by Skylar Cheung and Josh Kazdan
TORONTO, ONTARIO—Soaring tuition fees faced by the burgeoning post-secondary demographic entail soaring student debts. With over 1.7 million university and college students, Canada hosts 88,000 students at a university that US News and World Report ranks number one in the country: the University of Toronto.
According to a report earlier this year, the University of Toronto gained notoriety for its growing sugar baby population. A sugar baby is an individual—male or female—who offers companionship and intimacy to a ‘sugar daddy’ (or less frequently, ‘sugar mommy’) in exchange for financial compensation. These transactions are known as “arrangements,” and may entail dinner dates, exotic trips, shopping sprees, and sexual activity. For these arrangements, sugar daddies pay their sugar babies monthly or per-meet allowances.
The average age of sugar daddies is 45, and 34 percent are married. “I don’t know if I believe the average age of sugar daddies is 45,” ex-sugar baby Erica* mentioned. “Though I never met the sugar daddies I had online arrangements with, their profile photos, when made available, showed them to look older than that … maybe [in their] fifties sixties I’d say.” Erica is nineteen years old.
According to ex-sugar baby Erica*, “even though a lot of people see these arrangements as euphemisms for prostitution, sugar babies are not prostitutes since they offer the intimacy and companionship of a romantic relationship.” Erica has agreed to do meets for dinners and video chats for allowances, but never engaged in sexual contact due to a lack of chemistry and a fear of STIs. When I joined Seeking Arrangement, I asked a sugar daddy who asked to meet me about the risk of contracting STIs. He quickly assured me with: “STDs aren’t a concern if you always use condoms.”
Under the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), selling sex is legal in Canada. However, advertising and paying for sex, as well as living off material gains from selling sex, are illegal. This legal approach was enforced to eradicate prostitution while protecting the sex workers from criminal charges.
Sugar babies argue they are not selling sex, but instead: a romantic experience that may entail sexual activity. Sugar daddies can attach tags in their profile to indicate what they expect from sugar babies. Popular tags include ‘no strings attached,’ ‘discrete,’ ‘emotional connection,’ and ‘friends with benefits.’ Since the stipends provided are not explicitly for sex, they cannot be prosecuted under Canadian law. Legislation has historically focused on maintaining the safety of sex workers and eradicating the practice of pimping. The enforcement of these laws often take form in police raids of hotels to rescue sex workers from pimps. There have been no cases made against sugar daddies or sugar babies. The practice of sugaring is paid little attention by law enforcement and the public eye.
Today, there are tens of sugar daddy-seeking platforms available online. Among them are SugarDaddyMeet, SugarDaddyForMe, MillionaireMate, and MillionaireMatch. According to RichMeetBeautiful, 79% of their users end up finding partners. They also estimate that relationships from the site last two times longer than their competition.
This article will be focusing on Seeking Arrangement, as it is the platform primarily used by the University of Toronto students interviewed and that it is most frequently referenced in other articles on sugar dating. The company proudly brands itself as “Canada’s No. 1 sugar daddy dating website,” a statistic widely cited by other journalists capitalizing on the sensationalism of sugaring. The site serves as a platform to connect interested older sugar daddies or sugar mommies and sugar babies. Yet, the homepage deceptively presents a cutout of a man with jet-black hair as he clasps a gorgeous blond with glimmering blue eyes, who looks approximately the same age. “Seeking Arrangement: Where beautiful, successful people fuel mutually beneficial relationships,” the website boasts. However, from my limited experience on the site, it operates somewhat like an escort service or a front for a prostitution ring. Of the men who messaged me, only two were within ten years of my age. I am eighteen.
Now in a healthy relationship with a student attending a neighboring college, Erica confesses she is glad to have gotten out of the rut sugaring pulled her into. She was only sixteen when she was first introduced to the concept of a “mutually beneficial relationship,” which she understood as “sugaring via the internet.” Struggling to make ends meet after her parents cut her off financially after moving out, she was in the midst of a low point in her life characterised by recklessness and financial instability. She started off on Seeking Arrangements using a fake name and photographs of young girls taken off the internet with their faces blocked off. Like the sugar babies interviewed for this piece, Erica wanted to hide her identity. “I was constantly worried that people would find out—which some did,” she admitted. “Even though I was never physical with anyone I met, I still felt terrible and ashamed of it,” Erica added, “It is a very difficult thing putting a dollar value on yourself, or at least it was for me.”
