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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Enrollment increases on ‘sugar daddy’ websites

Photo by Sydney Czyzon
This story is part of Blindspot, a Marquette Wire series for the Marquette Journal.

Isabelle*, a senior at Milwaukee Area Technical College, needed to make rent.

With the cost of living in the city being too much to handle on top of school tuition, Isabelle decided to sign up for a sugar daddy dating website when she was 19. Websites like this allow younger men and women to find relationships with older people who essentially act as benefactors, sometimes referred to as “sugar daddies”.

“I made an account on SeekingArrangement and then I also then made a burner phone number,” Isabelle said. “I never gave out my real number.”

According to a Forbes article written in June 2018, 44 million people in the U.S. collectively owe 1.5 trillion dollars in student loans.

“If I can do this for two hours each month and pay my bills, then why not?” Isabelle said.

It’s hard to exactly pinpoint when the sugar baby trend became an actualized phenomenon. From dated jazz songs to contemporary pop culture references, it’s clear sugar babies have existed for decades, Barrett McCormick, a professor of political science at Marquette University who teaches Politics of the Internet, said.

In the past, individuals who deliberately sought out a wealthier partner have been referred to as gold diggers or social climbers, Teresa Lo, author of The Sugar Baby Club, said in an email.  “Now, they’re called sugar babies.”

“It’s an old behavior with an updated name,” Lo said in an email. 

Lo researched for The Sugar Baby Club, a fictional book following the life of one sugar baby, by making an account on a sugar baby website. She created an alias, met sugar daddies and babies and asked them about their experiences.

Student loans came up a lot.

Political polarization has turned issues related to spending into a diverse partisan problem, Philip Rocco, a professor of political science at Marquette University, explained. As a result, students turn towards extreme measures.

Sugar dating websites don’t ignore the reality of economic insecurity. Rather, it’s become a marketing tool for one website in particular: Sugar Baby University. The website is targeted at college students who hope to pay off their loans. This website is a sub-sect of SeekingArrangement, the site Isabelle used.

SeekingArrangement states that more than 4 million worldwide students have registered in some aspect for its service. Among those, 2.7 million have signed up to avoid student debt. 

The site’s mission statement explicitly targets the issue. It reads, “SeekingArrangement offers students the chance to find open and empowering relationships while also getting help to pay for school and other benefits.”

The website further references debt through the usage of a constantly updating its “student loan clock,” which displays the current total U.S. student debt. The clock, bolded and highlighted in black, is the centerpiece of the home page. It ticks upward by the second.

“Nobody wants to graduate college in debt up to their neck,” McCormick said. “The attraction of two or three thousand dollars a month for the four years of college … who doesn’t understand how that’s not attractive?”

After deciding to make her account, Isabelle began the arduous process of sifting through profiles and reaching out to potential sugar daddies.

“I actually didn’t meet with someone for the first time until maybe six weeks after I made the account,” Isabelle said. “I’m so nervous meeting people.”

Meeting a potential relational partner in person when the majority of interactions are conducted online can be jarring at first, Catherine Puckering, a professor of communications studies at Marquette University, said.

“It’s easier to create a counter-persona and keep it alive in a technological environment,” Puckering said.

Besides the financial incentive, frustration at the emotional insecurity of people the same age can drive individuals to become sugar babies. When Lo was in college, she said her romantic relationships were toxic and unfulfilling.

“I dated a guy my own age who was emotionally and physically abusive and couldn’t hold down a job or stay in school,” she said in an email. “If I could go back in time, I wish that I could’ve dated a sugar daddy.”

To younger people, older men and women can seem more knowledgeable, wise and experienced. Having a leader can be especially alluring when seeking a mature relationship. It can also cause complications.

“When the age gap in the relationship is more than just a number of years … difficulties can be quite difficult to bridge,” Puckering said.

The first man Isabelle met in person was in his mid-sixties. Over coffee, he told her about his years of sugar daddy experience. Although the two ultimately decided not to pursue a relationship, he did help her by providing advice about the lifestyle.

“He helped me learn the ropes,” Isabelle said.

One of the most important things she learned was what types of sugar daddies to avoid.

“There are people out there who lie about their identity or being married, who want to take advantage of young women or who harass (them) to the point of being scary,” Lo said in an email.

There’s a name for sugar daddies who promise lavish gifts but can’t fulfill their self-imposed expectations: “Salt daddies” offer sweeping gestures, like thousand-dollar checks that their babies will never be able to cash.

