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Student Blog Series: Sweetening the Deal: The Glamorization of Sugar Dating on Social Media

Posted: March 4, 2024

If you are under thirty years old, chances are your TikTok algorithm has probably promoted videos of the glitz and glamor of having a sugar daddy. These videos, which have thousands of views and comments, sensationalize a version of sugaring where, in exchange for money, lavish gifts, and vacations, all you need to do is spend time with a sugar daddy. Unfortunately, the reality behind sugar dating is not as sweet as the glamorized narratives promoted on social media make it seem; in reality, sugar dating increases the risk of exploitation for vulnerable individuals.

Sugar dating is a “business-like arrangement[], where the wealthy partner, or sugar daddy (or mama), exchanges money and gifts for the “companionship” of a younger partner (the sugar baby) without necessarily including sex in the agreement.”

As with prostitution, sugar dating is contingent on an imbalance of power. Wealthy, older men pursue economically vulnerable young women, many of whom are lured into sugaring relationships believing it will be an empowering and lucrative opportunity. The New York Times reported that, a notorious sugaring website, allegedly targets college and high school aged girls by providing free upgrades when creating an account with an .edu email address. The result? In 2020, the top occupation of sugar babies on was listed as student, 2.48 million of whom are based in the US, and a third of whom use that money specifically for tuition. While sugaring websites market sugar dating to students as a safe and easy side hustle, social media platforms have gone a step further and elevated sugaring to a lifestyle. By only highlighting the perks of sugaring, narratives on social media exclude the power dynamics at play, sanitizing the exploitative nature of sugaring and its connection to the commercial sex trade.

In an article by Refinery29, “Inside The Sugar Baby School of TikTok,” author Chloe Meley highlights creators showcasing their sugar baby lifestyle on social media platform TikTok. One creator, Candis, who uses sugaring to “finance her luxurious lifestyle” guides her 60,800 TikTok followers on how to safely use sugaring sites, assuring that it “never involves sex.” While another, Eva, who started sugaring during the pandemic to pull herself and her family “out of poverty,” admitted that, “a lot of the men want to scam you or they want to have sex with you.”

Candis’s videos represent the glamorized narratives on social media depicting the experience of a minority of sugar babies, while Eva’s expose the unfiltered reality. These two experiences are distinguished by privilege. Eva started sugaring because she lacked options to financially support her family during the pandemic, and therefore her experience does not reflect a true choice. The transaction of money and gifts does not equate consent, instead it is a coercive force for those with few options. In a 9 country study, 89% of 854 prostituted people wanted to leave the industry but were unable to because they had no other means of survival.

For sugar babies, consenting to companionship is a euphemism. When dealing with someone in power — in this case, the sugar daddy financing the arrangement — and someone in a position of vulnerability — economically disenfranchised sugar babies — there is no negotiating power. Money and gifts are leveraged to create an illusion of control, and the privilege-consent gap between the sugar baby and sugar daddy defines whether the experience is one of empowerment or exploitation. The transactional nature of sugaring normalizes the exchange of money for paid sex, grooming vulnerable individuals to enter prostitution.

Survivors and former sugar babies acknowledge that trafficking victims are being advertised on sugar dating websites and confirm that third-party traffickers use the platforms to reach more sex buyers. In fact, many of the “sugar daddies” on these platforms are the same commercial sex buyers on sex buying review forums who publicly advertise how to manipulate and exploit young, vulnerable women.

The glamorization and normalization of sugar dating reinforces the notion that women are commodities, legitimize compensation as consent, and applaud male entitlement to women’s bodies. It is important to uplift survivor voices and be conscious of what we consume on social media. When viewing content about sugaring or prostitution online, ask yourself who is creating the narrative. Is it someone in a position of power and privilege? Who is benefitting from the narrative — is it actually empowering women? Or is it pushing self-commodification? And lastly, is there an increased opportunity for a dangerous or harmful situation?

Unfortunately, sugaring is not as sweet as it seems, but public awareness helps expose the harms of this inherently exploitative practice.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Maria Elisa Escobar on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.  

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