Sugar babies receive rewards, including cash and giftsseeking arrangement

Sarah* is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. For nearly a year, she has been a sugar baby – a partner in a relationship with a sugar daddy or momma – in order to fund “a personal project.”

Describing her experiences to me, she is overwhelmingly – at times unnervingly – enthusiastic and candid, explaining that while she is “not primarily interested in money,” she finds “the idea of receiving money very exciting.”

Sarah uses, the UK’s “leading Sugar Daddy dating site”, which promises daddies and mommas the opportunity to “get what they want, when they want it.”

In 2013, Seeking Arrangement revealed that 168 students from the University of Cambridge had signed up to its service in the previous year, making it home to the highest concentration of university “sugar babies” in the country. The surge in sign-ups came shortly after the tripling of tuition fees by the coalition government.

With fees at top-performing universities set to rise again in 2017 and following the government’s decision to scrap maintenance grants this month, it seems likely that the number of Cambridge students searching for sugar daddies with SeekingArrangement will continue to grow.

Sugar baby “arrangements” come in a variety of forms. Daddies solicit a range of services: from dining together and conversations, to various different types of sexual liaisons. In return, sugar babies receive rewards: often cash, but also sometimes repayment in the form of gifts.

While Sarah welcomed the £1,000 she received from one sugar daddy in exchange for sex, she tells me that her experiences have mainly been about having fun. “I feel that an arrangement gives me a freedom to say exactly what I want and not to get too much emotionally involved.” And Sarah is not afraid to speak her mind. “I think lots of women as well as men have a prostitution fantasy and this website is a way to fulfil it within safe boundaries.”

I asked Ella, an undergraduate, about the psychological motivation behind accepting payment for sex. She said that while she could “imagine that many others found the fetishisation appealing and exciting”, for her “it’s financial”. Seeking Arrangement claims that it is a platform for “mutually beneficial relationships”, and Ella echoes their dictum closely: “for me, personally, it’s an easy, convenient and mutually beneficial way to support myself”.

As of January 2016, there are 1.9 million students registered on Seeking Arrangement.

For Brandon Wade, its founder and CEO, the site is a “solution” for students in debt. “We are in a state of emergency, but it isn’t due to terrorism. The $1.2 trillion college debt crisis is crippling our economy – and no one is doing anything about it.”

No one, he claims, apart from him: “ has helped facilitate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of arrangements that have helped students graduate debt-free. That’s more than anyone can say of a particular president or Congress.”

Casting himself as an alternative, radical politician with the intention of liberating students from their financial problems, Wade can dodge many of the ethical questions that would otherwise be levelled against him. Despite his scaremongering and inflated sense of self-worth, he is right. Students around the world are increasingly turning to financial “arrangements” and escort services in order to support themselves.

For another undergraduate, Katy, the financial benefits of an arrangement is the pressing issue. While Ella – by her own admission – comes from a “very privileged” background, Katy does not: “I would not by any means be on such a disgusting website if I felt I had a choice”.

It is deeply troubling to learn that a student at this university can find themselves in such financial difficulty, desperately turning to the site as a last resort. But Katy believes that she is making the most of a bad situation. Unlike Sarah, she is not willing to engage in sex, and seeks out “men offering money for a platonic or long distance relationship” instead. Sooner or later, she tells me, these men will express a desire for the relationship to become physical: “I almost always have to back off when they begin requesting or demanding more.”

Helen, a recent graduate, found a way to avoid face-to-face contact with ‘sugar daddies’ entirely. Introduced to by a friend while at Cambridge, she decided to make an account and was contacted by a man offering £50 in return for a session on webcam. When Helen stipulated her one condition, to remain clothed, he explained that she did not have to turn on her webcam at all, “as long as he knew he had a hot girl watching him get off it was enough”.

A no-brainer. Or, in her own words, “50 quid to watch an old guy wank off (and he came in literally 30 seconds anyway) whilst the Skype screen was minimized and I was probs doing an essay”. Who can argue with that?

While their motivations, experiences and opinions vary from case to case, Sarah, Ella, Katy and Helen are all unwitting alumnae of what Seeking call its ‘Sugar Baby University’. The website’s advertising campaign is the latest in a string of measures that capitalise on the site’s popularity with students, such as the free Premium memberships offered to sugar babies registering with a university e-mail address.

In a promotional video released by Seeking Arrangement this month, Kelly, “a fourth-year sugar baby”, takes us on a tour of the ‘Sugar Baby University campus’. It is difficult to isolate the most objectionable scene in the video, as every shot objectifies its female actors. Without context it could easily be mistaken for the pre-amble to a high-budget porn film, with the stilted and suggestive dialogue to match. To take one vignette: we zoom in on one student standing by a notice board offering ‘free tanning sessions’, ‘yoga and wine classes,’ and a ‘fashion consultation’. She takes a flyer from the poster advertising a class on ‘daddy issues’, smiles, and walks away.

All of the Cambridge students I contacted via Seeking Arrangement identified as feminists. I asked them what they thought of the video, and whether it changed their opinion of the site. Most were angered: for Sarah the video was “awful beyond words,” Katy found it “exploitative and immoral”.

For Helen, the video was merely laughable: “I just couldn’t take it seriously.” And while its very premise was to attract students to Seeking Arrangement, she believes that the video is “definitely aimed at men… I can’t see how any woman watching that would feel inspired to sign up”.

The dynamic between empowerment and exploitation is always in flux in these “arranged” relationships. While Helen never met a ‘sugar daddy’ in person during her time at Cambridge, she always felt that she had the “upper hand” over the men paying her, who were “the ones being taken advantage of.” Ella agrees that in her experience “the paid individual makes the choice.” But she also recognises that “if people aren’t totally consensual (i.e. financial issues mean they have no choice), then that’s completely different”.

As a woman finding herself in that very situation, Katy doesn’t mince her words. She believes that “most” arrangements are disadvantageous to the party being paid, and is “disgusted” to be “a part in this system which exploits women.”

She is particularly critical of Seeking Arrangement, accusing them of manipulating the way the website appears in the press. “It is common practice for someone working for the site to approach ‘sugar babies’ and offer them considerable amounts of money for interviews.” She claims that these women are given practice interviews in which they are “strongly advised to downplay – or rather omit entirely – any negative aspect of the site”.

“It makes me incredibly sad…to imagine the many young girls who will be lured into making accounts on the site as a result of these misleading articles,” she adds. 

On the front page of its website, Seeking Arrangement describes itself as a place where “members fuel mutually beneficial relationships on their terms”. It’s hard to say how true the latter part of that statement is, but certainly becoming a sugar baby is an option a number of students are willing to take.

*All sugar baby names have been changed.