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

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.