She offered sugaring services on Seeking Arrangements, its sister site What’s Your Price, Reddit, and Tinder on and off for about one year. She found most success with Seeking Arrangements, where her account was often flooded with messages, a lot of which she described as repulsive and disrespectful. She described the shock factor she had to cope with when men talked back to her in derogatory ways. Initially, she felt sugaring was an exciting experience overall, as she described her experience as “doing literally nothing and having men send me up to $500 at a time.I remember having my rent paid for in one day, and it was really amazing even though I really hated talking to these men,” she recalled.
When she made the move from the suburbs to Toronto, Erica predicted she could make more money going on dates. “It became really tiring messaging men to convince them to send me money,” she started, “a lot of them would just waste my time, so I decided I would try going on a date and see how I felt about it.” What followed was a stiflingly uncomfortable experience that was the first of many. She met a male at least twice her age at a restaurant, where she worried that everyone was wondering why she was pretending to be interested in a man so much older than her. “It was literally terrified and disgusted that he would want to be out with someone so young,” she commented. She said he did pay her at the end of the date, but that the stipend was spent quickly. “When you don’t earn [the money], it’s easy to spend,” she said. Her lack of financial stability perpetuated a cycle of dates with sugar daddies that left her feeling as awful as she felt on her first.
Ultimately, Erica suggests that sugaring can be a great job for people who have the mental and emotional capacity to do so. She says her experience sugaring is not something she would repeat, as it was “a pretty negative experience and it hurt [her] mental health.” She prefers not to disclose her current means of making a living.
According to Seeking Arrangement, the average sugar baby is 26 and makes $2,800 monthly from her daddies (sugar babies may have more than one daddy, and vice versa). The site advertises there are “four sugar babies per sugar daddy.” Though SA’s numbers do not explicitly discern male from female sugar babies, its heatmap of U.S. users shows there are 8.41 male sugar babies per 1,000 males and 51.93 female sugar babies per 1,000 females in in New York City. The site reassures prospective users that “relationships forged on Seeking are long distance, so those members living in a state with a Sugar shortage are not necessarily at a disadvantage.”
These numbers reflect the city’s high cost of living and the school’s large student population. Seeking Arrangement (SA) revealed the University of Toronto has more sugar babies than any other Canadian college or university. With 362 new signups in 2018, the platform hosts 1170 sugar babies from the University of Toronto as of 2019. Seeking Arrangement does not specify at which point of 2019 these numbers were gathered. Since the media kit containing these numbers was released in February, it is likely these numbers are reflective of membership as of the beginning of 2019. To compare, SA’s top performing U.S. university, Georgia State University, hosts 1304 students with 306 new signups last year—56 fewer than the University of Toronto. York University, another university on the outskirts of Toronto, comes in second, with 229 new signups and a total of 836 sugar babies. These figures were drawn from the number of .edu emails used during registration.
Seeking Arrangement presents a host of contradictions. While the website markets itself on the premise that young women will accept wealthy older men to poor college-aged students, the site features similarly-youthful models to pose as sugar babies and daddies. Though the website primarily facilitates sexual encounters, the online platform does not make the verification of photo, age, or net worth mandatory for its sugar baby and sugar mommy/daddy users. The options are made available, but few bother to use them. This disparity between what Seeking Arrangement chooses to verify and the questions left unasked invokes the ethos of the site itself: the superficial emphasis on how the girls look.
Though critics accuse SA of facilitating glamorized prostitution, the company asserts sugar daddy dating is instead “a fast-growing trend and lifestyle in Canada.” Despite promoting its role in building “mutually beneficial relationships,” statistics and testimonials suggest that many sugar babies see their participation as a job. Seeking Arrangement CEO Brandon Wade sees SA as the provider of a unique service, a chance for “men and women living through tough economic times to afford college.” His company has strategically placed ads that appear whenever someone types “tuition help” or “financial aid” into a search engine. To openly address the demand for young sugar babies and the financial burden of education, SA started a new program to draw more students toward sugaring.
