BY: JESSICA BEUKER
Sugar dating: In return for a “mutually beneficial arrangement” (fun, friendship, gifts, money, travel and possibly sex), a young woman, known as the Sugar Baby provides “the girlfriend experience” to a wealthy, generous older man, the Sugar Daddy.
The concept is controversial to say the least. While some women stand by the idea as an effective way to pay their high tuition and rent costs, others have condemned sugar dating and view it as nothing more than glorified prostitution.
Whatever your stance, there is no doubt that the world of sugar dating has blown up over the last few years. The world’s largest sugar dating website, Seeking Arrangement, has over 4.5 million members. Both Toronto and New York city have large sugar dating communities, with the average sugar baby in Ontario earning upwards of $4,000 per month. With more and more young women feigning interest, sugar dating is gaining notable attention worldwide.
Recently, CBC Firsthand debuted “Sugar Sisters,” an intimate documentary film that dives right into the world of sugar dating and explores it through the unique, personal perspective of a close-knit Toronto family. The film follows three sisters, Amalia, Caroline and Hannah, as they navigate the world of sugar dating, and highlights some interesting ideas like how sugar dating fits or clashes with millennial views on feminism, the ethical, moral, and practical dilemmas involved, and the transactional nature of some relationships, especially in the age of the internet hookup.
In the next couple of months the film will be travelling to festivals across Canada and the U.S. But you can also watch it here.
The Plaid Zebra had a chance to speak to Hannah, who also directed the film, about her personal experiences with sugar dating, and the significance of sharing her story with the world.
The Plaid Zebra: When and how did you first hear about the world of sugar dating? What was it about this concept that made you want to try it for yourself, and furthermore to make a film about it?
Hannah Donegan: The world of sugar dating has always been on my radar. I don’t remember ever not knowing about it really. Growing up in the nineties, there were many high profile sugar babies and sugar daddies like Anna Nicole Smith and Hugh Hefner who took up space in the media (for better or for worse). I have always been aware that youth, femininity, beauty, and sexuality are features that can make a woman money, our society commoditizes women using those features.
I first signed up for a sugar dating site when I was in my first year of university. I knew a handful of people who had had good experiences on the site. Many women in their twenties who carry debt, who work unpaid internships, or work in the service industry despite expensive university degrees, see sugar dating as a potential solution. I ended up chickening out before my first date, and didn’t log back into the account until after I decided to make a film about it. More and more people in my world are talking about their sugar relationships, and I have found it intriguing – the idea that someone would pay me for my company, my emotional labour, and my time had major appeal. So I decided to turn my social and/or dating life into a job, and document that exploration.
People are uncomfortable discussing transactions within relationships, and people are uncomfortable talking about sex and sex work. I want to talk about it. Women are often the ones putting in extra emotional labour into their relationships, be they personal or professional, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong in charging for that, especially since there’s a market for it. There is a growing demand for services that offer human interaction on a transactional basis — you can rent a friend, you can purchase a cuddling session — and sugar dating exists on that spectrum. Charging for emotional labour and for those who chose to, sexual labour, knowing its worth and treating it as a service can be very empowering.
HD: Transactional relationships and the humans-for-hire phenomenon are becoming more and more popular. You can rent almost anything nowadays, if there’s a need, and there are people who will fulfill that need. Sugar dating itself is by no means new, but now that it has been combined with the online dating experience it’s more popular than ever. People often dismiss sugar dating as an occupation that appeals to “lazy” people, they lean heavily on the stereotype of the “shallow” woman or the “gold digger”, or assume the sugar baby is acting out of desperation. In fact, the sugar baby demographic is mostly middle-class, university-educated people working toward paying off student debt or launching a business. According to the largest sugar dating site in North America, seekingarrangement.com, 42% of its members are students or graduates trying to pay off their post-secondary debt.
TPZ: Approximately how many different men did you meet during your sugar dating experience?
HD: I met with 6 different men and two of those only lasted for one date.
