Last week’s Amanda Fairbanks piece in the Huffington Post on college students and their “sugar daddies” has drawn a firestorm of attention in the media. As Fairbanks reported, sites like Seeking Arrangement and Sugar Daddie have grown in popularity during the recession, as more financially-strapped and debt-burdened college-age women seek out creative (if time-honored) solutions to their money woes. Fairbanks interviewed college students and their “sugar daddies,” exploring the question of whether these arrangements are just another form of prostitution, or something genuinely different.
Sites like Seeking Arrangement, of course, only facilitate the kind of sex-for-money transactions that have been going on for eons. Just as people had extramarital affairs before AshleyMadison.com, young women and older men sought out “mutually beneficial” relationships long before Al Gore invented the Internet. What these sites do is provide both ease and legitimacy for what was once secretive. They enable older men with money and young women without it to find each other far more easily than they did before. They also provide at least some small opportunity for young women to screen the “sugar daddies.” From a safety standpoint, Seeking Arrangement (which claims to vet its male clients) offers somewhat more protection than an old-fashioned newspaper ad.
It’s easy to overhype the popularity of the sugar daddy phenomenon. It’s safe to say that it’s neither as new as some imagine or as widespread as some journalists (and website operators) claim. But it’s also clear that the Internet, the recession, and spiraling student loan debt enable and encourage these relationships. And in some instances, these clearly are relationships.
Two female students of mine have told me they’ve met older men on Sugar Daddie (the older of the two main sites facilitating this service). One, Nicki, in her early twenties ended up in what she describes as a romantic relationship with a man three decades her senior. The last time I spoke with Nicki, she’d been with her older man for more than a year. Part of the deal is mutual sexual exclusivity, which she takes very seriously; the only difference is that the sexual exclusivity is explicitly tied to the monthly retainer she receives. Like the women in the HuffPo story, Nicki insists she’s not a sex worker. “My mom told me it’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one,” she says. “All I did was use the internet to find a rich man whom I could fall in love with.”
It’s easy to understand the motivations of young women like Nicki. It’s harder, however, to excuse the actions of men twice and three times the age of the college students they pursue. The quasi-romantic nature of the sugar daddy-young girl relationship is troubling. The rich old man isn’t just buying sex, he’s buying status (if, as some of these men do, he chooses to “show off” his college student). If he’s buying her listening ear as well as her body (something that Fairbanks suggests is likely), he’s treating emotional intimacy as a commodity that can be purchased.
By blurring the lines between a genuine romance and prostitution, the sugar daddy relationship is more problematic than a traditional john/hooker encounter.
That pretense of intimacy is inherent in the term “sugar daddy” with its hint of the incestuous. While the term “john” (for a male client of a sex worker) suggests anonymity, “sugar daddy” reeks of emotional (as well as sexual) boundary violations. The implication is that the real fathers of these young women have failed to provide the right combination of emotional and financial support; the term reinforces the not-entirely inaccurate trope that younger women who seek older men have “daddy issues.” And it suggests that the older men who seek out “sugar babies” are looking for young women whom they can spoil and fuck, deliberately blurring the line between paternal indulgence and sexual objectification.
The real question is whether the term “sugar daddy” is an unfortunate misrepresentation of what’s going on, or an all-too-accurate description of something dark and especially ugly.