Titled “Sugar Baby University,” the program incentivizes students by offering free premium memberships to anyone who signs up with a .edu address. Premium members can attract more sugar daddies by being featured in blogs and searches. Additionally, they can hide their last login time and see read receipts in conversations.
When asked about the signup process, Alison* stated she used a throwaway email. She admitted that she was not aware of Sugar Baby University until I introduced it during our conversation, but insisted she would never use her .edu address for something “this sketchy.” Though she made an account, she admits it is now left inactive, as she decided sugaring may be dangerous to her safety and reputation. She had not thought about closing her account, and feels no need to do so since “it doesn’t have any important info.” “Always use a throwaway so you don’t have to worry about it.”
Premium membership usually comes at a price of $50 each month, while regular membership is free. This perk is advertised under header text that reads: “Join more than 300,000 Canadian students who have turned to Seeking Arrangement [sic] and Sugar Daddies to avoid student debt and secure a better future.” This promising header is followed by a digestible primer decorated with statistics to sell the glamorous and popular option of being a sugar baby.
This was what Alison* had in mind when she decided to sign up for an account on Seeking Arrangement. As a first-year student living on residence, she confesses the cost of boarding and school rounds to about $2,000 a month. “[The cost] is expected of any life in a big city. I have three more years to go, and I thought [sugaring] would be a quick easy way to remove the stress that comes with student debt,” she explained as she twiddled her thumbs poking out of a hoodie two sizes too large. She carries a youthful air characteristic of most hair bun-donning freshmen. Her desk is occupied by a colony of rocks. More are stacked perilously beside the succulents perched atop her windowsill. Sticky notes with passwords and motivational messages line the perimeter of her computer monitor. Her dorm room emanates an air of youthful curiosity.
“I just wanted to see it, to understand what it is,” she explained when I followed up to ask for all the reasons she tried Seeking Arrangement. Alison confessed she thinks often of finding a part time job “maybe, like as a barista…” but prefers something that is more flexible in respect to scheduling and commitment.
Serving as a sugar baby seems to meet both criteria, but she has yet to make an arrangement since joining SA two months ago. Her fear of being discovered as a sugar baby by friends and family is a key factors impeding her from committing to sugaring. She has yet to (and does not plan to) meet any of the sugar daddies she messaged in real life. Security is a primary concern for Alison, as proven by her peppering of “I will be anonymous, right?” throughout the interview. Alison admits she doesn’t consider herself a sugar baby at all, saying she wouldn’t qualify as one “until [she has] met someone and completed a transaction.” But since her Seeking Arrangement account is still live, the platform counts her as one. The site has not reported on the number of active users, but claims the sugar baby to sugar daddy ratio is a sustainable 4:1.
“I mean, I only have one .edu email to use. I don’t think it would be safe to use an email that suggests my identity and location,” she said. User emails are not visible to any party on the platform aside from the individual user. Alison fears there may be a loophole that users are not aware of. User data leaks are also a significant risk, a fear that was made a reality for users seeking extramarital affairs on Ashley Madison. The 2015 data breach leaked more than nine gigabytes of company data, including users’ real names, home addresses, search history, and credit card transaction records.
“I guess what I get from my parents, for school and food, is enough for now,” she decided. Alison then proceeded to show me her wishlist for new dorm linens and accessories that she plans to purchase for the coming school year. “I think I’ll move out of a dorm and get a place with my friends,” Alison muses, “if my parents let me.”
