Sugar relationships seem to be on the rise. But do these relationships bloom from genuine romantic connection or material desire? Anna Walker investigates.
When he realises he’s fallen for Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, Paul Varjak of Breakfast At Tiffany’s asks his older lover if they can “end this stylishly”. He’s a sugar baby, and the older woman, his sugar mama, though they never use those terms—it’s far easier to call her his “decorator” instead. Today, the culture has changed. And so it is that I find myself in London’s exclusive Kensington district lunching with a group of sugar babies, sipping champagne and swapping secrets.
Paul Varjack speaks to his "decorator", Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Paramount Pictures
Sugar babies are young, beautiful men and women who date older, wealthy partners who reward them for their time, either through a monthly allowance, a payment per meeting or generous gifts and travel.
One girl, Abby*, who wears a crisp white shirt and has neatly cropped hair and piercings, is gesticulating enthusiastically, a selection of dainty finger sandwiches forgotten on the pristine plate before her. “I’ve travelled to several different places [with sugar daddies]: London and New York. I want to branch out into Scotland, Ireland and Amsterdam next because of my academia.”
"Guys my age won’t spend money on a girl unless they’re in a relationship, but these men don’t care"
All this international dating must be slightly exhausting, another, less experienced girl ponders. “I wouldn’t say it’s particularly emotionally difficult,” Abby muses. “It can be tricky when I’ve got 12 boyfriends in seven different countries but, you know... someone’s got to do it!” The group dissolves into peals of giggles.
Abby strikes me as an inverted James Bond: international travel, a man in every city, the glamour of a five-star lifestyle and all in exchange for the simple thrill of her company. It’s an intoxicating concept.
At Seeking Arrangement (seeking. com), the world’s leading sugar baby dating site, there are over 10 million profiles, split into what the site likes to call its 8 million “attractive members” (sugar babies) and 2 million “generous members” (sugar daddies and mamas). 1.5m of those profiles herald from the UK, with some 500,000 members joining in the past year alone.
In the fortnight I sign up to the site to research the scene, I’m approached by some 20 men, including a Buddhist who boasts that he “still has his own hair and teeth” (though they aren’t evident in his photographs), an elderly, masked man who professes an interest in being “treated like a slave”, and many thoroughly everyday men seeking simple romantic courtship: a privilege they’re willing to pay for. The odds are in their favour—sugar babies outnumber daddies here four to one.
When I consult Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and expert in the science of human attraction at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, she assures me that there’s really nothing new about these relationships.
“Historically, there have always been ‘camp followers’ and in just about every culture you find women who hang around men to get resources from them. Men have always been willing to pay for younger women and younger women have always been interested in taking the goods and services of older men.”
According to Dr Fisher, this experience is symptomatic of a larger societal shift away from early marriage and towards “slow love”.
“What we’re seeing is an extension of the courtship stage. Young women aren’t interested in marrying early and so during this long period of getting their career together and learning about themselves, they have time to be sugar babies.”
“Young women have always needed to get ahead,” she laughs, “and these days they’re not scared of pregnancy, they’re not scared of disease, and they don’t even have to walk the "walk of shame"—they’re not called hookers, harlots or even mistresses: they’re sugar babies.”
At 24, full-time model and blogger Shay has been dating sugar daddies for just over a year. “My ex-partner was older, and we always had fun and went to nice places. When we broke up, I left my career, moved back with my parents and really missed the lifestyle.”
"I get a lot of satisfaction from spoiling women but I don't want to break up my marriage"
“I don’t want to settle down yet and most [sugar daddies] are just looking for someone to have a nice time with. Guys my age won’t spend money on a girl unless they’re in a relationship, but these men don’t care. They’ve got the money, and they say, ‘Yeah OK, I’ll treat you to a nice holiday or five-star experience.’ It’s really nice.”
Shay is charming and intelligent with a deep, smoky voice and it’s easy to see why a flush CEO might enjoy her company. She’s exactly the sort of woman self-professed sugar daddy Jay enjoys spoiling. A high- flying Los Angeles tech executive in his mid-fifties, his marriage became strained when his wife lost interest in sex. They’re now in a platonic union—“for the kids”—and he moved onto sugar dating after finding his experiences with escorts lacking in intellectual connection. He claims to have spent over $100,000 on one sugar baby, and typically dates around three girls at any one time, though the most he’s balanced is six.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from spoiling women,” Jay explains. “I enjoy giving them anything from job advice to a pair of Louboutins.”
“I don’t want to break up my marriage because we have a lot at stake and I’m very good friends with my wife. When I date outside of Seeking Arrangement, girls fall in love with me, and they want a relationship. Even when I’ve stated that it’s very casual and very no-strings-attached, women can still get very emotionally involved and that doesn’t work for me.”
I can't help but wonder whether romance can truly blossom when a relationship’s fundamental dynamic seems to manipulate a basic human need—our craving for love and companionship. The daters I interview insist that romance—and even love—is possible within the sugar dynamic however, and it’s a view that Dr Fisher shares.
