With tuition prices on the rise in North America, the question of how to finance a university education without sinking into debt is a source of stress for many. As of late, mainstream media outlets have highlighted the prevalence of sugaring–a situation in which one person is compensated for spending time with another on a regular basis–on university campuses. Commonly discussed using the terms “sugar baby” and “sugar daddy,” media coverage has sensationalized the practice of forming a sugar relationship online.
Jasmine* considered sugaring after graduating from McGill in order to pay for a Masters program at an Ivy League university in the U.S. Although she eventually decided not to pursue a sugar relationship, she recalls how most of her friends would ask her how much she would get paid upon finding out that she was thinking of sugaring.
“I think it’s glamorized a little bit,” Jasmine said. “[....Most] articles on [sugaring] don’t dig into the emotional side of the relationship, most answer questions about how money is exchanged or how you find an arrangement. I think that [media] caters to what people want to know and not to the emotional side.”
Emily* attends McGill and has sugared in the past. She said that many articles on sugaring come across as marketing a new taboo, using scenarios and language that cater to the public by providing them with something with a higher shock value.
“It feels like they ignore the queer people of colour who don’t identify as women because the idea of Becky from next door engaging in this type of relationship is shocking,” Emily wrote in a message to The McGill Tribune . “The fact that they focus so much on what the people sugaring are doing with their money is also telling. That babies could be using the money to put themselves through college is supposed to highlight a seemingly unstable class positioning. Only talking about hetero young woman [with] older man relationships, plays into people’s weird class boundary fantasies with the added ‘twist’ of a helpless girl [and] pervy old man dynamic.”
The sugaring narrative Emily mentions has been especially stressed by the media in recent years and is often connected to rising tuition costs. In September 2016, CBC reported that on average, undergraduate university tuition in Canada has gone up by around 40 per cent in the last decade. Certain companies hosting sugar websites specifically try to target students struggling to afford tuition or pay off their student debt. SeekingArrangement is a sugar website based in Las Vegas that is used by over five million active members in 139 different countries. According to the website, Canadian university tuition rose by three per cent in the past year and “Finding the right sugar daddy can help a sugar baby manage student loan debt.”
After unexpectedly being accepted to the Ivy League school, Jasmine was faced with the difficult decision of choosing between a widely-recognized university and a lesser known school with more affordable tuition.
“I wanted to go to medical school after, so, that's already a lot of [student] loans,” Jasmine said. “I was like, the only way I would choose [the Ivy League...] is if I had some way to pay for it [and] I had always thought about sugaring just because I had read stories about it and stuff.”
SeekingArrangement publishes rankings of the universities with the most registered sugar babies and displays a “Sugar Baby University” emblem on their website, marketing itself as a solution to expensive tuition. The website even offers Sugar Baby College Premium accounts, which allows sugar babies to display a “college badge” on their profile after verifying their status with a university email. According to Global News , McGill ranked second to University of Toronto as the Canadian university with the fastest growing amount of sugar babies in 2014. SeekingArrangement reports that McGill has now fallen to rank eighth as of 2016. While SeekingArrangement is not the only way to make an arrangement, it is one of the online resources that is talked about the most in mainstream media.
After creating an account on SeekingArrangment, which she likened to OkCupid in format, Jasmine started corresponding with various sugar daddies over email, and eventually over text and FaceTime, once she was more comfortable.
While taking a week-long trip to visit the Ivy League school she planned on attending, Jasmine went on multiple first dates with various professionals who were significantly older than her. She noted that several of the men discussed times when they had met up with attractive girls who were not interesting to talk with, trying to portray themselves as being more interested in intellect than physical appearance.
“When there's money involved there's some expectation of ‘We're going to talk about the things that I want to talk about, you're not going to vent to me about your problems because you're kind of here to entertain me,’” Jasmine said.
While organizations and websites that facilitate sugaring provide information on what it means to be a sugar baby, many people have also taken to the Internet to share their personal techniques or approaches to sugaring. With various sugar-specific websites and threads on Reddit echoing similar tips, it would appear that, for some, sugaring is more of a job than a relationship.
“The big thing [...] is that you're kind of being paid for your time and you always have to be 'on' and happy,” Jasmine said. “It's like working in a restaurant or something. If you're having a bad day, it doesn't matter.”
