By Faith Ann Ruszkowski, Marysabel Cordozo, Trisha Seelig and Ashley Lopez
A hushed society with culturally taboo practices is steadily gaining new members at the University of Texas at Austin. Members rarely know each other and are often reluctant to disclose information to outsiders, so their numbers grow in relative silence. Despite stigma and secrecy, over 150 UT students joined their ranks in 2015. Welcome to the world of “sugaring,” where young people, usually women, are showered with riches in exchange for providing companionship to older, wealthy men.
SeekingArrangement.com, the dating site that matches “sugar babies” with their generous “sugar daddies,” ranked UT third highest among universities with the most sign-ups in 2015. The website promises members a “relationship on your terms” and actively markets to college students with a pitch they call “Sugar Baby University.” In a video promotion for the site, a scantily clad spokeswoman states, “Our mission is to provide a quality education completely paid for by wealthy benefactors.”
Almost 2 million college students have joined so far, according to site statistics, which are tracked by the amount of registrations with university email addresses. The company provides premium accounts to those who sign up with an .edu address.
Although SeekingArrangement promotes the site as a way to pay for tuition, Alexis*, a junior advertising student at UT, said she signed up last January as a joke.
“My friend and I saw an article last year about how UT was one of the campuses with the most girls on SeekingArrangement.com,” Alexis said. “We both signed up for it and got messages within the first couple of days that we were on it.”
She only began to take the sugar daddy scenario seriously when she saw men were actually willing to give her money and gifts.
“It was completely online, that encouraged me. There’s like zero risk, I had it sent to a P.O. Box,” said Alexis. “I was like, this is ridiculous, this is so easy. I milked it for what is was worth. It started to work out for me.”
In her first online relationship, she and her sugar daddy messaged on the site and then transitioned to text messaging. During the week of Valentine’s Day that year, he sent her a present everyday. Among the gifts she received were $200 Jeffrey Campbell shoes, a $600 Tory Burch bag and a matching $200 Tory Burch wallet. Encouraged by her success online, she began to date sugar daddies in person.
“At the end of the day, when I’m getting these gifts, I just feel smarter than the men I’m manipulating to get them,” Alexis said.
While Alexis never used SeekingArrangement as a way to pay for tuition, because she receives scholarships that cover her costs at UT, she knows other sugar babies who have benefitted from their arrangements and are able to cover school fees with their “allowances”.
“I do know a guy who lived with his sugar daddy and had his entire semester’s tuition paid for,” Alexis said.
Trina Manor, associate director for the Office of Financial Aid at UT, said that students are often unaware of the financial aid options available to them, which may explain why sugar babies seek assistance from sugar daddies. Financial aid information can be convoluted and overwhelming, and SeekingArrangment offers students an easy, debt-free alternative.
“I know one thing that has been a challenge in our community is getting our information out in a user-friendly way that students can understand it and in a way that is going to catch their attention,” Manor said.
Alexis’ approach to the dating site was heavily researched and methodical to ensure her safety and privacy. She created a new email, bank account and even a P.O. box to make sure she was untraceable to her potential sugar daddies. In Alexis’ case, she said she never really wanted to set up an arrangement where she was given an agreed-upon allowance because it was too serious. She would casually mention her plans or things she needed, and the sugar daddies would take care of it or send her the money to do so.
“It was more like, “Oh, I’m going on a trip next week with my family” and he would be like, “Here let me give you some money to have fun.” It was just like that,” Alexis said.
The cost of living in a booming city like Austin has proved to be a factor in Alexis’s decision to start sugaring. She has been on a break from the sugar baby lifestyle for about two months, but said she wants to start back up again soon.
“My friend and I have been talking about getting back into it because we are looking for places for next year and they’re expensive, so we were thinking we can just sugar on the side and get some money,” Alexis said.
The monetary benefits of sugaring are an example of what graduate research assistant in sociology, Katherine Hill, considers a new type of informal economy. Along with working at a restaurant illegally or selling crafts online, sugaring is an unconventional way for people to make money.
“People get into sugaring because they need or want money, and those are the reasons people usually get into any kind of business,” Hill said. “I don’t see sugaring as something that is sexual; I see it as a job.”
This is how SeekingArrangement.com creates its appeal: young people make easy money by soliciting their company to older men or women. But it’s not as easy as it may sound. Alexis said that it is time consuming and can be a lot to handle, but in the end the reward is always worth it.
“I don’t feel bad about the stereotypes or the guilt when I have a $600 bag or my phone and car note paid for,” Alexis said. It’s a calming feeling to know I don’t have to worry about anything because I know somebody is going to take care of it for me.”
*This name has been changed to protect the Sugar Baby’s privacy and safety.