Sarah,* 19, was 18 when she entered a college sugar baby relationship. She received a message on Facebook from a man that seemed like a great option to make some extra money. “The agreement was that I’d message him every day, and meet up occasionally,” she tells Her Campus. “He gave me an allowance of $150 a day, seven days a week.” The relationship consisted of being supportive of her sugar daddy and constantly messaging him.
The TikTok community has a huge fascination with college sugar babies and their apparent easy and glamorous lifestyle. As of October 2021, the hashtag #sugarbabies has more than 559 million views. Videos of sugar babies showcasing their expensive purchases and gifts are all over my FYP. According to Merriam Webster, a sugar daddy can be defined as “a well-to-do, usually older, man who supports or spends lavishly on a mistress, girlfriend, or boyfriend” and can fund quite the lifestyle. But these gifts can come at a cost. The sugar parent can offer expensive gifts and money, while the sugar baby offers, at the very least, companionship; the two might go on dates, message back and forth, and spend time together in whatever capacity is negotiated. On paper, a sugar relationship reads like a get-rich-quick scheme. But the sugar daddy-sugar baby relationship features a major power imbalance, caused by the difference in money and age.
According to The Student Sex Work Project, a study conducted by Swansea University, 22% of college students have considered engaging in some kind of sex work. The same study also found that 45% of students who wanted to pursue this lifestyle were motivated by trying to avoid debt. Without any personal experience to lean on, the sugar baby lifestyle can look relatively easy, especially to college students struggling to pay their bills. And many have had extremely positive sugar baby experiences, like this anonymous writer, for example, who wrote a piece for Business Insider revealing that she makes $500 a date — which might make you wonder if having a sugar daddy will solve all of your problems. (Will I finally be able to afford to pay rent in NYC? Then sign me up!)
People still don’t understand that this isn’t something that just gets handed to you.
But linking up with a reliable sugar daddy is no simple feat. In fact, Google has banned sugar daddy apps on the Play Store because it’s considered inappropriate content. In its wake, other sugar daddy websites have begun to pop up in search. A well-known result, formerly known as Seeking Arrangements, has over 10 million members across 139 countries. But suspicious messages are sent across social media all the time, where scammers promise cash to unsuspecting young women with no background checks or agency protection. Beyond the risk of actually losing your own money, meeting up with strange men can come with its own set of risks. Will he ask you to do something that you’re not comfortable with? How will you set boundaries?
Sarah didn’t have those doubts when she met her first sugar daddy, but she wouldn’t call this type of relationship easy. Sarah says that young people often have a naive outlook on sugar relationships, and having a sugar daddy can be dangerous. “A lot of daddies are scammers,” she says. What does this look like? A popular approach includes messages via your social media profile, offering money in exchange for a date. The catch is that, to actually get paid, the sugar baby is required to pay a fee or transfer money to someone else’s bank account, which then gives the other party your banking information.
“99.9% of sugar daddies that slide into your DMs are fake,” TikToker Summer Saito, 22, tells Her Campus. She’s been in three sugar relationships, and posts about her experiences on TikTok to over 50 thousand followers. She believes sugar relationships are a great way to make money, but explains that it’s important to be professional. “People still don’t understand that this isn’t something that just gets handed to you,” she says. “You have to build connections while always being consistent.”
Even though she’s had a great experience, Summer also shares that she’s been very careful in her selection and approach. “A lot of men I’ve come across are looking for sex because of a failed marriage, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have a sexual relationship with a sugar daddy.” she says. “I don’t do anything sexual, but I’ve also gotten very lucky.”
Sociologist Maren Scull, Ph.D., published a study called “It’s Its Own Thing: A Typology of Interpersonal Sugar Relationship Scripts” in which she identified the seven types of sugar relationships in the United States. According to Scull, there’s sugar prostitution, compensated dating, compensated companionship, sugar dating, sugar friendships, sugar friendships with benefits, and pragmatic love. Each category represents a different type of relationship, however, all of them are, at their core, sugar relationships — the parties involved can choose which type serves them best, and what each person is willing to contribute within the relationship.
One guy wanted a father-daughter relationship because he missed his daughter.
