Inside the world of ‘sugar’ relationships
Almost 200,000 Australians are involved in ‘sugar relationships’, in which men pay mostly young women large sums of money for companionship and intimacy. But are these arrangements part of the prostitution economy, as has been suggested, or as one ‘sugar daddy’ insists, an act of kindness just like volunteering at the soup kitchen?
10th Sept 2016
Dorian* admits that he pays a lot more to be a “sugar daddy” to various “sugar babies” — to give younger women extravagant gifts in exchange for their company — than he would if he frequented his local brothel.
The Sydney-based business consultant has given one woman a $7,000 motorbike. That relationship lasted two months after, he says. “We just stopped talking gradually, both drifted our own ways,” he said.
On average, Dorian, who is “under 40” and unmarried, says he spends about $5,000 in gifts per month on each woman.
He has met all five of them, whom he has dated at different times in the last seven months, through Seeking Arrangement, a dating website that bills itself as a place for sugar daddies (“successful men”) to meet “sugar babies” (“attractive people looking for the finer things in life”). Older, male, work clients introduced him to the website.
Unlike a conventional dating website, Seeking Arrangement connects men and women who agree up front to pay younger, attractive men and women for companionship, or as the website puts it: “sugar babies are an expense that must be accounted for”.
The overwhelming majority of relationships are made up of older men paying to see younger women.
Among the 193,000 Australian members of Seeking Arrangement, men make up about 90 per cent of the “successful” people paying for companionship, and women make up about 89 per cent of the sugar babies.
‘Sugar daddies’ in the mainstream
The concept of a “sugar daddy” may be nothing new — some think the term might stem from the 1908 marriage between Adolph Spreckels, an American heir to a sugar fortune, with a woman 24 years his junior. His wife called him “sugar daddy”.
What is new, however, is that these types of relationships, while once something widely made fun of, have gone mainstream and global.
Once upon a time, men in relationships with sugar babies were a target for ridicule, as in the 1927 silent Laurel and Hardy film Sugar Daddies, in which an oil tycoon struggles to escape a woman he accidentally married while drunk. He escapes by pretending to be his butler’s wife.
While the data on just how many men are engaged in these relationships is hard to pin down — other sugar daddy websites contacted by the ABC declined to provide data — testimonies from sugar daddies have been popping up with regularity over the last year in such publications as The Australian Women’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar and GQ.
Seeking Arrangement has hundreds of thousands of sugar daddies signed up globally, with 57,000 in Australia alone. And it’s just one of many websites like it.
Google ‘sugar daddies Australia’ and there are nearly 250,000 results, including the sites Sugar Daddy Meet, Sugar Daddy Australia and Australian Sugar Daddy.
‘I can say and ask for exactly what I want’
So what does Dorian get out of such relationships, which he says he sought out for “companionship”?
“I don’t have to be who I’m not,” says Dorian. “I don’t have to be: ‘Oh I have to look like a kind caring gentleman.’ No, I just say exactly what I want, what I’m looking for, what I am, and then someone will find it, someone will like me.”
In his case, this has meant being able to ask and find a young woman to go shopping for, and model for him “a three-piece lingerie set” from a particular brand he likes.
“There’s no way I would put that on OK Cupid,” he says, referring to a conventional dating website. “They’d be like: ‘Who is this guy?'”
Dorian said he had had sex with some of the women he had met through the website, but not all.
That Seeking Arrangement has a member ratio in Australia of about two sugar babies for each sugar daddy has also meant that Dorian now has a new message in his inbox from a prospective sugar baby every day.
“You know, I’ve used multiple other [conventional] dating websites throughout the years, but the process has been really difficult. There’s a lot of cat and mouse involved, a lot of chasing, and … dead ends,” he said.
Women on those sites, he said, frequently ignored his messages.
“Whereas [now] it’s so straightforward, and so easy. I don’t have to even go out of my way. I check my email notification and I find I’ve got messages from somebody everyday.”
‘A relationship freed from drudgery’
This experience is typical of the sugar daddies that are signed up to the website, globally, says Seeking Arrangement spokesperson Brook Urick.
