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Swapping sex for a degree: the myth of the ‘sugar daddy’

This year has already seen a flurry of media commentary regarding the “sugar daddy” phenomenon, much of it self-generated for publicity reasons by sites such as SeekingArrangement.com. Sugar daddies (and…

Are students really paying for their degrees in exchange for sharing their beds? Degree image from www.shutterstock.com

This year has already seen a flurry of media commentary regarding the “sugar daddy” phenomenon, much of it self-generated for publicity reasons by sites such as SeekingArrangement.com.

Sugar daddies (and to a lesser extent sugar mummies) are wealthy older people seeking a “mutually beneficial” arrangement with a younger person. Increasingly, we are told, students are turning to these sites to fund the cost of a university degree.

To date, the media commentary has been mostly of the titillating kind, sometimes with pseudo polls to gauge public reaction and generate debate. Depending on the commentator’s ideology, swapping sex for education is either proof of the increasing amorality of modern culture, or of the harsh economic reality of living in a knowledge economy.

But, beyond the headlines, what is really going on?

Sex for education - fact or fiction?

Of course using sugar daddies or mummies to fund a degree has happened, and will happen. The question becomes one of degree. Let’s take the example of the University of Sydney, which reportedly has 137 students profiled on the aforementioned site, making it the number one Australian university for new signups.

According to the most recent government data, the University of Sydney has 51,168 students. So if the number in the article is correct, only a quarter of 1% of students have signed up.

It’s a fair assumption that most, if not all, of the signups are female, making it approaching half of 1% of women – still a very small number.

But it is approximately four times the rate of the overall incidence of sex workers in Australia (approximately one tenth of 1% according to the government).

Still, student populations have vastly disproportionate numbers of young adults compared to the general population, so the data is massively skewed. Now take out those students who signed up for a dare, or on an impulse and have no intention of following through.

Also take out those who signed up for reasons other than paying for education, but just happen to be a university student. The point here is that the real number of students swapping sex for education is very, very small.

A virtual presence

Still, these people are very, very visible. People share so much information about themselves nowadays, it’s easy to find out just about anything about anyone.

So we have to differentiate between increased incidence and increased reporting.

When I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s, I knew of two people who took up sex work to cover the cost of living during their education. Theirs was a secret they shared to only a handful of close friends.

Nowadays people like that are more visible because it’s easier to find them, or their statistic, on the web. And of course, the actual sites offering the services heavily promote media coverage, both good and bad, for commercial reasons.

The tone of debate

The language the media uses doesn’t help the debate. A conversation about sex workers, tuition fees, cost of living and cultural and sexual politics sells more copies when you add in the “ick” factor of references to sugar daddies and sugar babies. It also doesn’t hurt to include a photo of Hugh Hefner and friends.

It’s hard to have an intelligent conversation on that sort of playing field.

But this conversation could be an intelligent one if we tried.

First, the media needs to stop drawing causative relationships between the cost of education and sex work, until an empirical study explicitly shows rising costs in education are causing more people to enter this industry.

And second, stop trivialising the real issue of social injustice in higher education by focusing on titillating stories such as these. Each day hundreds of children are born in Australia into socio-economic circumstances that set additional barriers in their way to gaining a university education.

We need to have serious discussions about this, not about salacious side issues.

That is not to say that this issue is not worthy of discussion. I invite and trust my expert colleagues with relevant expertise in (for example) gender and sexual exploitation, morality and ethics, to contribute to the debate and know they will do it to a far higher standard than has been done to date.

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    Mmmm...I'm in my 50s, and none of this is news to me. Brings recollections of the movie 'Sunset Boulevard'.

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  2. Roger Davidson

    not really a Student

    Almost all of the sign ups would be males doing it for a laugh or for curiosity sake.

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  3. Baz M

    Law graduate & politics/markets analyst

    Interesting article. As for all those whom I have heard also cast their magic stick of self righteous morality (many being female), all I'd like to say is that I'd show a lot more respect for a girl who doesn't come from the best of socio economic circumstances and does this to make ends meet as opposed to a female sleeping around for attention or to be "wild". Same goes for males who sleep around while married, engaged etc because of the impossible pursuit of trying to be Charlie Sheen. Both of the latter I think are much more top of the scum ladder compared to the former.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Baz M

      That's an interesting perspective, which can be paraphrased as:

      A person's promiscuity is morally acceptable when it involves the fulfillment of a material, rather than a sexual, social, or psychological need, or the personal choice to be promiscuous 'for the sake of it'.

      What about monogamous relationships? Are these morally acceptable when they fulfill material needs, such as marrying for money? Or is it just promiscuity this standard applies to?

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    2. Baz M

      Law graduate & politics/markets analyst

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Well I guess the difference would be maritual status at least even if purely technical makes it official.

      On the other hand your just a free agent, doing hops if you will.

      And yes I guess I am saying material reasons is different (on the basis that such material reasons are practiced to make ends meet. I do find such reasons as more justifiable as opposed to, "I'm not happy in my marriage, or I have daddy issues, or i can positively shock him if he sees my wild side".

      Yep I await your omg get with the times you conservative loser rebuttal.

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  4. Roger Crook

    Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

    'But this conversation could be an intelligent one if we tried.'

    First make the case for an intelligent conversation. Just nonsense - all of it.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Roger Crook

      "And second, stop trivialising the real issue of social injustice in higher education by focusing on titillating stories such as these. Each day hundreds of children are born in Australia into socio-economic circumstances that set additional barriers in their way to gaining a university education.

      We need to have serious discussions about this, not about salacious side issues."

      That is a very brief case for an intelligent discussion.

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  5. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Don't get it?

    Which university teacher would sign up for those sites. If he is that stupid, should he be allowed to teach any way? Blackmail seem the least of his worries there. As for older men looking at younger women :) Ignoring any morale of it, as that varies historically, I guess it's a natural instinct with most men. As for young girl flirting. Testing the waters as they grow up so to speak, that's also natural, as it seems to me? But to put it into a 'business approach' seems rather sick.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      I saw nothing in this article that indicated the sugar-providers were university employees.

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    2. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Let us just say that it involves humans Emma. And there is no degree guaranteeing anyone freedom from being such a one. People tend to mix knowledge with higher morals, and that may be true to some degree as the more one learn the more one, hopefully, will question oneself.

      But it's not the whole truth. In a greed based society where egoism is what give one ones rewards, it would be no surprise to me to find some using learning as a mere tool for rewarding themselves, never questioning themselves or their motives. In a way that too is about learning, but that kind of education comes naturally from the environment you live in, aka society.

      And it is a greed based society we live in, all of us.

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    3. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      If you're saying that university employees are just as capable of entering into such an arrangement, that's obviously true.

      But it is also true that this article didn't mention this demographic being involved. Perhaps it was better not to, given the context of this article.

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  6. Garret Krampe

    logged in via Facebook

    I personally know a woman that did not pass her medical exams in China and accumulated a debt to a professor
    at Shijiazhuang Medical University which had to be repaid via a sex contract or in money. The amount of money was around 500,000 RMB.
    She was later "called" by 2 men all Chinese regarding her visa and money here in Australia.
    During her marriage she tried to on-sell her contract to real estate, occupational medicine, and construction firms.
    3 Men and one woman working in a government construction…

    Read more
    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Garret Krampe

      That particular form of extreme depravity and cruelty is sex slavery (rape) through bonded labor. Or some other string of words inappropriate in polite company.

      As horrible and wrong as it is, it's also different from what this article seems to be about (voluntary relationships).

      Why do you think that behavior was allowed to continue in Australia?

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