The national media has highlighted the growing number of college-aged “sugar babies”—or young females who provide “romantic” services for considerably older men in exchange for money and gifts. In the New York Post article, “New Lipstick on the World’s Oldest Profession,” Erin Vargo correctly points out that “sugar-dating” is an attempt to redefine prostitution as “partners enter[ing] into business-like arrangements, where the wealthy partner, or sugar daddy (or mama), exchanges money and gifts for the ‘companionship’ of a younger partner (the sugar baby) without expressly including sex in the agreement.” Yet, as Vargo observes, the euphemism of “romance” is little more than an attempt “to circumnavigate the laws of prostitution by selling romantic interaction, rather than sexual intercourse.”
In January of 2015 the Pittsburgh Tribune published Natasha Lindstrom’s article, “’Sugar Daddy’ solution gains ground among female college students,” highlighting the prevalence of “sugar babies” among college-age girls in Pittsburgh and throughout Pennsylvania. Lindstrom points out that online companies like “Seeking Arrangments.com,” by marketing to college students, are “tapping into a large market” of young women desperate to avoid the heavy burden of student debt. Under the cover of a “mutually beneficial arrangement,” the “sugar baby” lives at the beck and call of the man whose has agreed to pay her tuition. By exploiting a power differential between older, wealthy men and young women seeking an education, these relationships breed the same gender inequality as traditional prostitution and normalize the exchange of money for sex. As Lindstrom points out, “[r]oughly 37 million Americans are saddled with $1 trillion in student loan debt, which now tops the totals for either credit cards or auto loans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” Given this reality, wealthy older men can easily exploit their superior bargaining position to buy the “companionship” of a “sugar baby.”
A young woman who receives a substantial amount of money from an older man is not likely to feel free to say no to his requests. She faces the inherent pressure to uphold her end of the bargain by “being good company” and acquiescing to his wishes. Her monthly “allowance” depends on, and ultimately dictates, that she be an obedient companion. This dynamic, in conjunction with the intrinsic element of sexual expectations in romantic relationships, leads to an insidious, yet legal form of commercial sexual exploitation.
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. Repackaging these realities and advertising it on an attractive “dating” site does not alter the risk of exploitation that accompanies the “sugar baby” industry.