In the bustling terminal of a North Carolina Airport, passengers were searching for flight info or something to eat. Sitting on a lonely bar stool was a girl who didn’t care about her flight or the plate of crab cakes sitting in front of her. Instead, Cindy let her blonde hair drape around her face as she sobbed into a glass of wine, attempting to understand why she had decided to fly half way across the country to see a man she barely knew. Not a man she wanted to date, but a man who was married. Her food was untouched, her wine glass empty, and her stomach churned thinking about the decision she had just made.
“I got so drunk I missed my flight,” she admits.
Cindy is a sugar baby. When she broke up with her long-term boyfriend, leaving her with little money, she stopped dating guys for love or fun, and started dating wealthy men for compensation. She goes on coffee, dinner, or party dates with men, and in return they give her cash or a monthly allowance.
Millennials like Cindy are known for their “no strings attached” relationships. These relationships are seen in the college hook-up and friends-with-benefits culture where two people get together with the simple goal of having sex. Sugar baby/sugar daddy relationships are more complicated. Although the idea is that women go on dates for money, many of the sugar daddies expect sex. Sugar babies are sometimes seen as gold diggers or even prostitutes, but their relationships fall into a moral gray area. Being a sugar baby isn’t illegal, but lies somewhere between hook-ups and prostitution. Although many simply want to earn some extra cash, some women in these relationships have experienced neglect in their lives which could affect their future relationships.
Cindy began “sugaring” because she needed a security deposit for a new apartment after breaking up with her boyfriend. On the first date with one of her long-term sugar daddies, he gave her 600 dollars for going out to dinner. Although Cindy continues to work as a waitress, she relies on spending money from her sugar daddies so all the money she makes waitressing is hers to keep.
“If I need help, he just sends me a check,” Cindy said.
She used to attend Milwaukee Area Technical College but dropped out when she couldn’t pay the tuition. College students aren’t strangers to the sugar baby lifestyle. Rising tuition and interest rates make paying on student loans difficult or impossible for people just graduating. It has created what SeekingArrangements.com calls a sugar baby university, where sugar babies find sugar daddies with the sole purpose of paying for college. Brandon Wade, creator of one of the most popular sugar daddy dating sites, said that in 2011 college students made up nearly 40 percent of the sugar baby population on his site SeekingArrangements.com.
Elisa Thomas began her time as a sugar baby after customers at the gentlemen’s club where she worked offered to pay her for dates. She initially began working as a hostess in the club.
“I graduated to stripper after working there for maybe like six months,” Thomas said.
Thomas began studying American Sign Language at UW-Milwaukee and later transferred to MATC.
“You don’t have to sell your whole soul to go to MATC like you do UW-Milwaukee,” Thomas said. “You only have to sell half your soul.”
Thomas said that she began dancing as her main source of income. She soon began escorting and sugaring after the men who came to watch her dance, offered to take her to social events. Many of the men were married, but that’s not why she stopped.
“It just kind of got to a point where it was more work than the reward I was receiving, and I got sober,” Thomas said. “It’s really hard to pretend you’re having a good time with no alcohol or drugs in your system at all.”
Despite the sugar baby population growing so much in the last couple years, there seems to be a lack of knowledge and support in the community. Out of five community organizations related to sexual abuse or sex trafficking and prostitution, only three knew what sugar babies were. The lack of knowledge within community organizations leaves these girls with few resources when they need help.
“There’s not really anything for people who chose that life, or chose to be a sugar baby,” Thomas said.
Because of this lack of knowledge, many sugar babies like Cindy turn to their sugar baby friends to provide support and advice. She could name about eight of her friends who were also sugar babies, some of whom liked the situation and some who didn’t.
“We don’t like that we do it, but we do it anyway,” Cindy said. “We get really grossed out by it and half the time you just can’t believe what these guys say to you.”
Elisa had a very different experience that showed her how beneficial a support group can be. It was a March day in Milwaukee, and she was walking toward an auto yard. Murphy felt safe walking on her own, since it was the middle of the day. Suddenly two men jumped her and smashed her head against the wall before they tackled her to the ground. They took her phone and purse filled with the cash meant to repossess her car. As Thomas lay shaken on the ground, a woman who had seen the assault drove up offering help. The woman gave her a ride to the police station where Thomas thought she would get help. But after she told the police what she did for a living, she says the focus switched from the muggers to herself.
“They took me into an interrogation room and asked me what I was doing on that side of town. It was like March so it was cold, and they were like ‘what are you wearing under your coat?’” Thomas said. “And so, it was kind of like they were discrediting my experience because of my job. I bet if I said I was a teacher they wouldn’t have asked what I had on under my coat.”
The college hook-up and friend with benefits culture works on a completely voluntary basis. For the women and men in those relationships, there are college resources available for any psychological, emotional, or physical help. For sugar babies, there are few places to go for help.
Susan McCarthy was the director of University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee’s Women’s Resource Center for nearly 15 years, and only met one student in such a relationship.
“Her situation was one wherein she didn’t realize what was happening at first, once she did, she came to us to figure out how to get out,” McCarthy said.
Many of the community resources for women in Milwaukee are focused on sex trafficking or prostitution. Since sugaring, as it’s called, isn’t considered illegal, the women who are sugar babies often don’t seek help, sometimes because they don’t feel they need it. Joan Barkley, associate professor of social Work, focuses on trauma involving prostitution and she has seen many women suffer from these relationships. Some of the women involved in prostitution were some of the most traumatized women she had ever met and she worked to understand more about how trauma exists in these women’s lives. Much like sugar babies, she believes women involved with prostitution can choose that profession, but believes other factors play a role in their decisions.
“If she has a history of trauma or sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, is it really a choice?” Barkley said.
Women who are prostitutes almost always have a history of neglect or abuse, according to Barkley. Cindy and Elisa both had issues with their families while growing up. Elisa defined herself as the “typical rebel child” and had just strengthened her relationship with her parents in recent years. This connects to the sort of neglect some of these women experience that can lead them to these relationships.
“I can’t even think of any women I have met, thus far, that don’t have a background of some kind, not all of them sexual abuse, but I have found a lot of them have neglect,” Barkley said.
Sometimes people believe women who sleep around, whether it be for money or just a college hook-up, are trying to fill a void in their lives. Possibly looking for the emotional connection that’s been missing. Hook-ups, sugaring and prostitution all form a connection with the devaluing of sex. Barkley believes there are a lot of women who use sex as a substitution of desirability and to seal-the-deal with men.
“They believe, if I rock his world, if I perform well or whatever, that this guy will be mine,” Barkley said. “It’s a fallacy.”
Sugar babies are likely no different. Both Cindy and Thomas stopped being sugar babies once they got into committed relationships. Once that new, more secure connection came along, they had no room for sugar daddies.