“[Bind] me up with rope and physically hit me,” read the message. As a new user of dating website SeekingArrangement, the blunt proposition for BDSM was initially only mildly shocking to Elaine* — until she read the accompanying price tag.
Elaine, a U of T student, is a rookie “Sugar Baby” — a young woman looking to cover the costs of tuition by dating men she meets online, and receiving money in exchange.
The request, introduced as a “non-sexual arrangement,” came from a 34-year-old Mississauga man with a net worth higher than that of most of her classmates combined.
The site, which describes itself as “the leading Sugar Daddy dating site where over 3.6 million members fuel mutually beneficial relationships on their terms,” was founded in 2006 and now boasts 2.6 million “Sugar Babies” and one million “Sugar Mommas.”
The site claims to have eight ‘Sugar Babies’ per “Sugar Daddy,” and supposedly offers numerous benefits for “Sugar Babies,” including financial stability and mentorship.
Seeking alternative employment
While 63 per cent of Canadian students rely on income from employment to cover tuition, a select group of young women and men have found that seeking out “Sugar Daddies” is a more attractive option.
SeekingArrangement, along with other similar websites, mirrors conventional dating sites with a “mutually beneficial” twist. Providing what it describes as “relationships on your terms,” it matches young women — many of whom make under $34,000 a year — with older, wealthier men called “Sugar Daddies.”
In exchange for dates and other romantic interactions, the women can receive money from their male companions, as well as travel, gifts, accommodation and other accoutrements of privilege.
For some women, meeting men on SeekingArrangement provides access to a lifestyle few University of Toronto students can dream of. While exact financial terms aren’t explicitly set, most women indicate their desired “assistance level” on their profile. “Expectation” amounts range from one to 10 thousand dollars monthly.
“Sugar Daddies” in Toronto
Since setting up a SeekingArrangement profile, Elaine has received romantic offers ranging from the earnest to the bizarre, including offers of casual dating, more serious commitments, and long-distance relationships.
Although she hasn’t gone on any dates yet, one man went so far as to propose giving Elaine a “monthly allowance” of $2,000 for an on-going commitment. Others proposed fetishism.
While women make up the majority of “Sugar Babies” on the site, Jake*, a third-year U of T student, joined to pay off his debt.
According to a 2013 Bank of Montreal survey, female Canadian post-secondary students graduate with about $30,000 in debt, on average, while male Canadian post-secondary students graduate with about $22,000.
In the past, Jake worked multiple part-time jobs throughout the school year to support himself, but was concerned about how they affected his academics. He said that SeekingArrangement is less taxing than certain standard minimum wage jobs.
Also apprehensive about meeting potential ‘Sugar Daddies’ in person, he has so far only considered offers for long-distance relationships.
One man offered him a monthly stipend just for regular Skype dates.
Jake said that while the man seemed friendly and sincere throughout their initial Skype call, he’s still unsure as to whether he’ll contact him again.
Elaine and Jake are far from alone.
According to Brock Urick, a public relations manager with SeekingArrangement, university students represent the site’s largest demographic — with over one million profiles registered to university-affiliated email addresses.
While Urick said that SeekingArrangement doesn’t “track patterns of use per se,” he said it’s a safe bet that a majority of university students who use the site are paying for their schooling and graduating debt-free.
Toronto is a good place to be a “Sugar Baby.” According to Toronto Life, Toronto’s “Sugar Daddies” earn, on average, north of $250,000 a year and have an average self-reported net worth of $5.3 million.
They also spend a little over $4,000 a month on their “Sugar Babies.”
Despite the temptation of easy money, Elaine said she isn’t looking for anything serious. “If I were going to do any type of arrangement it would have to be in a public place,” she said.
So far, she is apprehensive about the site and the types of messages she has received.
Causes and impacts
Elaine’s sentiment is echoed by Chris Glover, a Toronto Public School trustee and adjunct professor of education and public policy at York University.
A researcher on student debt and its impacts in the age of neo-liberalism, Glover sees student involvement in dating sites such as SeekingArrangement as symptomatic of post-secondary education’s underfunding by the government.
Pointing to U of T’s tuition fees in the 1990s, which hovered around $2,500 a year for most programs, Glover bemoaned the current situation. Today, it costs about $6,000 a year for domestic arts & science students.
Ontario has the highest tuition fees and lowest per-student funding in Canada.
Well over half of Canadian students rely on personal savings and earnings from part-time work to collectively cover about half of their tuition, according to Statistics Canada.
Glover is concerned about the effects of this financial stress on students’ integrity and emotional health.
“Nobody should ever be coerced… to pay for their education by selling sex,” he said, pointing to a provincial government decision in the late 1990s to deregulate tuition fees, which subsequently sent them soaring towards their present levels.
While discussion around sites like SeekingArrangement largely revolves around ethical questions, the legal ramifications are also a concern.
According to Brenda Cossman, professor of law and director of U of T’s centre for sexual diversity studies, there isn’t a clear answer as to whether use of SeekingArrangement constitutes prostitution.
Cossman said that ‘Sugar Daddy’ websites offer an array of possibilities for interaction — ranging from an explicit exchange of money for sex to an ongoing relationship where sex is simply part of the equation.
“If it’s the former, it could run into the same legal problems as prostitution,” said Cossman.
Bill C-36, a federal government bill tabled in June, makes it a crime to “obtain for consideration… the sexual services of a person.”
It also makes it a crime to “[receive] a financial or other material benefit, knowing that it is obtained by or derived directly or indirectly” from the sale of a “sexual service.”
*Names changed at students’ request.