Jasmine believes that it takes an outgoing personality to be able to be sugar successfully. She also noted that attempting to maintain a sugar relationship on top of graduate school coursework would have been challenging for her.
“I think if I were more extroverted and more sociable, I could have done it, but I think it would have been tiring and stressful,” Jasmine said. “And the stakes weren't like ‘Oh, if I end this sugar relationship, I won't have extra spending money.’ The stakes were like, ‘If I end this sugar relationship because I don't have time for it, I won't be able to pay my rent.’”
SeekingArrangement states on its Sugar Baby University webpage that the average successful sugar baby makes $2,440 USD per month. Whether this is simply in the form of a monetary “allowance” or in gifts is up to the sugar baby and their sugar daddy or momma. For Jasmine, most people she talked to wanted to meet up about once a week and provide her with a monthly allowance.
“Most of the people I talked to wanted [to arrange] some sort of [...] monthly allowance versus [...] ‘Okay, I'll pay you every time I see you,’” Jasmine said. “A lot of them are on that site as opposed to hiring an escort [...] because they didn't want it to feel transactional. And I think for a lot of them, paying per date feels too escort-y to them.”
Sugaring is a grey area when it comes to questions of its legality, with some considering it as comparable to sex work and others pointing out that sugar websites do not exist explicitly for the sake of sexual intimacy. In many cases, people looking to make a sugar arrangement are in search of human connection.
“One of the biggest things I got from it is [...] I kind of expected that I would need to have my defence up to avoid being taken advantage of,” Jasmine said. “But I was actually kind of surprised at points, I felt like I was in danger of taking advantage of them. It was just because a lot of them [...] just wanted someone to talk to [....] In the end, I sort of saw them as being humans who just wanted companionship, just like anyone else does.”
Emily echoed this sentiment, pointing out that the dynamic within a sugar relationship can be very similar to that of a relationship that is not created within the same context.
“Making an economic arrangement based on complementary needs isn’t about dominance,” Emily wrote. “You can find space to negotiate power dynamics in these types of relationships. Building an understanding and finding a common ground is part of being in a relationship. Also, as in all relationships, people can harm each other. So although there is space for subversion of power dynamics, it’s still as important, as it is in every other relationship you have, to take care of yourself and make sure your boundaries are being respected.”
Alicia,* who works with an organization that aims to empower high-school and CEGEP-aged students, took a women’s health class while at McGill where they discussed sugaring. She holds the opinion that during times when girls are developing their identities, society should seek to empower and support them. In an email, Alicia told The McGill Tribune of a time when the topic of sugar relationships came up during an in-class discussion.
“When the conversation was brought up in my women’s health class, it became very emotional very quickly,” Alicia wrote. “Things like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ came up.”
With discussions sometimes bringing up whether or not sugaring is sex work, social stigmas create difficult barriers in formulating a sense of positionality as someone who sugars.
“Denying the fact that sex workers can have real emotional connections to clients doesn’t take into account the fact that people have emotional connections while at work all the time,” Emily wrote. “Demanding that there be a difference between sugaring and sex work seems to try to solidify class boundaries yet again–as if the temporality of sugaring allows for the maintenance of a class boundary between people who do sex work full time and people who sugar.”
The experience of each individual engaging in a sugar relationship and the impact it has on them is something that should not be generalized or reduced. Alicia recognizes that emotional complexities are often present in sugaring.
“[....I] would never judge someone for being a sugar baby,” Alicia wrote. “[....] I don’t know what the emotional ramifications of being a sugar baby are, but I definitely want to express my concern for the potential negative effects [that this could have on a] young woman’s self-worth.”
It is crucial that the conversation around sugaring reflects and acknowledges the wide spectrum of the experiences of those who choose this type of relationship. Dialogue that is used to discuss how closely sugaring is related to sex work is unproductive and harmful, both for those self-identifying as engaging in sugaring or sex work.
“Denying that sugaring is sex work can often act as a way to validate oneself as impossible to be categorized with sex workers, who are then shown to be lesser in some way,” Emily wrote. “All in all I think people could use an education on the ways that sex workers are framed in media and in the news. Maybe once the nuances of why people feel the need to demarcate difference are brought to light, there can be a healthier discussion about sugaring in which people recognize the complexities of relationships and sustainability.”
*Source has requested to remain anonymous.