Crushing student debt, low employment options, and a need to feel in control of something, anything. These are a few of the conditions leading young people to consider the practice of Sugar Dating. It is the process of finding a wealthy older man to help cover costs of tuition or other living expenses in exchange for relationships and intimacy. And it is totally legal.
There are plenty of sites masquerading as dating apps promising to match rich benefactors and attractive young people for purposes of money for companionship. While they are transparent that the financial support is in exchange for mutually beneficial companionship, they are also quick to point out that sex is not (necessarily) part of the arrangement. However, reports from both Sugar Babies -those seeking financial support, and Sugar Daddies -those providing it, acknowledge that sex is typically expected in exchange for any financial support and gifts. So, then, what is the difference between sugar dating and prostitution?
5 differences between prostitution aka commercial sexual exploitation and sugar dating:
Sugar dating is legal
Sorry, I cannot think of anything else
These sugar dating matchmaking sites actively pursue college students, advertising in school newspapers and online bulletin boards to weaponize debt to attract members.
What is so discouraging is how appealing it is. The cost of tuition has risen 8 times faster than wages, and public university tuition has increased almost 30% over the last 30 years, leaving many graduates drowning in loans. In fact, when someone types search words such as “student loan relief” and “financial aid,” SeekingArrangement, a popular site for sugar dating, pops up as a top result. Additionally, any student that creates a profile on SeekingArrangement with a .edu email address automatically gets a free profile upgrade to be prioritized with the wealthiest sugar daddy members. It's interesting to note that Harvard, NYU, UCLA, UC Berkeley are among the top 15 schools with the most members (and often with the highest tuition/debt) on the SeekingArrangement site.
One Yale student not involved in sugar dating but choosing to remain anonymous put it this way: “When you think about it, it’s kind of a messed up thing. It’s hard to think that college is so cost prohibitive that it forces young people into prostitution.”
Sugar babies interviewed about their experience, by contrast, never consider it prostitution, yet they admit they take money in exchange for providing sex to their benefactor. The challenge with establishing the illegality of the behaviour is how soon before or after the cash or new handbag was traded for the activity. It is a nuance that makes it difficult to establish whether it was money for sex, or money for rent and a bit later we have sex. Sugar daddy sites will council their members on how to time events appropriately to avoid any potential issues.
Enter human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Traffickers use these kinds of sites to attract victims, building trust and then exploiting the economic or emotional vulnerability of those who would seek this kind of arrangement. They then have their victims turn around and post again in order to seek additional arrangements on sugar daddy sites to meet their pimp's demands and quotas.
And on the rise are social media sites attracting even younger people for virtual sexual favors. A TikTok sugar daddy will offer online currency in exchange for videos of youth doing suggestive or inappropriate things. They will pay via Venmo for example, and that currency can be collected and spent from the app without ever going through a bank, parents remaining none the wiser.
Sugar babies may have found a way to reframe the arrangement, convincing themselves that they are in the driver's seat, but if you had a chance to review last week’s blog on prostitution, we quickly see that these arrangements are rarely on equal footing. The sex buyer remains in a position of control and power and can fairly easily demand what they want in return. The distinction between sugar dating and prostitution is one of mere nomenclature and opens the door for a pimp to take the wheel.
Sugar dating is driven by the hypersexualizaton and objectification of women along with the belief that this activity is truly a choice. According to research done by the Villanova University School of Law, “Sugar-dating arrangements feed the destructive cultural narrative that a woman is defined by her body and is a commodity to be bought and sold on a sexual market. Moreover, these arrangements depend upon and, ultimately, reinforce economic and gender-based structural inequalities.”
The reality is that sugar dating, like prostitution, is a down river problem. It is a symptom of something deeper based on the stories we tell ourselves and our children. So, what can you do to change the narrative? How can you be a part of the cultural shift toward economic and structural equality?
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