“I put people in brain scanners to study the brain in love and what we see is that the brain circuitry for romantic love is like the fear system—it can be triggered in an instant. This is particularly true when you have sex. With orgasm comes a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin that link with feelings of deep attachment, so sugar daddies and sugar babies can fall for each other.”
"Sugar dating has nothing to do with an older pervy man and younger girl…"
But with the giddy promise of romance comes the threat of manipulation. Despite considering himself a connoisseur of the sugar bowl (as those in the know refer to the dating pool), Jay recently fell victim to a scam.
“A girl reached out to me with a beautifully crafted email. She told me that to make sure people are serious, she always asks for a cash gift for an initial meet up. I’m not opposed to that, but I was cautious, my gut told me something was wrong.”
“When she showed up, she was a strung-out drug addict. I realised that she had a pimp writing emails for her and within five minutes I told her, ‘You don’t look like your pictures, you’re clearly not capable of writing those emails, here’s your $100’ and I just walked away. I took a calculated risk and I lost.”
The prospect of young women being used by pimps in this way is deeply troubling and it’s uncomfortable to hear Jay speak of the meeting in terms of a fun flutter. Because Seeking Arrangement—and many of its users—don’t class sugar dating as sex work, it’s hard to get a handle on how common such occurrences are.
Brook Urick, Seeking Arrangement’s spokesperson explains, “A lot of women get on the site assuming someone wants to give them money. In reality it’s for finding a relationship with someone successful who may be able to support you but isn’t there to hand out cash. The misconception goes so far that people sometimes get scammed. Our people are watching for that kind of behaviour but if a lonely guy gets someone off the site...”
For Shay—who has travelled to Barbados, Portugal and Sweden with her sugar daddies—the disparity in wealth between millennials and older generations explains why these relationships are thriving. Indeed, as young people struggle with an average £50,800 in student debt** and are increasingly shut out of a brutal housing market, it’s easy to see why many seek alternative ways to earn.
“The lifestyle that girls want to be living nowadays just isn’t feasible. You work 9-5, you don’t have time for yourself, you can’t pay for luxurious holidays. You’ve got to save, save, save if you want something, or you’ve got to get it on finance. Before doing this, I was in debt, but now half of it has been reduced.”
I hear several stories of girls using sugar dating as a networking tool— Jay estimates that half the women he dates are seeking mentors. Over dessert in Kensington, a striking Kiwi with peroxide, buzzcut hair reveals that she’s been using the site to meet men who can help her budding business. “I want to take all the advice I can get,” she explains. “Living in East London, when would I ever meet people with this life experience? CEOs aren’t going to be in Dalston.”
Shay too has used her dates to build business acumen. “I started my own online clothing business and I got advice [from daddies]. One even put me in touch with one of his designers who designed my website for me.”
Everybody I meet has a strong stance on one question in particular—is sugar dating—sex work? According to relationship expert and life coach Ben Edwards, “As long as money
or gifts are exchanging hands it’s a transaction. You have to wonder, even if they have got a connection, whether they would still be there if they weren’t getting the financial compensation. And if not, then what’s the difference between that and prostitution?”
Dr Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford, takes a different stance. “At the most fundamental evolutionary level they represent a good match. The human dating market is like the stock market, we all have a ‘mate value’ based on the likelihood that we’ll be reproductively successful. A sugar daddy and sugar baby have the same high mate value. The man’s because he is high in resources and the woman’s because she is young and attractive and thus likely to be fertile. If there’s an attraction and the solid foundations of a successful relationship—compatible attachment styles, shared values, compatible personalities—then they can be as successful as any other.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the overwhelming consensus within the sugar bowl is that these relationships don’t amount to prostitution. Sugar daddy Jay insists, “Prostitution is very different, this is mutual. Any woman who wants to go to bed on the first date is a red flag for me. I want to date her and court her and make sure it’s the right fit for us both.”
Shay shares his frustration. Although she does sleep with her sugar daddies if she feels a connection, she insists she feels no obligation. “There’s a misconception that women are subjecting themselves to older men for money. I have to tell people, ‘it’s not prostitution, it’s not selling sex’. It’s got nothing to do with an older pervy man and younger girl. For me, it’s about connection and companionship. I’ll be out with a sugar daddy and you can just see the looks. I hope that one day the taboo goes away.”
In a society in which over 1 million people aged 65+ admit to feeling lonely*** and younger generations are struggling more and more to make ends meet, it seems—for better or for worse—sugar dating has become a way of answering these intergenerational needs.
When I ask Jay—who has been sugar dating for eight years and met “scores of women”—if there might be something addictive about the sugar lifestyle, he laughs. “It’s my hobby! Some guys play golf, some guys sail... I sugar date.”
“It keeps me young and engaged in what’s going on with more than just my own generation. I just took a girl to Miami and we went to all the hottest clubs. It might kill me, but I’m having fun doing it!”