The toxic world of ‘sugar dating’
When I first set up an account on Seeking Arrangement (SA), I was 16 years old, broke, and bored. I was a virgin. Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate that soon I would be knocking on the hotel room doors of total strangers to sell my body.
Before I share my experience, I feel it’s important to explain the functionality of the websites that groomed me.
Brandon Wade, a Singaporean-American tech entrepreneur who once stated in a CNN article that “love is for poor people”, founded two sugar daddy websites: Seeking Arrangement (now rebranded as Seeking) and What’s Your Price. On both websites, “sugar daddies/mommies” (the latter rarer and more fantastical than a goose that shits gold) have to pay to set up an account, and “sugar babies” can join for free. Sugar babies who set up their account using a .edu email address (the American equivalent of .ac.uk) were given a free premium account.
Seeking is geared towards long-term arrangements, in which young women provide sex and companionship in return for either a ppm (pay per meet) or monthly allowance. Some men were uncomfortable paying an allowance, and promised gifts, nice dinners and luxury getaways instead.
Within minutes of setting up my profile, my inbox was flooded by men detailing how their ideal arrangement would work: how many times they wanted to meet monthly, how much they were willing to pay and how often, and how they wanted meetings to play out. Some men would want to go on dates before having sex, others wanted you to meet them in their hotel room and fuck you straight off the bat. I was inundated with offers of travel, professional development and shopping, allowances generally ranging from £100 to £1,500 per meet, or £300-£3,000 monthly. A year after I joined Seeking Arrangement in 2015, the website was reported to have 5 million users and was generating $40 million in annual revenue.
What’s Your Price functions as an auctioning site for dates. On Seeking, any user is able to send a direct message at no extra cost, but on What’s Your Price the first point of communication is a proposed figure: men send offers to women of how much they’re willing to pay for a date, or women send requests of how much they’re expecting to be paid for a date. Bids typically ranged from £40 to £200 per date, and users can send follow-up offers and negotiate the fee.
After an offer is accepted, men have to pay the site to chat to the girls. The charge is a percentage of the money agreed for the date fee. It is generally understood that this fee is for a non-intimate meeting (usually dinner or drinks), and that a larger ppm allowance would be provided for intimate meetings. That being said, a lot of men weren’t happy with the lack of sex and would still be pushy despite being unwilling to pay more.
I was first introduced to the world of sugaring by a girl I sat next to in English. I set up an account mainly out of curiosity. I had always joked about being interested in older men, but upon first joining I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to actually meet anyone in person.
I started out on SA, but learned quickly from my first meetings and the messages flooding my inbox that it would be difficult to make any money without sleeping with these guys. When I noticed an advert on the SA website reading “want to get paid for dates?” I turned to What’s Your Price.
It was on this site that I “got the hang of it”. I met men at least once a week and was paid cash in hand at the end of dinner or drinks. I learned the easiest way to wriggle out of their sexual advances was to say something along the lines of, “Oh I’d love to, I really like you but my parents are expecting me back at X time and they’re really strict”.
I’d entertain these men for as many dates as I could before it became impossible to avoid shagging them, at which point I’d make up an excuse to cut ties (usually that my parents had discovered what I was doing, which was impossible for them to argue with). Soon enough, I was making several hundred pounds monthly from paid dates, none of whom I was sleeping with.
I’d had a spate of bad experiences – mostly men who refused to pay at the end of a date, or men who were being threateningly pushy about sex – but it still hadn’t put me off. The cash was too seductive.
I even turned some of my teenage friends on to the sites, and within a few months I knew about 10 girls who also had profiles. It became an integral part of our social lives. Often, two classmates and myself would organise separate dates at the same time and day, then meet up afterwards to smoke weed we had bought with our sugaring cash and discuss how awful and pathetic these men were.
We’d also arrange double dates, posing as bisexual couples looking for a three-way arrangement. Once, my best friend and I made out on a video call to a headmaster of a Manchester girls’ secondary school, who’d admitted to us he often fantasised about his students. We were rewarded by him with a dress each from Zara.
It was exciting! We would get dressed up together, have food and drink in amazing bars and restaurants, getting pissed for free and were making enough money to buy clothes or cigarettes or ecstasy for whatever rave we were next attending.
Suddenly the money-woes that had inhibited our shared social lives no longer existed, and we were all able to afford to go out and do things together, without having to save up pocket money or work long hours at gruelling jobs for the minimum wage.
We framed the buying of our time as fucking the system, fucking the patriarchy, these disgusting men were fools and we were exploiting them by playing to their creepy tendencies.
The longer I spent on these sites, the more my judgement was clouded by the monetary offers. I’d met a few men whom I’d thought were reasonably attractive and enjoyable to be around, and slept with them.
I was a teenager suffering from depression, eating disorders, and a self-esteem in the gutter, and was flattered that these older, well-established rich men had taken an interest in me. I truly believed that to them I was beautiful and special, and not just a naive teenager they could stick their dick in.
Unsurprisingly, I would later realise these men were all misogynist creeps, the worst of them rapists and abusers. But it was easier for me to reframe these experiences as sexy and glamorous and totally consensual, rather than admit to myself that I had gotten involved in something dark and seedy that I was totally unequipped to deal with.
