With college tuition, textbook and living costs soaring higher each year, students face daunting debts that prompt them to get creative with how they support themselves. Some turn to working at Starbucks, others to tutoring — and some even turn to dating.
A sugar baby is typically a young woman who is in a romantic relationship with an older man — called a sugar daddy — in exchange for cash, gifts or other benefits. Most sugar babies use the website “SeekingArrangement,” or sometimes Tinder, to find these men. These relationships can vary from purely online or Snapchat interactions to getting dinner at fancy restaurants or “hooking up”— which differs from person to person.
The sugar babies interviewed for this article all requested to remain anonymous for safety concerns, so their names have been changed for privacy. Samantha, a sophomore, first got started with sugar dating so she could stop asking her parents for favors.
“I come from a very upper class family so I’m used to a luxurious lifestyle, but obviously I feel bad everytime I talk to my parents I’m usually asking them for money, so I’d rather ask someone else,” she said.
Samantha’s decision eventually came with its costs and she stopped seeing one sugar daddy because he wanted her to have his kids.
“[One sugar daddy] just wanted to have sex and kept saying he wanted to have another kid because he had a child and was going through a divorce,” Samantha said. “The way he talked about it made it seem like he wanted me to be his surrogate or for us to get married and [for me to] have his kid.”
This is just one of the many experiences that sugar babies have encountered with older, wealthy men. Mildred — the “least sexy” pseudonym she said she could come up with — recounted an instance when she was sick and her sugar daddy offered to care for her.
“He was like, ‘I’m going to buy you groceries and medicine and I’ll be over in like 20,’ and I was like, ‘OK! This is cool,’” Mildred said. “He came over and brought me a lot of stuff and I was like, ‘Oh god he’s going to want something [from me],’ but then he was like ‘OK bye!’”
Not all scenarios work out, though. According to adjunct professor David Korman in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, these types of relationships can quickly become toxic.
“There are some social science studies that seem to indicate that power seduces the person who has the power to be more easily coercive of others, and less empathetic to them,” Korman said.
Mildred said the men sometimes feel as though they own the sugar baby because they are spending money on them and they can become possessive, which is dangerous.
“I just added this guy on Snap and then he was like, ‘Oh can you snap me some pics?’ and I was like, ‘No…’ because you gotta make them work for it so they’re more invested in you,” Mildred said. “He got so aggressive and asked where I lived and if he could come over.”
Certain sites like SeekingArrangement try to avoid unfavorable outcomes by taking the precaution to background check members.
Kiki, a junior neuroscience and psychology double major, who has gone on many sugar dates, said most sugar daddies are a lot more respectable than one would imagine.
“Going into it I expected guys to be flippant and treat you like trash, but I think the whole point of being a sugar daddy is that they want someone to spoil and take care of,” Kiki said. “If they just wanted sex, then they’d get a prostitute.”
Korman said the line between prostitution and sugar dating comes down to exchanging anything of monetary value — including gifts — for sex.
“Prostitution is defined as engaging in sex as a business, so if there’s money exchanged specifically for sex then it’s prostitution,” Kornan said. “If money is exchanged for companionship and the sex evolves out of the nature of the relationship, then it probably isn’t prostitution.”
Some date sugar daddies out of financial desperation, while others, like Mildred, just want to have the extra cash. Samantha also said she specifically goes out with sugar daddies whose net worths are more than $1 million because for these men, money isn’t an issue.
“It’s really nice to have another source of income, but it’s hard because eventually they do want to have sex because you do build a bond,” Samantha said. “But like, I’m not sexually attracted to these guys, so it’s really hard.”
Samantha’s mother knows about the dates she goes on, but her mom trusts her because she always takes the right precautions.
“I always meet [sugar daddies] in public and I never get in their cars or anything,” Samantha said. “I always bring my pepper spray and I’m just smart about it. I think every girl should be.”
Mildred also said she tells her friends when she’s going on a date with a sugar daddy in case anything goes wrong and she needs to get out of the situation.
“I send the profile to someone who’s awake and vaguely available when I’m out so that I can text them,” Mildred said. “Other than that the plan is to fight and scream.”
Kiki said she’s “kind of scarred” by an experience with an older man who brought money into the relationship, and is considering taking a pause on being a sugar baby.
“At first it was fine, but then he would tell me how kinky he was and how he wanted to take me to sex clubs and basically wear me like arm candy and I was like no no no,” Kiki said.
Kiki also said if she could give advice to anyone considering becoming a sugar baby, she would tell them to be very cautious of the people they interact with.
“I would say be really, really careful with what you want,” Kiki said. “[Even] if in the moment you’re like, ‘Oh this seems like a great idea,’ you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you can’t get out of it.”