“The main thing [for the men] is the convenience, having a relationship on their terms,” says Ms Urick, adding that 40 per cent of men on the website are married and have busy jobs.
“So they don’t want to have to worry about the relationship outside of the time they spend together. A lot of sugar daddies, maybe they don’t want to text every day, they don’t want to talk about matrimony or having kids.
“I know a lot of men who’ve been married for 20, 30 years, their wife doesn’t want to hear their gripes at the end of the day. A sugar baby is willing to lend an ear to them.”
In other words, a “relationship” freed from any drudgery, or maintenance?
“Yeah,” says Ms Urick. “We had an image we were playing with, like sugar daddy shopping, like at a store, picking the things that he wants, leaving the things he doesn’t want.”
Or, as Dr Meagan Tyler, a research fellow at RMIT University who specialises in gender inequality, puts it: “[The men] are paying [the women] to not be a full human being. To not have any needs, to not have any desires of their own, to not have any push back against their power”.
It is a criticism that has been levelled at many sugar daddy websites — that they exploit vulnerable women.
Seeking Arrangement, in particular, has targeted students — a demographic frequently beset by hefty fees and little time for well-paid employment — since 2011, when it began offering them free membership.
While the website had only 79,400 students signed up globally in 2010, this year it has nearly two million. Nearly half of the website’s Australian members are female students — 82,670 of them.
The University of Sydney topped the website’s 2016 “fastest growing sugar baby schools” in Australia list, with 90 new members joining in the previous 12 months. The average age of a sugar baby on Seeking Arrangement is between 21 and 27.
And many of the latest first-person accounts from sugar babies have been from students, in such publications as Marie Claire and even Woroni, the student newspaper of Australian National University.
Why has ‘sugaring’ entered the mainstream?
Brook Urick says the websites’ popularity stems partly from the fact that sugar daddy relationships are becoming “a little more accepted and prominent”.
“Some people say they heard about it in a magazine or on TV,” she says.
Indeed, Steven Soderbergh’s new TV show, The Girlfriend Experience — in which the main character, a legal intern, works as an escort to pay her bills — debuted in April this year. And Tumblr is now stuffed to the gills with photographs of sugar babies showing off their designer dresses and fistfuls of cash.
“It’s very trendy to be OK with this type of relationship,” adds Ms Urick, “and it’s [seen as] a little more conservative, or close-minded to be like: ‘Oh, I’m not OK with that’. It makes you … I don’t want to say stuck-up, but it’s a little pretentious”.
Dr Tyler has seen first-hand — from conversations with female RMIT students — just how this attitude comes about.
The “normalization of pornography, even in intimate relationships” and the prevalence of sexting, she says, has led many young women to have a “fatalistic” approach to intimate relationships and to a “blurring of lines” between commercialised sex and consent.
“Young women, in particular, don’t feel able to say: ‘I would like a relationship without pornography’,” says Dr Tyler.
“So they feel [men’s] sexual expectations are, maybe, pushing their upper limits of what they’re comfortable doing. They’re [the women] saying: ‘I recognise that that’s not so great for me, I don’t find it wonderful, empowering, then I might as well get paid for it’.”
It’s a trend that has Dr Helen Pringle, a senior lecturer at the University of NSW who specialises in pornography and human rights, worried, noting that sex workers — and she believes “sugaring” is “straight-forward prostitution” — suffer “rates of post-traumatic stress syndrome [that are] higher than war veterans”.
She adds that women in sex work “have a very high rate of patterns of child abuse” and that she would “hazard a guess” the same situation might be the case among sugar babies. It’s a claim that is backed up by at least one first-person sugar baby account.
‘Most sugar babies identify as feminists’
But Ms Urick rejects any criticism that Seeking Arrangement exploits women.
She says that while “most” sugar daddies are looking for “some romance”, some sugar baby relationships are platonic: “Maybe like 10 to 20 per cent”.
“Most sugar babies identify as feminists,” says Ms Urick. “One of my sugar babies says that it offsets the gender pay gap, because the sugar daddies who make a ton of money are giving money to women who don’t make as much money.”
Sophie*, 28, who holds a low-paying job in emergency medicine, and lives in Melbourne, is one sugar baby who happily calls herself feminist.
