar babies, a figure that Bermudo says “grew exponentially during the year of 2012". She puts the increase down to a policy change that allowed English universities to start charging up to £9,000 in fees per year.
This is a pattern similar to that observed in the US alongside rises in the cost of university. Similar debates have also gone on in Australia. In the UK, since tuition fees ballooned in 2012, undergraduate students can now expect to amass an average debt of more than £44,000 over the course of their degree. According to Bermudo, the average university student sugar baby in the UK receives approximately £2,000 per month, which amounts to £24,000 a year. This is £2,300 more than the £21,702 average starting salary for graduates reported in 2012. Overall, Bermudo reports that allowances for sugar babies range from £1,000 to £20,000 per month.
BBC Radio 4 recently aired a programme on this phenomenon called Sugar Daddy, Sugar Baby, which included interviews with several female student sugar babies and a couple of older sugar daddies. For the sugar daddies, the primary motivation was access to beautiful young women for companionship and sex.
For the students, their decision to become involved in sugar dating was invariably driven by financial reasons, allowing a more lucrative and flexible means of keeping up with the monetary and academic pressures of higher education than traditional part-time student jobs. However, while some students struggled emotionally with the practice or felt obligated to meet increasingly controlling demands of sugar daddies' money, others were very positive about the experience as a means of easing financial pressures and felt that it should not be stigmatised.
Increase in student sex work
While there has been very little academic research on sugar dating so far, there is broader evidence to suggest that financial pressures linked to recent rises in tuition fees have pushed students to engage with more extreme methods of funding their education. One example that can offer useful parallels with sugar dating in the UK is the increase in student involvement in sex work in recent years (particularly erotic dancing, other non-direct services and escorting) as the cost of university has risen. Reasons cited by students for their involvement in sex work include greater flexibility and financial reward compared to traditional part-time work. Recent figures suggest that almost one in 20 students now engage in sex work during their time at university and more than one in five have considered it.
The rise in student involvement in both sex work and sugar dating can be understood in the context of the mainstreaming of sexual consumption and accompanying greater social awareness and acceptance of these practices.
While all students may experience financial strain at university, the gender balances of sex work and sugar dating – as solutions – are very unequal. Bermudo says that SeekingArrangement has seven times more female sugar babies than male internationally (3.34m female compared to 460,000 male, of which 280,000 identify as gay or bisexual making them potential matches for sugar daddies) and 15 times more sugar daddies than sugar mommies (1.17m sugar daddies compared to 80,000 sugar mommies).
Is it prostitution?
It has been suggested – including by some sugar babies themselves – that sugar dating is prostitution under a different name. There are certainly similar characteristics between sugar dating and certain forms of sex work, particularly escorting. However, SeekingArrangement emphasises that the company prohibits the use of their website for the direct exchange of money for sex. Sexual intimacy is not part of the initial agreement to enter into an arrangement. These are based on money, gifts and mentorship in return for (potentially ongoing) companionship – a loophole that has also been used by escorting websites.
Bermudo argues that: “Money is always a factor in relationships, but many people are still uncomfortable to admit this, especially in the UK. This is just an upfront and honest way of dating suitable for our modern times.” A key difference to many forms of direct sex work is the level of physical safety offered by some sugar dating websites; for example, SeekingArrangement says it carries out background checks on members with an emphasis on sexual and violent crimes.
However, there is a fine line between sugar dating and sex work. It raises issues similar to those in the ongoing feminist debates on sex work and its impact on women directly and gender equality more broadly. Ideas around a woman’s agency and choice to earn money from her body and sexual capital in the context of financial constraints need to be balanced against the impact that practices such as this, which perpetuate the idea that women’s bodies can be bought, could have on gender relations and equality in society.
The announcement in the government’s latest budget that further cuts are being made to financial support for students suggests that this trend is likely to continue. It is incumbent upon higher education institutions to acknowledge the constrained choice that their students face and to acquire the information necessary to offer appropriate support. Ultimately there is a need to ensure that no student is pressured to perform any kind of emotional or sexual work that could have a detrimental effect on their well-being.