During a recent trip to the US, I had lunch with a young man from New York, who told me glumly that many of his peers had spent the summer swanning around Europe while he stayed put in America. They were all flaunting it on Instagram, of course, but none as aggressively as a clutch of young women in their early 20s, who had spent time in the most expensive spots: the Amalfi Coast, Porto Cervo, Capri. I peered at his phone and saw images of the girls draped over each other in terrace restaurants, on the prows of boats, laid along tree branches in thong bikinis, glowing with the gold-dust of fine living.
They were either still in college or freshly out of it. But the reason they, rather than the young man, were able to go yachting off Sardinia while sipping Dom Pérignon was because rich older men had hired them to come on a luxury holiday with them. The job — look hot, be nice, and be ready to accommodate more without crying assault — is called sugaring. It is — though sugar daddies or babies might not admit it — sex work. My friend betrayed no sense of surprise at the arrangement; such things had, he explained, become totally normal in his age group.
Indeed, sugar daddy-baby “arrangements” are booming, with increasing numbers of female students in the UK and US advertising on sugar websites. Unlike traditional sex work, it’s popular among young women at elite institutions; destined for fine careers, they nonetheless see it as a time-efficient way to offload student debt and, as Molly, a 22-year sugar baby who read PPE at Oxford, told me, “get a taste of luxury”. In 2019, nearly 1000 students at Cambridge were signed up to Seeking Arrangements, the top sugar-brokering site in the Anglosphere. According to the site’s 2020 annual report, the number of university students in the UK seeking a sugar daddy, or a sugar mommy, increased 36% from 2018 to 2019.
The crux of “sugaring” is hardly new, as mistresses throughout history could testify. And Gen-Z and millennials are inheriting the earth at an expensive, professionally uncertain time. Nonetheless, despite the familiarity of the trope and the clarity of the need, the rise of elite sugaring among young, extremely upwardly mobile women points to two profound and rather shocking shifts. One: that dating, with all its messiness and the in-built possibility (if things go well) of an actual relationship — complete with compromise, give and take, and real intimacy — has imploded. And two: that feminism has morphed from a movement with ideals — which envisioned, for instance, a socialist world in which women might be free from sex work — into a hard-nosed, misandric, mercenary pragmatism.
Feminists of the first wave looked for male allies to get laws changed. Those of the second wave, freeing themselves for the first time from the trappings of normative heterosexuality, had separatist instincts. But those of the present wave see men as pathetic, selfish, hard work — and only good for two things: sex and cash.
“All the sugar babies I know consider themselves feminists,” said Molly. “But it’s more misandry than feminism. It’s ‘men are scum’. Both parties sort of despise each other.” Aria, 25, a Cornell graduate currently in law school in DC, has been on Seeking Arrangements for five years. She, too, despises her clients, telling me over WhatsApp video from a Balkan city: “Men are nothing. They’re just fucking idiots. The hardest thing about being a sugar baby is pretending to give a shit what these older men have to say. Older men are so archaic and out of it.”
For these women, the sex is the ok bit — the easy bit. Aria “can have sex with someone without having any feelings towards them. I don’t even have to like them to have sex with them. Being a sex worker: that’s nothing. I can always pretend. Sex is easy.” This sentiment, almost down to the word, is echoed among other sugar babies.
The callous terrain created by ten years of dating apps and misapplied “sex positivity” seems to have rendered physical intimacy a shiny token whose value lies in shifting the needle of power up or down, while the relationship of sex to things like romance or affection has been cauterised. Increasingly, relationships are seen as exchange mechanisms. Last week, influential sex podcaster Dan Savage reassured a well-spoken sugar baby, who had called his advice show to express worries about telling her new (real) boyfriend about her arrangement: “I think all relationships are transactional … We all pay for it. We don’t always pay for it with money. We pay with time, affection, diligence, intimacy, care. If we don’t ‘pay in’, they end.”