“You got to be careful, because there really are a lot of fake people on there trying to scam you,” Isabelle said.

But once sugar babies find authentically wealthy men, monetary gifts may be especially helpful.

“Sugar dating often gives sugar babies the freedom to do what they want in life because their financial problems are taken care of,” Lo said in an email.

Ultimately, Isabelle met a sugar daddy who she met once a month for nine months. He lived across the state, so he would commute to Milwaukee and book a hotel room. Meeting him at first was scary.

“The first time I ever did it, I set my location on my phone and texted some trusted friends,” Isabelle said.

But after she got used to their routine, she found herself feeling more comfortable.

“I would sit on a chair in the corner and he would sit on the bed, and we would talk,” Isabelle said. “Then I would be like, ‘Okay, I have to go’ … and then he would pay me.”

At first, he mainly talked about his life and work. He had two daughters, both older than Isabelle.

With sugar babies receiving hefty paychecks and gifts, they may seem to benefit more from the relationship than the sugar daddies or mamas.

“In a relationship like this, the power dynamics shift. Depending on how you look at it, each of those partners can be over benefited or under benefited,” Puckering said.

Yet this doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship can never be mutually beneficial. The thrill of giving can be a reason for becoming a sugar daddy or mama.

The thought of spoiling someone who genuinely appreciates the gift can be enough emotional gratification.

“Look at people who make it big and then buy their parents a new house. Or someone who gets a bonus at work and takes his friends out for drinks,” Lo said in an email.

Although sugar baby dating involves money, Lo argues some sugar daddies and mamas don’t prioritize or flaunt their financial advantage. Rather, some are driven more out of  “loneliness and a need to connect with someone,” she said. To those sugar daddies and mamas, wealth is just an afterthought that can’t bring authentic happiness.

Isabelle’s own sugar daddy was the same way.

“He liked being in control of the situation and being able to teach me things,” Isabelle said.

For Isabelle, her relationship never became sexual.

“I told him from the beginning that I didn’t want to do anything sexual and he was okay with that,” Isabelle said.

However, there may be the expectation that sexual favors will be exchanged.

“A lot of men want to buy nude photos or videos,” Isabelle explained. “Girls need to (look at) safety nets in place so there’s no possibility of being trafficked.”

Sexual favors being a prerequisite in some sugar baby relationships comes as no surprise, McCormick said.

“SeekingArrangement publicly proclaims that there are no sexual services, but I mean, seriously?” McCormick said. “I’m not sure that saying, ‘No sexual services here, wink wink’ is really best way to ensure this is safe and healthy.”

With sugar daddies and mamas having the financial advantage, it could be possible for the relationship to become coercive or even abusive.

“If you’re here for the money, then you just kind of have to do whatever to get what you need,” Puckering said. “These older men hold all the cards.”

In order to avoid a power imbalance, Isabelle made efforts to achieve a certain level of detachment from her sugar daddy.

“He wanted to know more about me, and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing those details because it would be really easy for him to find me,” Isabelle said. “I have a pretty public persona.”

She didn’t talk to him about her family, her friends or other intimate details. She did, however, talk to him about school.

Isabelle ended her relationship when her sugar daddy asked to pursue a “real” romantic relationship.

She told him, “I am not physically attracted to you. I am not emotionally attracted to you. I’m doing this as a service.”

To Isabelle, he was more like an uncle.

Many sugar babies feel as if they need to protect their identity in order to avoid judgement. Both Lo and Isabelle admit to noticing — or experiencing — a sugar baby stigma of sorts.  

“Everyone secretly would like to marry or date up, but it’s frowned upon to be blatant about (being a sugar baby),” Lo said in an email. 

In 2018, Sugar Baby University revealed a list of top “fastest growing sugar baby schools.” In the top three were: Georgia State University, the University of Central Florida and the University of Alabama.

Marquette University was not listed. However, sugar babies may still exist at Marquette.

“In a random class of about 15 people in it, I asked about how many people knew someone who had (dated a sugar daddy) and two people raised their hands,” McCormick said.

Lo indicated that the internet has merely extrapolated an existing concept.

“The Cinderella story has been ingrained in our society forever,” Lo explained in an email. “Anyone who has ever wanted or needed something can understand how appealing it is to have a partner who could make their life easier.”

*Isabelle’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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