By Laura Duclos
“She never had sex with them,” Mary* said. “They went to dinner with her. One of them bought her some purses, shoes and clothes. Then she met her long-term sugar daddy, Tom*, and he was a lobbyist.”
Mary is the friend of a successful sugar baby. During their senior year of high school, Mary’s friend, Allison* logged onto the Seeking Arrangement website to meet sugar daddies and connected with Tom when she left home for college.
“He got her a boob job and she moved in with him for a little bit,” Mary said.
Around January 2013, Tom asked Mary if she wanted to go on a trip to the Bahamas with him, Allison and his two teenage sons. Mary agreed to go on the trip, under the condition she would not become involved with him. Tom gave her $500 before the trip to buy new swimsuits and clothes for the getaway. She described the vacation as a “dream trip,” racking up the total cost of the voyage to be around $90,000.
“We had $1,000 champagne with a diamond in the bottom of it,” Mary said. “It was great.”
However, not everything was perfect. Trouble in paradise began about halfway through the trip when Allison refused to have sex with Tom and told him he was repulsive.
“I bought you,” Tom said. “I own everything on you.”
He kicked the girls out of the room that night and told them to find their own way back to the United States. The girls were stranded until they made amends the next day.
After the trip, Tom offered Mary the opportunity to become another one of his sugar babies and, during a family dinner in front of his sons, suggested he, Allison and Mary have a threesome. That was the last straw for Allison. When the dinner was over, she threw the key to his house in his yard and never saw him again.
Priyanka Khandelwal, a graduate student in the Texas Tech College of Media & Communication, said the legality and knowledge of sugar babies and sugar daddies is a vast gray area, due to the lack of research on the subject.
“I believe this culture has existed in the U.S. for quite some time,” Khandelwal said. “I mean, people get really shocked when we talk about sugar babies, but sugar daddies have been in the news. There’s so many TV programs that talk about sugar daddies or even the concept of sugar daddies.”
Khandelwal said, from a media and communication standpoint, a sugar baby is someone, male or female, who is in a symbiotic relationship where there is some kind of give-and-take component. She said typically the sugar baby benefits from the relationship by receiving gifts, money, etc. and the sugar daddy or sugar mommy feels fulfillment by being able to provide for their sugar baby.
Allison was in community college during her relationship with Tom. About three months after leaving him, she found a new sugar daddy and has lived with him for the past two years, with no plans of returning to complete her education.
“She was saving money for a car,” Mary said. “I think she eventually wanted to go to [a four-year] school, but now she has no plans to go to school. She doesn’t have a job. She doesn’t really need to. She kind of lives the life.”
Understanding the ways of the sugar baby subculture did not come easily to Mary. She, like many, was skeptical and thought the situation was too good to be true and in some ways, she was correct.
“He was a controlling man — he was awful,” Mary said. “He expected her to do whatever he wanted because he paid for her boobs, her phone, her trip. He was going to get her a new car and that was going to add a whole other level to it. He paid for her life. He acted like he owned her.”
The question of why Allison chose the sugar baby lifestyle is one that is difficult to answer. Was it to financially support her or just spoil her?
“I think she didn’t want to have a job,” Mary said. “I mean, she wanted extra spending money. She was going to school and he [Tom] paid for her school, because it was community college. He paid for her school – that was part of the thing.”
According to a study conducted by Kingston University in 2010, 16.5 percent of college students said they would either be likely or very likely to participate in some kind of sex work for money.
Having some extra money in pocket was exactly what attracted Claire* to flirting with the idea of being a sugar baby.
An August 2016 graduate of Texas Tech, Claire began sending naked pictures of herself to a man she met through social media.
“He would hit on me a lot,” Claire said. “And one day I kind of jokingly said, ‘Would you pay me for naked pictures?’”
She said the man was not interested at first but then decided to take her up on her offer.
“At first it would be topless pictures of me without my face,” Claire said. “He would Venmo me money and the first time it happened, I was so happy. I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
She said she eventually started sending more photos with her face in them because she had grown to trust him.
“I really don’t think he’s going to put them out there,” Claire said. “Even if he did, a lot of people have naked pictures of themselves on the Internet. I mean, I definitely don’t want myself on the Internet, but.”
Khandelwal explained how the exchange of nude photos and explicit text messages is common in college life.
“That is called sexting,” Khandelwal said. “You’re not just sending erotic messages but also you are sending across erotic photographs of yourself. This is not new in college life. This has happened before and now when you add the money component to it, it just acts as another incentive. You get more money out of doing an act.”
Claire continued to explain how their transactions were conducted through the Venmo app. She said he would send her large amounts of money, along with gift cards to stores like Victoria’s Secret. Now, they use Snapcash, the payment method for the Snapchat app that allows users to exchange money between each other. This new way of payment drastically changed the way Claire conducts her business.
“I won’t text him directly,” Claire said. “I’ll Snapchat him a picture and I’ll say, ‘If you screenshot it, then I want you to pay me.’”
Claire said she would get notifications on her phone that the man had screenshot the photo and she had received Snapcash.
Khandelwal noted how in the past, people were much more quiet about conducting this type of relationship. Transactions were usually done over Craigslist where it was more of a hook-up culture. Now, however, methods are more formalized where people can enroll in and have accounts on websites like Seeking Arrangement. Khandelwal described how people now identify themselves as sugar daddies, sugar babies and sugar mommies and are more comfortable publicizing their titles.
Seeking Arrangement has become so popular in recent years it now hosts a blog and “Sugar Baby University” to inform and give tips to those who are curious to learn about or become involved with the sugar baby lifestyle.
Seeking Arrangement gathers information and posts statistics from its website. As stated in a dissertation from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, there was no previous research regarding the perceptions of sugar dating in the United States prior to June 1, 2015.
According to the dissertation, it was found in a study that women who were involved in sex trade had higher levels of psychological distress and were at greater risk for mental health disorders, such as depression and PTSD, than the general population.
Khandelwal stated it is too premature in research stages and there is not enough current data to know if there are longterm psychological side-effects to how sugar dating will affect a person in the long run.
“Everything we do has an effect on us,” Khandelwal said. “When these students start a professional career, I don’t really know how much probability there will be that they come across the same person or others who knew they were in this kind of relationship before. More importantly, how this relationship is going to affect their personal relationships in the future. I don’t really know, but I know there is an effect.”
Even though there are stigmas that do come with the title of being a sugar baby, both Claire and Mary agree it is not something to be ashamed of if a person is confident in their own skin, which is a popular idea in third-wave feminism.
“We’re all feminists, but I don’t think we’re letting people take advantage of us,” Claire said. “I think we’re taking advantage of them.”
The women also agreed sugar babies allow men to think they are in control so they can financially profit from the interactions. Both said out of all the things they have done, neither have ever felt like they had given a part of their soul to a man who was offering benefits to them.
“As far as I’ve seen, it’s lonely old men,” Mary said. “It’s men who want to buy companionship. It’s men who can’t get the pretty girls. Partially it’s power. For the most part, it kind of fits with the stereotype. It’s creepy old men.”
The following video, made by Breann Robinson, features a former “sugar baby” who also wished to remain anonymous.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.