In the 70s and 80s, feminist sociology focused on the extra, “emotional” labour women had to do at work (as constantly-cheerful flight attendants, for instance) or, often on top of full-time jobs, at home (as the family glue and domestic drudge). In a twisted reinterpretation of that sociology, nowadays “women my age see all relationships as sexual labour,” says Molly. “Why not get paid for it?” She points out that Twitter is full of women who think men should pay a deposit before they go on a date with them. Aria put it more scathingly still: “Men have a dearth of people they can share their feelings with… Thanks a lot toxic masculinity. So if I’m performing all this emotional labour — if I have to listen to a man complain for an hour — I should get $500.”
Sex work has been transformed, or rather wishfully squeezed, into the same category as any form of work. At the same time, all relationships have been reduced to a form of sex work. To complete the bitter triangulation, these developments are seen as compatible with empowered young womanhood. Leah, 24, another brainy American sugar baby who messaged me on Instagram from Portofino, speaks the language of ambition: “We want that financial security while we go after our goals. Everybody sells their body. Construction workers sell their bodies. What’s different?”
It is perhaps no coincidence that sugaring has flourished since the MeToo movement. Beneath the reasoning of many sugar babies’ testimonies lies a terrible disappointment with how men are, and, one might infer, a desire to be treated considerately, tenderly by them. Molly sugared because she was “broke” but “at the back of your mind you think, well, you’re going to get treated badly anyway…”
The discourse of MeToo pitches heterosexual sex as barbed power play in which young women must aggressively have, or be had. Intimacy no longer comes naturally: boundaries have had to be erected and policed, the status of sexual consent constantly monitored. Against this backdrop, sugar relationships offer something more tranquil and easy to control — something, in photographer Elysia Nicole Downing’s words, “much easier to navigate and manage because I’m not emotionally attached, I feel whole and like my needs are being met.”
But MeToo also had a profound effect on the professional landscape by effectively ending male-female mentoring. “A lot of older men are reluctant to reach out to you now [on a professional basis],” notes Molly, who says that the “best gift” is a man using their contacts to “get you access to an industry”. By establishing the sexual utility of the young woman and professional value of the older man at the outset, the sugaring relationship circumvents the nasty power play pinpointed by MeToo.
But this is in a way the saddest irony of all: MeToo was meant to free women in the professional sphere from being treated as objects. Instead, it seems to have encouraged them to sell their bodies for work-related advancement. Aria is happy: her sugar daddy is one of America’s top political lobbyists. From the outset, he asked: “How can I help you [professionally]?”
However lucrative, helpful, easy, or apparently “empowered”, life as a sugar baby erodes a woman’s sense of self. But if the women are losing something wholesome, the men seem to be gaining, even gobbling it. After all, sugar daddying is about more than renting a hot body. It’s also about getting a friendly, sexy therapist; someone who will listen, even nurture. Sometimes the men just want friends. Aria’s political lobbyist prefers office gossip to sex, which fades into the background when they’re together, taking up “less than five minutes” of a three-hour session.
Aella, a versatile star on OnlyFans (the meeting-place for many babies and daddies), has described some of her relationships with clients in strikingly therapeutic terms. “These men desperately want to be valued by women,” she has said. One man just wanted to cry on her; after talking about “his life”, they:
“held each other and sobbed for a while. Then we took off our clothes and just had skin to skin contact. So we lay, intertwined, hugging and that was the entire session … He said he didn’t have any other outlet like that. From then on he would hire me about once a month and I would come see him and he would just hold me and cry.”
With top therapists charging hundreds an hour, these men are actually getting quite a good deal. For a few hundred bucks, they get emotional succour as well as sex.
Sugar babies repeatedly describe providing the same service. It seems easy: the babies I spoke to, or whose accounts I read, all said ease was their primary reason for pursuing these arrangements. But in the end the cost is high. Molly felt despair and had a breakdown after her sugar daddy paid off her student debt. She is still struggling with the long-term effects of seeing all relationships with men in terms of a sexual quid pro quo. Like Molly, I suspect, a generation of sugar babies will eventually discover that money is worth an awful lot, but it’s not worth everything.