Sugar Dating: A Prettier Name for Prostitution?

Is sugar dating objectively appealing (sugardaddyfail.com)?

Is sugar dating objectively appealing (sugardaddyfail.com)?

How would you feel if you saw a college gal you know with a significantly older man? What if you knew he was literally her sugar daddy?

Welcome to sugar dating. Add “sugar” to anything, and it sounds more appealing. “Sugar dating” certainly sounds nicer than transactional dating, escorting, or prostitution, but is it any different?

According to one sugar baby,

The job description of a sugar baby . . . is to be fun, happy, busy, sexy, and mysterious. Other feelings freak sugar daddies out—so if you aren’t happy or busy enough, embellish! Text him photos of stylish parties stolen from Instagram while you watch Girls and eat rice pudding alone, on your period. Keep your emotional needs in check via friends and lovers (but don’t mention these “support networks” to your sugar daddy, especially when monogamy is assumed).

SeekingArrangement, the world’s largest sugar dating website, which boasts over 3 million members and operates in ten languages, has a rosy view of such partnerships. In a phone interview with the author, Public Relations Manager Angela Bermudo stressed the site’s emphasis on “mutually beneficial relationships,” which reportedly begin with both sides being “brutally honest” about what they expect and can really can offer in a relationship. Financial transactions are always part of the equation.

“Women have married for economic reasons since the beginning of time,” [said] Brandon Wade, Founder and CEO of SeekingArrangement.com,” in a June 2013 press release. Of course, most modern marital relationships include mutual emotional support and frequently, a shared interest in raising children.

As Bermudo tells it, Wade, who’s been nicknamed “The Never Been Kissed Nerd,” started this site in 2006 because he “wasn’t blessed with good looks or the personality of someone who’s good at dating” and met many other wealthy men in the same boat.

Now some of those socially awkward men can date women like New York City’s Madeline, a 24-year-old artist who supplements her income with sugar dating: “Most sugar daddies—or the good ones, anyway—understand that the sugar experience is supposed to be extravagant, kind of like a fantasy, so you get to go to some pretty nice restaurants.”

SeekingArrangement, by contrast, doesn’t discuss fantasies. They fashion themselves realists in a world of romantics. Bermudo says, “In conventional dating, people aren’t upfront about expectations; you often see relationships that end up being one-sided.” The source of that cynical view is unclear, but it clearly justifies (for the staff) why SeekingArrangement—with its purported 5:1 ratio of sugar babies to sugar daddies (per press kit figures)—is both necessary and legitimate.

Of course, it’s the explicit monetary exchanges that raise red flags on these relationships between attractive, younger women and more established older men. Oh, and the fact that 33% of sugar daddies are reportedly married.

So, who are the women willing to play second fiddle? According to SeekingArrangement, nearly 490,000 sugar babies are single mothers and 40,000 are teachers. Forty-two percent of sugar babies are students.

The list of colleges with the most sugar babies changes annually, but NYU led the pack in 2012. Bermudo says SeekingArrangement typically sees an uptick in membership when tuition increases or recent graduates in a given metro area have difficulty landing jobs, as they look for “someone who can help them out in terms of their career and financial assistance.” Bermudo adds, “They’re using us to pay for their tuition, housing expenses, books, food, [and] transportation.”

Rather than accept part-time library or babysitting jobs, women join the site hoping to earn a $3,000 monthly stipend, which SeekingArrangement’s polling says is an average financial arrangement. According to an April 2013 press release, “In 2011, approximately 52 percent of college Sugar Babies graduated debt free because of their mutually beneficial arrangements, but in 2012 that number jumped by 15%.”

Bermudo remarked,

Clearly there’s a lot of criticism for the site, once we talk about money and relationships, even if we talk about people out there being providers. People say, ‘Why don’t these girls take on jobs?’ But it’s really hard to take on a job or two while pursuing a full-time schedule at school. This is one way to find what they need without taking on too much. A lot of people see this as taking the easy way out, but if there’s an easier way, why not take it?

Is college about learning short cuts or deepening a work ethic? Is sugar dating simply a logical extension of the campus hook-up culture, in which human dignity and emotional intimacy are trumped by the imperative to prove oneself open-minded? Most crucially, is sugar dating tantamount to selling one’s soul, and is it really easier than working a part-time job that doesn’t reduce a thinking woman to the sum of her body parts?

