The High Cost of "Sugar"

Aug 30, 2017

Paying for college is a on-going problem in the U.S. The website says the average graduate ends up with $37,000 worth of debt along with their diploma. That’s almost one and a half trillion dollars overall -- more than what U.S. households owe on their credit cards.

APR student reporter Miranda Fulmore reports there’s a growing trend on college campuses to address this money crunch, and it’s raising eyebrows.

“It’s really hard to find a job in Tuscaloosa. Because all the jobs are already taken by people who are already there,” says Jane.

We’ve chosen not to use her real name, but she has money problems. She’s studying social work at the University of Alabama, where an undergraduate degree can cost $28,000 a year (40% more if you’re from out of state). But Jane has a plan.

“The allure of making money by doing almost nothing is just super appealing,” Jane says.

Well, almost nothing…

About twenty college-aged girls flood into a private room at a local Atlanta winery. They linger over glasses of wine while I make mental notes on the designers they’re wearing: Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Christian Louboutin. Those are the high-end shoes with the red soles that usually cost a grand per pair. It was a fashionista’s dream. Today’s meeting is a coaching session.

“Well, isn’t that nice, he got all that for free, because y’all gave it to him,” says Brook, the Let’s Talk Sugar coach.

She’s offering tips on to use her company’s website. It’s called Seeking Arrangement and it’s for sugar babies. If you’ve never heard the term, it’s where young women connect to older men who pay them. Brook is explaining how these girls can upload their pictures and wait for men to email them.

“You don’t want to be taxed on any sugar money, because you’re not being paid, right? You’re not being paid for rendered services. You’re not a sex worker, you’re gifted,” Brook says.

Today’s meeting focuses on African-American women looking to link up.

“This is something my mom would not approve of at all. In her eyes, this is basically prostitution,” Jane says.

Back in Tuscaloosa, Jane says she’s a sugar baby, and it works.

“I did an online thing, and a guy just wanted a video. And I made fifty bucks off a twenty second, twenty-two second video. He PayPal-ed me. He just wanted me to, like, get on my hands and knees. And that was it. That was kind of nice,” Jane says.

But the process of advertising online and dealing with the responses took some getting used to.

“When I first did it, it was super intriguing. Just to, like, see a whole different group of people, I don’t know. I mean, like, really old men having really young preferences. It was almost disturbing, but it was alright,” Jane says.

“So the question is, it above or below your tolerance?” says Pepper Schwartz.

She is a professor of sociology at The University of Washington. She specializes in sexuality and women’s roles in it.

“And if it’s below your tolerance but you have to do it anyhow, well, it’s going to be hard on you - psychologically destructive,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz thinks about this a lot. She’s the past president of the Society for the Study of Sexuality and a member of the National Academy of Sex Research. She says engaging in relationships like “sugaring” can cause participants to view relationships as transactional:

“Well, to some extent, it depends on how cold-blooded you are. A lot of people are able to think of other people as utilities rather as people, and they think ‘Hey, they’re getting what they want, and I’m getting what I want, so it’s okay.”

Schwartz says these kinds of relationships have the possibility to breed self-loathing, guilt and shame.

But Sheila Knox sees it differently. She’s a sugar baby and a return customer at Seeking Arrangement.

“Single guys, they’ve probably been single for a while, so they’re a little bit harder to manipulate -- because I’m a master manipulator… But, yeah, I like the divorced guys because those are easier,” Knox says.

Knox wasn’t keen on the idea of becoming a sugar baby at first, but registered on Seeking Arrangement after she hit rock bottom.

“And I had a guy tell me ‘I’ll help you. Whatever it is you want to do. And I will pay you $3,000 a month, just as an allowance.’ And I was like ‘You’re kidding?’ And ever since then I’ve been a sugar baby,” Knox says.

She says her life had taken a drastic turn and she didn’t know what to do, so she logged onto the website. Knox now uses the money she receives from her sugar daddies to pay for her rent, fancy dinners, trips and new clothes.

“I can scroll on my cash app for at least a good two minutes just with receiving money from guys. I’ve probably made more money than I’ve made just working just in a month. It’s crazy,” Knox says.

She says the lifestyle has spoiled her and she can no longer be in a normal relationship. Instead, she always has at least two sugar daddies at a time for insurance.

Getting sugar babies to talk about what they do was relatively easy. APR reached out to Seeking Arrangement in hopes of interviewing a sugar daddy with no success. The British talk show “This Morning with Holly and Phillip” had better luck:

Mark: I was married for 22 years. I came out of it and wanted some fun.

I don’t like the term Sugar Daddy. That’s not what I am.

Phillip: Isn’t this -- it’s all a bit cheap and sordid really, isn’t it?

Mark: It’s not about gifts. It’s about the company and it’s about two minds connecting.

However, not all sugar babies use the money they receive from their benefactor for materialistic purchases. Some college students are using the money for tuition, books, rent and other school-related expenses.

Seeking Arrangement’s website says the University of Alabama is the 9th-fastest-growing university for sugar baby participants.

“Being a sugar baby isn’t something that is for everyone. You have to almost set aside, like, a little bit of your dignity and more of a, ‘Just as long as my mama doesn’t know, it’s alright,” says Kristen.

Kristen is a sugar baby at the university. Due to her involvement with various campus organizations, she asked not to use her real name, fearing her sugar baby lifestyle could harm her reputation.

Kristen says her first sugar relationship was not fostered from the Seeking Arrangement website. Instead, she got into sugaring after a babysitting job.

“People always think that sugar babies is immediately pretty much prostitution. You know you have to sleep with someone and then they’re going to give you money for it. And it wasn’t like that,” Kristen says.

Like many sugar babies, Kristen has multiple sugar daddies to help pay for her tuition, rent and other educational expenses. This is because Kristen has been a foster child for the majority of her life, and even though she is in the Army Reserves, her G.I. bill isn’t enough to pay for all of the her expenses, including her out-of-state tuition.

“I had one lovely, wonderful sugar daddy, may he rest in peace, and I remember I was so stressed out because I was so upset that I wasn’t able to pay for school, and he put $50,000 in my account. And I just remember crying because that was just the most amazing thing,” Kristen says.

She says her sugar relationship also provides her with a built-in mentor and someone to talk to that she doesn’t have to hide from when it comes to her lifestyle.

“It’s like having a parent that you don’t have to worry about the repercussions with, that you sometimes sleep with. So take that as you may,” Kristen says.

Pepper Schwartz at the University of Washington says not all hope is lost for relationships based on love and some kind of sentiment. She doesn’t think the future of monogamous relationships are at stake.

“The streak of looking for your own advantage and economic security is pretty well spread through human nature, but it’s all a level of degree, and that’s hard to measure,” Schwartz says.

Though she says that relationships, sugar or otherwise, have elements of benefactors, but it’s when they become only transactional that it’s worrisome.

Jane has seen the darker side of dating for money as well. We met her at the beginning of this story. She shared one episode that didn’t turn out as advertised.

“One of the guys was going to pay me five hundred bucks for a video, and like a picture. And then he backed out and said he was going to post the video all over Alabama stuff, and like websites, and Twitter. So I quickly cut off contact…didn’t get paid…it was awful,” Jane says.

She called university police, who said their cybercrime unit would keep the video from being published. But it was a painful reminder that, for sugar babies, money for nothing often isn’t.