Avery, 32, however, disagrees that sugar relationships should ever involve sex. “I’ve had sugar daddies, and my relationships never involve sex,” she tells Her Campus. “I repeat: never have sex! If you have sex for money, it’s prostitution.” According to Avery, sugar daddies have various different requests for their sugar babies other than sexual relationships. “One guy wanted a father-daughter relationship because he missed his daughter,” she says. Avery advises younger sugar babies, especially those who are in college, to be careful when approaching this situation, since sugar daddies can be manipulative.
Sarah has experienced that manipulation firsthand, too. One of her sugar daddies deleted all of her male contacts from her phone, including family members’ numbers. She’s also been in situations where she felt scared for her safety. While Sarah is still involved in sugar relationships, she has a separate job, and is providing for herself outside of the arrangements. She doesn’t want to be fully dependent on a man to pay her bills.
Lydia*, 26, had a sugar relationship when she was a 20-year-old college student, but wouldn’t recommend it as an easy income. “Having a sugar daddy is full-time emotional work,” she tells Her Campus. “In my instance, I never made pure profit off it either; I only received presents. He used to send me items off my Amazon wishlist to my college apartment.” Lydia explains that her relationship didn’t involve sex, but she’d sometimes have to flirt with her sugar daddy, sexting with him “all for the love of the game.” She also had to be available at all times to text with him, and to protect herself, Lydia used a fake number app. “If a relationship feels too good to be true, it probably is,” she says. “You definitely have to earn your money (or presents).”
But what does it really mean to earn them? Dating and relationship expert Callisto Adams, Ph.D., believes that normalization of sugar relationships contributes to increasing dangers involved in the arrangements. “The focus is more on the ‘benefits’ rather than the negative sides and the dangers of such relationships,” Adams tells Her Campus. According to Adams, the power imbalance in age in sugar relationships makes sugar babies susceptible to manipulation: “The older person in the relationship is more experienced and has more potential to be capable of manipulating.”
According to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, there’s an inherent danger and exploitation in this system. Boundaries are the most important thing for sugar relationships, and your sugar daddy or mommy needs to respect that. Otherwise, the line can get blurry. Some choose to set boundaries by signing a relationship contract, in which all of the details of the agreement are documented — and specialists state that this is the best way to assure that both parties agree on what’s expected of them. The Carson Law Firm, a Texas-based law firm, agrees, noting that sugar relationships tend to be popular among college students, who are usually not financially stable and intend on pursuing those types of relationships to pay college-related bills.
Beyond the manipulation, sugar relationships can also be very dangerous; they can lead to sex trafficking. “The trafficking of women often begins with contact between the perpetrator and victim through an online application,” Brian T. Hobson, an attorney and partner at Odom, Davis & Hobson tells Her Campus. “This could be Facebook, Kikk, or a website like Seeking Arrangements. The majority of sex trafficking cases involve contact online, and eventually meeting in person.”
Regardless of the risk, sugar babies continue to highlight their positive experiences on TikTok, which can have a subconscious impact on Gen Z. Adams believes that it’s normal to be curious about sugar relationships, however, jumping headfirst into these types of arrangements, without doing any previous research, can be worse than expected. “What makes the people involved in sugar relationships even more exposed to these dangers is the lack of information about this topic in the media,” she says. Sarah admits she would’ve liked to have known about the negative sides of sugar relationships before starting one herself. For people interested in jumping into a sugar relationship, she advises to not be fully dependent on your sugar parent — if you need them to pay your bills or to afford basic needs, there’s a chance that out of desperation, you’ll do whatever it takes to get paid, even things you’re not comfortable with, and it may only snowball from there.
* Names have been changed
Brian T. Hobson, attorney/partner at Odom, Davis & Hobson
Callisto Adams, Ph.D., relationship coach
Dr Tracey Sagar, Debbie Jones, Dr Katrien Symons and Jo Bowring. (2015). The Studeny Sex Work Project. Swansea University.
Maren T. Scull. (2019). “It’s Its Own Thing”: A Typology of Interpersonal Sugar Relationship Scripts. Sage Journals.