“As much as people think, ‘He is using her’, she’s walking away with someone’s money at the end of the day,” says Sophie of sugar babies.
She is currently in a relationship with a “lonely and divorced” 57-year-old man who she met through Seeking Arrangement, who pays her a $4,000 monthly “allowance”, in addition to buying her various gifts and paying for outings and weekends away.
She was previously in a relationship for a year with a 46-year-old man who “wanted a break” from his life, and who paid her $4,500 a month, and gave her gifts and financial management tips. They broke up when he moved away.
Both relationships, she says, have enabled her to buy new clothes, take friends out for “spontaneous” dinners, and move out of a share house into her own apartment in Melbourne.
“People say: ‘That’s what prostitution is’. Well no, you don’t know what happens behind closed doors. I have control in these arrangements, if I say ‘no’.”
How prevalent are these relationships in Australia?
Are droves of young women — most sugar babies are in their 20s — now part of, as one American commentator recently labelled this lifestyle, a new “prostitution economy“?
In comparison with the three million Americans who are signed up with Seeking Arrangement, the number of Australian users at 193,000 seems tiny.
But the ratio of users to population size is nearly identical.
According to Seeking Arrangement, about one in 119 people in the United States are signed up with the website; in Australia, about one in 114.
Australia ranks fourth on the website’s list of countries with the greatest number of users, after Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
While many ‘sugar’ websites like Seeking Arrangement “ban” sex workers and escorts from joining, and forbid solicitation, it’s clear that many men still equate sugar babies with sex work.
One man, says Sophie, offered her $10,000 a month to have unprotected sex with him.
“Oh, we’ll do monthly health checks, and I’ve had a vasectomy’,” the man added, after she rejected his offer.
“[I said]: ‘I can manage my own birth control, thank you very much’. That is not going to happen without condoms.”
Sophie says she has had a handful of such offers by men over the last 18 months, since she started working as a sugar baby.
“Oh, but I’ll offer more money,” one man told her, after she rejected his similar offer. She has rejected all such explicit offers.
Other Australian women have reported similarly disturbing offers, like being paid to live in a Playboy-style mansion. Another was asked to pretend to be a man’s daughter, and then “force” herself on him.
How does Dorian view the sugar babies he dates, who have ranged in age from 21 to 28? While in “real life” he is hoping to get married and have children, he says he is not looking to the sugar baby community for potential candidates.
Does he respect them?
“Oh yeah, the respect is there, of course,” he says, adding that he finds the relationships “empowering”.
“But not in the traditional sense of power,” he says. “More so in the amount of joy you give to someone.”
“Like, this is a really warped comparison, but it’s kind of like when you go and do volunteering day at the soup kitchen. You see the people, and you know that you’re helping out someone, making someone really happy. You have the power to give something that they can’t have themselves, but want it.
“At the soup kitchen, they want food.” For the sugar babies, he says, it’s luxury goods. “In this sense, it’s the same principle, just on a higher end of the scale.”
Another bonus, Dorian says, is that break-ups with sugar babies — whether because a woman has found a boyfriend, they’ve drifted apart, or she found a sugar daddy she’s more compatible with — are a lot more amicable than in traditional relationships.
“Well, if I go out with someone, I like them, [but] they don’t ever talk to me again, I think, ‘That’s OK’, because I know that I’ve done it to someone else. The typical rules of dating don’t apply.”
The possibility that some or all of these women want him just for the material goods that he can provide doesn’t upset him, either.
“I’m sure it’s happened sometimes, but I don’t feel bad about it. It’s like, if that’s what she wants from me, that’s what she wants from me. You know what you’re getting yourself into. The only being played is yourself, if you’re being fooled.”
For some women, though, the situation isn’t always as clear-cut.
Sophie, for instance, uses her sugar baby money, in part, to support her parents.
“I’m not giving them tens of thousands of dollars. I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars, but I might just be covering something small, like if they might have had a doctor’s appointment come up,” she says.
“At the end of the day, I do this not only for myself, but for the people I love and care about.”
*Names have been changed to protect interview subjects’ privacy.