University students are exploring the complicated world of trading time and affection for money and presents. As part of the inaugural Project J initiative by the Carleton University Journalism Society, Cate Newman talked to one student about her dates with older men, and local experts who say sugar dating is on the rise — and perhaps not so different than more traditional romantic relationships
She tried sugar dating in her first year at Carleton. “I thought it would be cool to look around online. I didn’t have any expectations,” says Jess (name has been changed).
“Seeking Arrangements can be a very scary place,” she says, referring to a popular website dedicated to these kinds of unusual relationships. “I used a fake name and hid my pictures and didn’t put any personal information that could put me in any danger. And I made a Kik account so I could speak with men anonymously.” In the end, she ended up meeting a guy on Tinder. He looked young, and hid his age; her profile clearly labelled her as 18. When they met, she learned he was 35, and told her he hid his age as a way to meet younger girls.
“That really threw me off. I wasn’t expecting to be on a date with a 35-year-old. After that I stopped answering his texts. I wasn’t interested in someone that much older than me. But he started messaging me that night, saying what a good time he had. He said he’d love to take me to the mall and take me shopping… He ended up dropping over $500 at the mall after one date. That’s when our relationship turned to what I would call sugaring. It wasn’t emotional — he was just happy to take me out to the mall and buy me clothes.”
“In my eyes, there was such a big age gap, and our one-on-one time wasn’t ever just hanging out at someone’s place. It was always outings, and he was always paying. He insisted on providing and had mentioned before that he was really into younger girls and liked taking care of them.
“I definitely didn’t feel awesome. I kind of felt like I was using him, but I knew it was going to be a temporary thing,” says Jess. “I knew I had no pressure to do anything. I knew that when we finished our shopping, I’d go to my friend’s house — not his.”
“I wouldn’t do it again. It was something fun to try in first year. I’m not well off. There are men who are willing to help out, but I see the side of exploitation. I think women need to be powerful on their own rather than get a 55-year-old man to help them through. There are so many more empowering alternatives.”
According to Seeking Arrangements, Ottawa is the 10th most lucrative city in North America for sugar dating. Their data suggests sugaring in Ottawa can bring in upwards of $4,000 monthly. Carleton University has the fifth fastest growing sugar baby population of all Canadian universities with 414 students registered, while the University of Ottawa is ranked 10th with 390.
Ummni Khan, an associate professor of legal studies at Carleton University, says sugaring falls into legal and social grey areas. In Canada, it is illegal to live solely from the material benefits of sex work. This places sugar babies on unsteady ground, Khan says, although she says she has not heard of any prosecutions involving sugaring. “As far as I can see, although people have said it’s prostitution, there’s been no targeting of the sugaring relationship through the criminal law,” says Khan, whose research focuses on the socio-legal construction of sexual deviancy.
“Most sugar daters take a strong stance against identifying themselves as sex workers, but they’re also not quite girlfriends either,” says Sarah Polowin, who wrote her master’s thesis at Carleton on the topic of sugar dating at Canadian universities. “The one thing that I came across consistently was the flexibility that it provides, as well as the time-to-money ratio. Rather than having eight hours scheduled at retail or a restaurant, they’re able to arrange their own schedule,” said Polowin.
The desire to be close with someone who is providing a sexual service is part of the so-called “girlfriend experience” — a recent trend in sex work where money and sex are still being exchanged, but it intentionally mimics a traditional relationship.
“Based on my research, sugaring is becoming increasingly more desirable,” says Polowin. “It makes the purchasers of this form of sex work more comfortable. It’s a way to make this type of exchange more socially acceptable, even though both [people] know it’s not exactly like a traditional relationship,” said Polowin.
Khan says that overall, sugaring isn’t as deviant as some may feel. “People are attracted to people with material benefits, and [others] are attracted to younger people. We all actually do these kinds of trades. Some people do it implicitly, for some it is unspoken, and some people probably do it unconsciously,” she said. “I think the beauty of sugaring is that it places [that] trade within a romantic framework. It seems to me that it does blur the line between romance and trade. A lot of romance implicitly involves certain kinds of trade.”
Cate Newman is a third-year journalism student at Carleton University. This article was the winning entry in the inaugural Project J initiative by Carleton University Journalism Society.