"Sugar babies aren't paid. They're given gifts.” —Brook Urick
Are sugar babies girlfriends or sex workers? It seems that they walk a thin line between the two.
A “sugar baby” is someone who receives “gifts” (including cash) in exchange for company – which can include sex, but doesn't have to. A “sugar daddy,” a person who gives such “gifts,” is typically wealthier and older than the sugar baby. The case of “sugar mommas” is rarer, probably since women are less willing to pay for sex. Sugaring is also present among homosexual people. I focus here on the most common relation between sugar babies and sugar daddies.
Some sugar daddies provide “allowances,” namely, a fixed amount every week or month, and some pay by date. Sometimes, there is no concrete agreement, and the sugar baby relies on the gifting whims of the sugar daddy. Some sugar daddies want to meet several times a week; others prefer once a month. While sugaring ranges from hand-holding and cuddling to a full sexual encounter, sugar daddies usually seek both companionship and sex. Those more interested in companionship tend to gift their sugar babies with a monthly support, and those more interested in sex tend to gift them with cash on a date-by-date basis.
SeekingArrangement, a premier site for sugaring arrangements, indicates that the average sugar daddy is 38 years old and earns $250,000 annually, while the average sugar baby is 25 years old and receives $2,800 monthly from their daddies. Sugaring has become increasingly popular in the past few decades, especially among students. There are many sites for this purpose, which are used by millions of people.
Although sex is indeed common in sugaring, not all sugar daddies seek such intimate relations. Similarly, although most sugar babies engage in sugaring in order to meet their expenses, some are hoping for a serious relationship—yet, in many cases, the sugar daddy is married.
Self-esteem can be a tricky issue for both sugar babies and daddies. A sugar daddy does not want to feel like he is a john and a sugar baby does not want to feel like she is a prostitute. Accordingly, sugaring aims for mutual respect between the partners. This is reflected in the sugaring terminology of “partner” rather than “worker” and “client”—although sugar babies are clearly the weaker partner. Indeed, while people speak about “ordering,” or “going to,” a prostitute, they speak about “meeting” or “dating” a sugar baby.
Maren Scull (2020) has identified a range of sugaring types: at one end of the continuum there is sugar prostitution, and at the other end there is sugar friendship and sugar love. Scull further claims that 40% of women who have sugared do not have sex with their benefactors—and that those who do often have genuine connections with the men.
What is really like to be a sugar baby?
Here are some answers to this question from sugar babies.
“A sugar baby has to be able to play girlfriend to a wide variety of men, not to mention have some sexual abilities worth paying for. It's actually a pretty challenging job. 90% of it is being able to talk about anything, while making him feel like the center and king of your universe.”
“I've certainly had my fair share of regular sexual encounters that I enjoyed them plenty. Sh*t. Now I'm wishing I had been paid for all of that. :)”
“While companionship and the ability to navigate social situations is incredibly important to succeed as a sugar baby, I do wish people would stop downplaying the sexual element of sex work.”
“I don't enjoy one-night stands, and I definitely enjoy indulging in a relationship, but wouldn't consider something permanent with any of the men I've been on sugar dates with.”
“In sugaring, you have to put up with some awful and boring dates, and some pretty old guys, bad hygiene, etc., while acting like you're having a good time.”
Is sugaring prostitution?
“I give them what they want — a hot girl to accompany them to events and no-strings-attached sex. I understand the game. They’re men. They want sex. And I want their money.” Maggie, a sugar baby
Here are a few ways in which sugaring differs from prostitution (and romantic relations).
Greater complexity. Prostitution typically involves a one-time, relatively brief sexual activity, the essence of which is receiving money for sexual favors. Romantic relations involve multidimensional, ongoing interactions. Sugaring has aspects of both types of relations, though in a somewhat “lighter” form. Unlike prostitutes, the life of sugar babies does not revolve only around the sugar world; on the contrary, sugaring is often meant to support other significant activities of the women.
Money and romance. Sugaring involves receiving money (and gifts) for sexual favors. However, while prostituting begins and ends with this one-time exchange, sugaring is much more than this: It also involves enduring romantic activities, thereby leaving open the possibility of morphing into a long-term relation, and in rare cases even marriage.
Freedom. Sugaring, compared to prostituting, allows for greater freedom in partner choice. Thus, while in prostituting there are often pimps, who “protect” the prostitute and locate customers for her, sugaring features no such middlemen—partnering is mainly accomplished through online sites.
Repetition and development. Prostituting lacks meaningful development. In sugaring, there is a relationship (although it's typically quite shallow) that endures and develops over time, thus enabling the partners to potentially get to know and bring out the best in each other. The enduring aspect, which is expressed in the behavior in between sexual encounters, is extremely significant for the development of enduring, profound love (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019). Relatedly, sugar daddies want their sugar baby to stay around after the sexual act, whereas a prostitute is expected to leave after the deed is done.
Commitment and trust. The issues of commitment and trust are significant in romantic relations and hardly, if at all, present in prostituting. Commitment and trust exist in sugaring, but in a limited manner. Thus, the number of partners in sugaring is much fewer than in prostitution, and the relationship is more personal and intimate.
The above features are also relevant to the difference between sugaring and romantic relations. Romantic relations are much more complex than sugaring. Money is of lesser concern and romance of greater one. Romantic relations offer greater freedom in partner choice, and development is much more meaningful in such relations – as are commitment and trust.
The risk in sugaring
“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” —C. S. Lewis
Sugaring is situated somewhere between prostituting and romantic love, and features some of the advantages and drawbacks of both. The moral and practical implications of sugaring are beyond the scope of this discussion, but I will mention some of the risks involved.
Experts indicate that sugar babies generally do not have control over the relationship, which can turn dangerous and exploitative. Moreover, because sugaring seems safer than prostituting and the involved coercion is subtler, women are less likely to identify its risks. Indeed, many young people have a lighthearted, candy-coated view of “sugaring,” which may make them more susceptible to scams and predators. Sugar babies are in enticing circumstances where once they take the first step on the risky slippery slope, they often slide all the way down the hill. Hence, sugaring may be more harmful to women and society in some ways than the more isolated, well-defined relation of prostituting.
Sugaring may be disparaged for blurring important moral boundaries, thereby increasing risks and marring romantic love. Clear-cut categories can be quite nice. They impart a sense of stability to our often-rocky reality. But life is infrequently clear-cut, and our attitudes and practices ought to reflect that truth. In my recent book, The Arc of Love, I claim that the romantic realm is becoming increasingly more flexible and diverse. Sugaring is one expression of this diversity; hence, it is unlikely that we can stop this trend; on the contrary, it may grow in the future.
Abandoning, in the romantic realm, the clear-cut good-bad dichotomy, while realizing the presence of 50 (or more) shades of grey, is not the end of the world—although it has its risks.
Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press
Scull, M. T. (2020). “It’s Its Own Thing”: A Typology of Interpersonal Sugar Relationship Scripts. Sociological Perspectives, 63, 135-158.