Understanding The “Back End” Of The Business
The site is eager to advertise statistics to reinforce the allure and transparency of the sugar baby-daddy relationships they provide. On the bottom of their Sugar Baby University page is a hyperlink to download the company’s press kit. The zip file contains stock images of shoes and women for articles, a PDF containing quotes from the CEO, and a table ranking Canadian universities on their respective numbers of sugar babies. The PDF is little more than a page, and includes a note reading “For more information on the Fastest Growing Sugar Baby Schools of 2019, please contact the Press Department at Press@SeekingArrangement.com.” I emailed that address with a short explanation of my pitch about nine weeks ago. A public relations representative replied in a matter of two days, and said she would be “happy to answer any questions [I] have via email to start.” I sent a list of questions discussing topics such as the methods to their successful user acquisition from the University of Toronto and the size of the group surveyed for a pie chart they included in the press release.
The press release PDF I downloaded a month ago differs than the one available on the site today. The company has since relocated a pie chart from the press document to an infographic. It shows the means in which sugar babies spend their allowances: 30 percent on school/tuition-related expenses, 25 percent on living expenses, and 18 percent on designer goods/luxury treatments. Neither the survey’s sample size nor the source(s) of this data were cited. A map is also included in the infographic, citing Toronto as one of the top seven cities for sugar baby dating worldwide, accompanying popular cities like London, New York, and Paris. However, the factors by which cities are judged were not stated. Additionally, the table heading in the PDF is inconsistent with the one posted on their Sugar Baby University Page. Though the data is the same, the version on the PDF refers to the student total for 2018, whereas their site writes: “student total 2019.” The lack of a third party reviewer for this data commands skepticism. Is SA as successful at Canadian universities as it claims in its statistics, or is their data part of a larger publicity stunt?
When presented with the site, media ethics expert and University of Toronto professor Paolo Granata flashed an expression of incredulousness. “ I’m very suspicious, since [these statistics and this page] look like a promotional move, an attempt to make some buzz around [Seeking Arrangement,]” he began. Granata explained that deceit and falsehoods are inherent in the modern day media ethics approach. “I’d be more cautious in taking this ranking as a reliable source of information,” he suggested. However, no parties aside from Seeking Arrangement have delivered survey and study data on the topic of sugar daddy relationships. The omnipresence of their statistics across articles on different journalism sites allows the audience to assume they are credible and true.
Granata says the pejorative coverage of sugaring in journalism has incited a notion that the students are the villains. However, blaming the internet for encouraging this practice is too easy. Instead, he argues that universities undertake a thorough investigation of sugaring among students. Paolo claims, “the real issue […] from a media ethical perspective, is the moral panic generated by low-quality journalism.” He offers some solutions: greater penalties for parties publishing false information, a more critical look at data among journalists, and for parties other than Seeking Arrangement to gather statistics on what appears to be a growing phenomenon. Though the numbers are dubious, Granata does not doubt the steadily growing number of sugar babies on campus.
Though there is doubt in the truth of SA’s statistics, journalists writing on sugaring rely exclusively on the numbers this company releases—as proven by the articles they published in the Atlantic, the Huffington Post, and the Vancouver Sun. There is a dearth of research conducted on sugaring in the academic space. When I searched for “sugar daddy” and “sugar baby” in my university’s academic library, results for sculptures of women housed in an abandoned sugar factory, statistics on childhood obesity, and adolescent pregnancy rates in South Africa appeared. Seeking Arrangement controls the only fountain of figures. Therefore, it is the only fountain from which journalists covering sugaring can drink from. Though I haven’t found any articles disputing the truth of SA’s figures, readers should exercise discretion when reading them.
Nonetheless, students, educators, and readers all deserve accurate information that their judgment can rely on. As an attempt to better understand the practices and sources of their data, I reached out to their PR department via the email address included in SA’s press kit. I received a reply within hours from a representative who suggested I sent her my list of questions “to get started.” I sent questions about their survey sample sizes, their survey practices, and their research department. The PR representative then replied with the promise of getting back to me with the responses in a day or so. Nearly two months have transpired since that reply. In the span of this time, I have emailed her on five separate occasions to check
An ex-sugar baby agreed to speak up about her experience on the condition of strict anonymity. Although students often appear villainized in accounts of SA, Haley* illuminated how students turn to SA on account of tragic circumstances. “I come from an abusive family, and I wanted to become financially independent from them so that they could stop controlling me with money,” Haley said. After signing up on SA, Haley met a sugar daddy for coffee and received an allowance for the date. “He wasn’t someone I would date otherwise, but he was fun to talk to and I had a good time overall,” Haley recalled. “He was very kind and generous.” Furthermore, he was respectful: “he emphasized that it was important to him that I not feel pressured to do anything sexual.” Nonetheless, Haley said that she “did end up having sex with him.”
