We met the Cambridge students involved in the world of sugar baby dating

‘Safety isn’t guaranteed’

The prospect of acquiring a sugar daddy, or indeed sugar mummy, is a familiar joke among struggling students.  For the uninitiated, these “mutually beneficial” relationships are often referred to as “sugaring”, whereby a sugar baby (usually female) receives cash, gifts, or other financial and material benefits from a patron (who is typically wealthier and older) in exchange for their company.  The agreement often implicitly includes sex or intimacy, but it is erroneous to claim that this is a prerequisite.  Regardless, while the suggestion may be frequently thrown around in halls of residence, they rarely come to fruition.  However, for a small number of Cambridge students, this curious arrangement is a reality.

The Tab Cambridge spoke to a few of these students in order to gain an insight into the dynamics of these relationships.

*All names have been changed for the purpose of anonymity.*

As Stephen, a 22-year-old third year, explains: “Personally, I like control over things in my life, and I have just found in these kinds of relationships you have a bit more control because both parties are very upfront from the beginning over what they are looking for, so there is a greater understanding on how we want things to be.  Right from the get-go, you talk about it in a very blunt way.”

Stephen is unusual in the respect that despite his age, he is, in his own words, “a young, arrogant sugar daddy.”  This lifestyle is facilitated by the fact that he happens to own his own house that he lives in, which is, he says, “one of the things I can provide for someone.”  Despite this, Stephen does not “personally consider [himself] financially privileged.”  Some feel that the traditional image of a sugar daddy is misleading, with the relationship being more closely related to how economically disadvantaged and dependent the baby is. 

Victoria, a 23-year-old Master’s student, admits that while she “would have been able to get by without” the supplementary income she receives from her sugar daddies, the arrangements are often “very lucrative and helpful financially.”  Regardless, her experiences with sugar daddy dating have proven to conform more comfortably with the common public perceptions of such arrangements.  Her first sugar daddy was “a South Asian banker in his fifties with a wife and kids”, she says. She recalls receiving one hundred pounds per date to dine with him in Leicester Square.  Perhaps more startlingly, on another occasion, Victoria was paid six hundred pounds in advance “on the presumption that [she] would have sex” with the man she was due to see that evening.

“I found it hard to like him – I felt disgust at him for using the site when he had a family.”

When researching this article, it became apparent that the financial incentive is not the only contributing factor for these “sugar babies”; the desire for professional advancement is also a significant motivator for many young and enterprising sugar babies.  Stephen noted that several of the women who contacted him want “mentorship in the business world” and while he has “made it clear that [he is] quite young for that sort of thing” he admitted that he “does have some business knowledge that [he] can provide.”

This idea that some sugar babies are looking to kickstart their careers and gain professional contacts is mirrored by the admissions of Grace, a 19-old second year student.  Speaking candidly, she tells The Tab that she is “not ashamed to say that [she is] an ambitious person.”  She remarks: “I think there is this massive stigma around it, particularly when you are a woman, but I have always had this drive to make something better for myself.  The boredom and conformity of a standard suburban lifestyle have never appealed to me and yet I know I should feel this guilt that I do not have it worse. Nevertheless, I don’t; I feel resentment which makes me even more determined to change how I live.”

Grace goes on to explain that she lets “these rich and powerful men treat me like they do”, adding, “they like to feel like they are the one in control, but ultimately I am the one who is winning.  I am the one they need to please, the one that they need to keep quiet and the one they now feel obliged to help.”

This manipulation of the relationships in order to gain professional benefits is something Victoria is also acutely able to relate to.  She confesses that her first sugar daddy proved to be interested in her companionship and intellectual capacities, going so far as to take on a mentoring role. “He would advise me on university applications”, she recalls.

Grace elaborates on this, explaining that, in her view and judging by stories from friends, in many cases “it is a story of a companionship rather than anything sordid, it is an intellectual connection which has the added benefit of providing recipients with some excellent career contacts and opportunities.”  Indeed, looking at Grace and Victoria’s glittering CVs, they do seem to have a point.  But when asked if she was worried about this having repercussions in her later career, Grace snorted.  While she was entertained by the thought of being vilified as a latter-day Christine Keeler, she is confident that there will “certainly not” be any ramifications, with a knowing smirk stating, “who is going to tell?”

“I would sometimes get emotionally attached to men in the club, which was problematic, because they had wives and saw me as something they want to reject from their normal life”

Inevitably, comparisons will be made with prostitution.  Victoria freely admits to previously having been engaged in sex work, telling one story which involved “a fat, Scottish” man whom she found “personally disgusting.”  Victoria was saved from having to go through with intercourse on this occasion when her friend accidentally “slapped him in the balls” during foreplay.  When the man keeled over, the girls took this opportunity to run, with Victoria admitting that she does not “know what would have happened if this had not occurred, as I really did not want to have sex with him.”

It seems the fundamental difference between sugar baby dating and prostitution is the emotional involvement that is required. Stephen elaborates more clearly on this, explaining that he likes “a lot of attention and affection” which his current sugar baby is able to provide.  However, while Stephen is comfortable with the idea that a relationship may be founded upon a financial imbalance, considering it a “small price to pay”, he is interestingly and, revealingly, reluctant to be engaged with a woman whom he felt “wanted to have sex with me purely because I was giving her something.”  Admitting that his sugar baby is from what he calls a “lower class” background, he says she is “very grateful” for what he has to offer.  This appears to contradict Stephen’s argument that she would be with him even if the financial aspect were removed.