Once I started accepting money from men “I wanted to sleep with”, it became easier for me to accept offers from men I was less drawn to, thinking only of the money. It was then I began finding myself in extremely dangerous and traumatic situations, some of which led me to self-harm. But the dissociation was in full swing, and for me to allow myself to stop was for me to accept that I had exploited myself, a reality far too painful for me to digest. And so I didn’t.
I didn’t have to: the feminism I was exposed to was telling me that selling my body was a form of empowerment, that I was sexually liberated, that capitalising on patriarchal constructs for financial gain was the ultimate middle finger to the patriarchy. Clothing brands and pop-culture social media pages were posting images of luxury-adorned young women with captions like “tag a friend who needs a sugar daddy,” or “when he’s old but these nails don’t pay for themselves”. I felt I was smarter and sexier than other young girls who were choosing not to be bought by old men.
All this alleged empowerment I’d found evaporated into thin air as soon as I was behind a closed door with a man or a couple. Ultimately, I had no say in what would be done to me. A price had been arranged, and I owed them a service.
I allowed things to be said and done to me that had never been agreed prior to the throes of intercourse. I was pressured into receiving acts that hurt, and performing acts that made my skin crawl. I was plied with drugs and alcohol, and in some cases berated if I was apprehensive about taking whatever drug the client was taking, even when I told them I had to go home to my parents, or had school the following day. My pay was often docked for saying no.
In those situations, moments before I achieved total bodily dissociation, I would feel used and defenceless and scared and worthless. But liberal feminism cleaned the wounds, told me I was a liberated and empowered woman taking charge of her body and her destiny, and when my desperate, distraught mother discovered what I was doing, reminded me she was a fusty old SWERF who didn’t understand modern feminism.
The summer before I started university, after the third or fourth time she learned I hadn’t quit sugaring like I’d promised her, I left my family home and moved into a flat in Covent Garden, rented for me by a client. I joined “sugar baby” Instagram, a corner of the app where women and girls would post pictures of the wads of cash, luxury trinkets, 5-star vacations and meals and hotel stays they earned selling their time and bodies.
I am so lucky to come from a comfortable, functional middle-class family, with a mother with real feminist values, otherwise I could easily have suffered the sugaring world for much longer, and perhaps even joined an escorting agency as I was considering shortly before I gave up.
After that summer in Covent Garden, I went to university outside London, which made sugaring much more logistically difficult than before. I also met my first long-term boyfriend in my halls of residence, and learning what real love, real sex was meant to be like was a huge factor in finally opening my eyes to the horrors I had endured on these sugaring sites.
I quit, officially, when I was 19, after three years of quasi-prostitution. Over time, all the realities that I’d fought so hard to stave away became inescapable. I accepted I’d been manipulated, raped, abused by these men, but what hurt the most was the realisation that I had been groomed by the internet, and groomed by liberal feminism.
I found myself in arguments with friends who had never had any experience in sex work themselves, being told that my anti-sex work views were “whore-phobic” and problematic, that they were sorry I had a bad experience but I should “listen to sex workers” and challenge my sex-negativity.
All of the girls I knew who I’d introduced to the sites would agree that what we had involved ourselves in was dangerous, degrading, and the furthest thing from empowering. I suppose the sex-workers we were meant to be listening to were the ones who were still involved in the business, the ones who still had to maintain their dissociation and cognitive dissonance the way we had before we exited the sex trade.
I wish I could say that I’ve never looked back, never considered fucking the odd man for some cash in times I was struggling financially. The upsetting truth is once you learn how much money there is to be made from compromising your body and your morals, the temptation will always be lurking somewhere within you. I hope that as I heal from this traumatic period of my life, as well as my pre-existing mental health issues, the temptation will disappear completely.
I will be experiencing the side-effects of this sugary pill for years to come. It has destroyed my view of ageing and the value of beauty and youth, strengthened my depression and eating disorder tendencies, and bitterly tainted my view on commitment and relationships.
My experiences make me terrified to have children: I can see no feasible way to shield them from the fall out of our porn-sick society, from liberal feminism, from the dark corners of the internet teeming with disgusting specks of people desperate to take advantage of women and children for their own sick sexual gain. My parents loved and cared for me so deeply. They educated me and informed my morals the best any parent could, they saw that I was supported and cared for, and made it understood that they would always be able to support me financially if I was ever struggling, but still it was not enough to protect me from what happened to me.
I am filled with hope knowing there are people out there, aligned or involved with organisations like Nordic Model Now, who are equally disturbed by what is being fed to young women about their place in a feminist society, and helping combat this insidious and increasingly mainstream narrative that prostitution is a choice, and that feminists should be working toward gentrification of the sex trade.
As I look to the future of the internet’s involvement in feminist politics, I find great strength in knowing there are people out there actually listening to sex workers, and trying to protect women and girls from the ideology that groomed me into believing I was empowered as a professional sex object.
An edited version of this testimony was read as part of the ‘Sugaring the pill’ section of the ‘Power Play: Is the sex industry REALLY empowering for women?’ event in Coventry, England, on Saturday 3 June 2023.
Page published: 13 June 2023