Is sugar dating worth it? Filmmaker Parinda Wanitwat, who is making a documentary about the phenomenon, connected me to one of her subjects, “Nancy.” Nancy is a late twenty-something all-but-dissertation doctoral candidate in New York City with successful careers in both classical music and fitness. Nancy agreed to answer my questions about her sugar dating experience via email:

What differentiates sugar dating and prostitution?

a) There is a negligible semantic difference, and b) . . . there is far more hemming and hawing over issues of shame within the sugar dating community than within the escort community. An escort knows . . .  that she is an escort; however, I have heard repeatedly from men . . . that many of the women with whom they generally interact cling desperately . . . to the falsehood that they are not sex workers, but ‘sugar babies.’ Exchanging money for sex is prostitution. Period.

Is sugar dating really dating?

No. This is not dating in any way. Sugar babies often provide what in the escort community is known as “GFE,” or [the] “girlfriend experience,” wherein the woman and her client will have an evening together (dinner, conversation, and sex) and the paying client gets to feel that he has a real partner for the night, but who will disappear at the end of their time together with no strings attached. . . . many women delude themselves into thinking that they can start relationships through sugar dating sites, but almost without exception, this is simply untrue; healthy relationships do not include barters of rent money or smalls sums of cash in exchange for particular sex acts.

Are sugar daters seeking companionship like the rest of us?

Yes! People are absolutely looking for companionship! I met so many men during my time doing this who simply needed to be accepted and loved, and instead they had been shamed. Their shame is a huge part of what drove them to seek out sugar dating instead of finding enthusiastic, open partners who would simply accept their needs, wants, kinks, etc. In most cases, I found the men to be terrifically unhealthy in their approaches to sex, women, and dating, but not because they were inherently so. Rather, the women (or other people) in their lives had repeatedly invalidated their sexual needs to the point that they felt ashamed of having them at all! There is a blanket of distrust shrouding every exchange on this site and I strongly suspect it has everything to do with feelings of shame, inadequacy, and unhappiness on the part of both the men and women involved. In as much as many of the women refuse to see themselves for the sex workers they are, a great majority of the men . . . refuse to see themselves as the johns that they are, and refuse to acknowledge that they are turning to these sites because they want company and sex and, most importantly, the power that comes with hiring a woman for sex.

What do women get from these relationships? Do they tell their families about them?

I can’t speak for other women, but . . . I got a lot of pleasure out of playing therapist and/or giving these men a thing that they needed. Some men had kinks that their long-term partners refused to fulfill . . .  some men simply wanted a more experienced partner with better sexual technique; sometimes, men just wanted the ease of having sex with a woman and then not having to deal with the relationship . . . Of course, I was also compensated for doing this stuff, as I rightly should have been. I provided my companionship, my sexual experience and expertise, and a judgment-free environment, and as a result, I was able to more easily pay my bills. I think that’s a very fair trade.

I had no long-term relationships . . . in the traditional sense, although I did see a number of men very consistently over the 7- or 8-month period that I did this. . . . I was actually already in a committed, long-term, and consensually non-monogamous relationship before I became a sugar baby . . . when I went to see a “Pay guy,” as I called them, my partner and I treated it very much the same way as when I would go out on a date with a casual, non-paying outside partner. My family knows about my preferred open relationship paradigm, but never knew (and will never know) about my work as a ‘sugar baby.’

With so many women sugar dating to fund college, do we have a student loan crisis?

Yes, 100%, absolutely!! . . . We as a society have very little respect for education, for women, and for sex, and it’s essentially a perfect storm: in tandem, these three issues allow for potentially dangerous and harmful sex work to propagate. I came across many predatory men, but . . . I was educated, aware, and experienced enough not to get involved too deeply with men who I couldn’t trust . . . but many women who are more financially unstable or who have enormous student loan debt simply can’t afford to be as picky because they need money . . . now. I chose to do this because I was having financial difficulties, I don’t know of a better pay-per-hour job, and I have a predisposition for sexual exploration; however, no woman should be backed into a corner because she wants an education.

What most surprised you about sugar dating?

How much work it took. My initial estimation of how long it would take . . . to establish trust with these men was way off . . . the amount of back-and-forth emailing and of needing to be available at a moment’s notice was surprising, although . . . it shouldn’t have been . . . the needs of the men and women on these sites are actually at odds with each other: the men want to pay as little as possible and for novelty, and the women want to be paid as much as possible for stability; so, everyone has to compromise if any of these relationships is to . . . become an actual transaction, and that takes time.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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