The sexual dynamics in such relationships are therefore incredibly interesting to examine.  From Stephen’s perspective, “on the most part, sugar daddies tend to be dominant”, juxtaposes with the “typically submissive sugar babies”, but these generalisations cannot be taken at face value since a number of women “approached [him] offering to dominate [him].”

Victoria has found that these arrangements can be “empowering or abusive”, confiding that, despite one memorable occasion when “an 18-year-old boy came in the strip club for his birthday, his dad bought him a dance, and he proceeded to start masturbating”, her experiences working in a strip-club were ultimately “a lot more enjoyable” than “in the private realm of sugar daddy dating, where safety is not guaranteed.”  

Moreover, the sense that many of the benefactor’s in sugar baby relationships are using the partnership as a form of wish fulfilment is also a reality which Victoria is intensely aware of.  Despite restrictions on sites that specify members must be 18 or over, she began using Seeking Arrangements at the age of 16. Stephen noted some profiles looked like they are “just out of high school.”  Victoria believes the reason teenagers are so in demand is because “these sites often serve as tools through which men elaborate their fantasies concerning sex, often which can involve younger women.”  Expanding upon her own experiences, Victoria also recalls an occasion when she was approached by a man “who suffered abuse from a cult as a child and was seeking girls who were ‘littles’.”  She goes on to explain that “I have read in my degree how these kinds of relationships, where individuals’ play out’ their trauma in such ways, can be empowering.”

“Men would normally try and push boundaries…  trying to kiss me or touch me inappropriately.”

It became clear that in many cases, a man who is in a position of power financially can dominate a sugar baby through tapping into her trauma.  This sense of control can be strangely liberating for many of the patrons in these relationships.  Stephen says that he has felt “frustrated with the vulnerability” that comes with a conventional romantic relationship, and instead has found a sense of security by “focusing [his] efforts on people who are upfront.”  Victoria can empathise with this perspective, agreeing that “all forms of relationship will impact our psyche/trauma in some way, and empowerment can happen at the same time as marginalisation.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to feel some sense of pathos at Stephen’s admission that many of his friends feel sorry for him.  While Stephen is insistent that he prefers the world of sugar baby dating, describing how the hundreds of flattering messages he received within the first weeks of signing up to Seeking Arrangements gave him a “significant confidence boost”, it is still hard to ignore the worries of his closest friends who see his current arrangements as unsafe and vacuous.  Regardless, it seems that, for the time being, Stephen has found a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment with a sugar baby that he was unable to achieve with a fellow Cambridge student.

Women “can perform sexuality and almost creatively manipulate men.”

This should not be seen to suggest that sugar babies are not able to gain a sense of empowerment and fulfilment from their position.  Victoria explained how she was, in many ways, liberated by her experiences.  She described how she now feels “very aware of the ways in which my body can come to be sexualised and take on different meanings in different contexts. I feel more aware of sexuality as being a performance in all contexts, even outside of the strip club.”

She concludes that “straight men will always have a distorting gaze on women due to their implicit tendency to sexualise that comes from the fact they do not share the same body as women”, but that this should not be seen as implicitly negative since in many ways it allows women to harness a “‘power” in that they can perform sexuality and almost creatively manipulate men.” 

The argument does, however, remain that this empowerment is understood subjectively and implicitly linked to a heteronormative male gaze, thus suggesting that this perceived empowerment is in many ways ambiguous and morally ambivalent.  Victoria recognises these difficulties, believing that while her work has been “financially liberating” it also had a combined effect of “distancing [her] from [her] own body” to the extent that she began to “relate to [her] body in quite a detached neoliberal way rather than in a private, sensitive way.”  Furthermore, there is an impression that many of the men had an ingrained inability to reconcile Victoria’s sexuality with her intellect, enforced by her confession that many clients she encountered thought she was lying when she told them she was going to Cambridge.

Ultimately, it seems that the exercising of power and control is an essential part of the culture of sugar baby dating.  Nonetheless, it seems that sites dedicated to facilitating these relationships should be doing more to ensure proper safeguarding measures are put in place such as proper age checks in order to prevent the most extreme violations of individual boundaries and trust during these liaisons in order to ensure that neither party is taken advantage of.

The Tab contacted Seeking Arrangements for comment regarding the claims that their rules about minimum age requirements were being flouted.  A spokesperson for Seeking Arrangements told us: “Unfortunately this kind of [thing] happens on a lot on different social network sites.  The best way any network or dating site like this can do is that initial first check when people sign up; we ask you to put in your data, and if you lie about that there is not a lot we can do.  We do not check every single person but so does no one else, but if a violation is brought to our attention, we act very rapidly.  We do have artificial intelligence which scans through the messages very rapidly and looks for any sort of language that would indicate anyone who was violating our terms of use and we have a customer support team in three different countries working around the clock to monitor these messages.

“We do have a very strong member reporting community so if you see someone on the site violating the terms in any way a lot of our members are very good at letting us know because they don’t want to interact with people like that or break the law themselves.

“If it looked like someone was under age, we would ask them for identification to verify that they are over 18.”

All images writer’s own.