Afraid of taking on massive debt, a growing number of college students are turning to an unconventional source to pay for school: sugar daddies.
Through websites like SeekingArrangement.com, “sugar babies,” mostly women but some men, too, partner with wealthy, often older, men or women who want to spend money on them, Business Insider reports.
About 2.5 million sugar babies worldwide identified as students in 2016 on SeekingArrangement.com, according to the report. The site says its membership includes more than 8 million sugar babies and 2 million sugar daddies and mamas in almost 140 countries.
In exchange, sugar babies provide companionship by attending events or accompanying sugar daddies on trips. In some cases, the terms of the agreement include physical intimacy.
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Sugar babies say such sites are a “great resource” for young people, but others say these arrangements smack of prostitution and take advantage of students in a vulnerable situation.
Lynn Comella, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at University of Nevada Las Vegas, told the Associated Press last year that it is not unusual for students to turn to sex work such as stripping, prostitution or webcam work to pay for school. But the sugar daddy sites are relatively new, and she says they are not entirely upfront about what they are really about.
Sugar daddy arrangements have existed for ages, and it’s unclear if they are becoming more common because the phenomenon is not well studied. But experts say at the very least the internet has made these transactions far easier to arrange and negotiate. “It allows you to hone in on what you want,” said Kevin Lewis, an assistant professor of sociology at University of California San Diego who studies online dating. “You could argue it is just making the market more efficient.”
U.S. undergraduate students in 2015 finished school with an average of $35,000 in student debt — a figure that has risen steadily every year, according to Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert. The average graduate debt load is $75,000, and some longer programs force students into much deeper debt.
Many students say their loans don’t cover the cost of living, and with rent skyrocketing in most major cities, they are left scrambling to make up the difference.
The sugar baby phenomenon has met resistance in France.
Paris City Hall last month called an ad for a dating website linking students with rich men and women “shameful” and said officials would work with police to remove it from the city.
The RichmeetBeautiful website had been displaying a large mobile billboard across Paris, encouraging students to get in touch with sugar daddies and sugar mamas to subsidize their studies. It read: “Romance, passion and no student loan, go out with a sugar daddy or sugar mama.”
SeekingArrangement.com was founded by MIT graduate Brandon Wade in 2006 and now counts 10 million members worldwide, according to Business Insider.
The company launched a marketing campaign called Sugar Baby University targeting indebted college students and young people who are interested in college but afraid of taking on massive loans.
It also conducts a yearly Sugar Baby of the Year contest featuring scantily clad sugar babies.
And it recently launched a billboard contest.
Christina, a 29-year-old sugar baby who lives in Las Vegas, told Business Insider that after her uncle, a source of college funding, died, some girlfriends introduced her to SeekingArrangement.com and encouraged her to find a sugar daddy to foot the bill.
Christina says she isn’t willing to have sex for money, though she knows some sugar babies who do.
“I’m not a person that is interested in one-night stands with people who are visiting Vegas for a couple days — that’s not interesting to me. If that’s what you’re going to come at me with, my response is going to be, thank you for the offer, but I’m going to pass,” the Michigan State MBA student said.
Even so, there have been situations where Christina will agree to dinner under her terms and still get propositioned for sex. She’s learned “the site isn’t foolproof,” she says. “You have to stand your ground, you need to have a backbone.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.