Haley does not prevaricate about the fact that she engaged in sex work. “I’m someone who is supportive of sex workers, so it was honestly no big deal to me. I had a service to offer; my sugar daddy was willing to pay for that service.” Although there is a taboo around sex work that either portrays its actors as sexually deviant or victimized, Haley defies the stereotypes. “The sex wasn’t the best but it wasn’t horrible. I didn’t feel like I was being taken advantage of.”
Though Haley has a positive outlook on her experience, she admits that she doesn’t speak for all sugar babies. SA advertises productive relationships, couching sugaring as a type of prestigious internship or networking opportunity. However, of those that I interviewed, no one signed up for SA to take advantage of networking opportunities. Students were driven by financial need.
While SA presents a facade of professionalism, from all of the anecdotes that I have collected, the site appears to primarily facilitate sex work. Men don’t pay young women to take advantage of networking opportunities. Sex work is far too complicated and fraught for this article to explore, or pass moral judgement on. However, there does seem to be something sinister about the way in which students find themselves in the positions of sex workers while trying to finance their educations. They sell their bodies in order to continue to expand their minds. Note that it is not the wealthy scions searching for an internship that sign up for SA, but the offspring of troubled families and desperate students. While the products of financially stable families have parents that can write checks for Canada’s public colleges, some of those without the means have to get into bed with forty-five-year old men in the pursuit of a better life.
My Short-Lived Sugar Baby Adventure
To understand what sugaring as a college student entails, I joined the platform as a sugar baby last month.
Within a few hours of going online, my profile attracted the interest of a pot-bellied 61-year-old male, net worth two million dollars, whose photo depicted him crouching next to a massive Bengali tiger, his hand resting on her rump. He called himself Charles*, and claimed he is stationed in Missouri, but often travels to Canada for business. When he first messaged me on Seeking Arrangement, he began with his intolerance for people who waste his time, thus suggesting I take him seriously. Immediately thereafter, he communicated his idea of an arrangement: “I would provide $400 per meet and any travel, hotel and restaurant expense.” However, the conversation quickly leapt to, “I’ve had a vasectomy and recent STD tests (will share them when we meet) so there can be no surprises. I’m older, condoms completely shut me down. We’d spend a couple of hours together in my room… we’ll meet tonight and come up to my room if the chemistry is good.” I hastily replied by saying I am not yet ready for an intimate meet, and suggested we first meet up for a coffee to learn more about each other. Charles* has not replied since.
Networking opportunities and monetary benefits are music to the ears of the student body at the University of Toronto. More than 20 percent of Canadian bachelor’s degree holders graduate with over $25,000 in debt, and nearly all students could benefit from expanding their network of peers and professionals for a leg up in their careers. The concept of sugaring, when paired with the statistics released by Seeking Arrangement, understandably portrays the lifestyle as an attractive choice among college students. However, the platform does not provide users with security measures or support personnel to deliver the safe and carefree lifestyle it advertises. To draw more students in, they misrepresent the reality of sugaring by neglecting to include the sexual favors that arrangements usually entail. The growth of sugar babies on campus is being fed by the media that echoes the promising statistics delivered by a platform that strives for growth over transparency.
The population of current and prospective sugar babies on campus needs to be addressed by administrators for safety measures and educational resources to be enforced. Sugaring is a lifestyle that anyone is free to choose, but it is a choice that should be made consciously. The urgency of paying off school fees and the lack of awareness about the reality of sugaring have the ability to draw many unknowing students into a rabbit hole of unexpected confusion and internal conflict. The number of sugar babies on campus may be smaller than expected. However, the unregulated marketing practices of Seeking Arrangement, when coupled with a lack of awareness, can inspire damage greater than what can ever be realized by the eye.