HD: The best experience I had was a 45-minute lunch date I had. A recently divorced man was looking to start dating again, and was intimidated by the world of online dating. He saw the transactional nature of the sugar relationship as an effective way of taking the dating process from the virtual realm into real life. He was like an accidental sugar daddy, but he was looking to date women slightly older than the general “baby” demographic. We spent 45 minutes together, and I gave him dating advice. It felt like a working lunch. I offered tools and strategies for navigating the online dating world, and was compensated accordingly. Then I headed back to my office to return to my regular workday.
The worst experience was probably my first date. My date fancied himself a pick-up artist, bragged about taking advantage of a woman’s low self-esteem, and I had a miserable time. Thinking I could sit pretty, smile, and bite my tongue while this man gloated about his misogyny-fueled conquest was misguided. The sugar relationship is a relationship, in the sense that you have to build something genuine in order to make it work. A bad date is a bad date. From that point on I put a lot more energy into vetting any sugar daddy before I met him. My sugar mentor Sandy advised me not to meet with anyone unless we had been messaging for two weeks.
TPZ: Overall, what are three things that you learned about sugar dating while participating or while making the film?
HD: Contrary to popular belief, sugar dating is not always about sex. What the sugar daddies are paying for is your attention, your time, and your company. Sex can definitely be part of the allure for some, but there are the sugar daddies who just want to spend time with you and not necessarily have sex. I didn’t realize how common that was. If someone is looking for sex, a traditional escort is more appropriate. If they’re looking for the dating experience however, a sugar baby can provide that.
The second thing I learned is that the sugar daddies want you to be yourself. I had an idea of what a sugar baby should look and sound like, and thought I didn’t fit. But the more women I met who were sugar babies, the more I felt comfortable being myself. Many of the men I dated were mostly looking for someone to talk to. I became a pseudo-therapist. They wanted to tell me about their day, have me cheer them up, and help them take their mind off of the real world.
Lastly, sugar dating is a lot like “regular” dating. It’s a relationship, and you have to build a genuine connection to make it work. My first date was not great. Once I started being highly selective and only going out with people whom I thought I was going to have fun with, the dates started feeling worth my time and energy.
TPZ: We see in the film the reactions from your parents, sisters and partner, but what about your friends, coworkers, etc.? Did you experience a lot of backlash from other people in your social circles, or were most people supportive of your decision?
HD: Most people were excited for me. A common response from the people in my circles was that they wanted to get a sugar daddy/mommy, or they ended up telling me all of their adventures sugar dating. My best friend was not happy about it. We’ve worked in a restaurant together for years, and have served people on sugar dates. There was a scene between us that didn’t make it into the film, in which she told me I am “better than this” and that I shouldn’t be sugar dating. I was working two jobs, in addition to various film projects, and giving my last spare free moments to sugar dating. She saw it as a detour from my larger goals, while I saw it as a potential solution to my financial stresses. Aside from that, ultimately, everyone in my life is very supportive and very open with me.
TPZ: How do you feel sugar dating clashes or fits with today’s views of feminism?
HD: I believe sugar dating doesn’t challenge feminism. If a woman chooses to charge for her time within the framework of an intimate relationship, that is included in my definition of feminism. I personally find there to be something empowering about charging for the emotional labour that women already put into relationships, and are often expected to do for nothing in return. While men are given permission to be selective with who they give their emotions to, women are conditioned to be the ‘giver’ in all of their relationships — personal, professional, and intimate. To be paid for that work validates it in many ways, by recognizing the effort with an economic return.
There are people who view sugar dating as anti-feminist, and accuse these relationships of being regressive and “setting women back” centuries. No relationship or lifestyle should be a catch-all for women everywhere. Many women choose to give up their jobs after marrying or having children, but that does not push all women back into the kitchen. Women have a right to exist in every space men exist in, and that includes sugar relationships. Being able to make a choice without scrutiny, to decide what form of relationship you engage in – transactional or non-transactional – is feminist.
For me, the hardest part about dating sugar daddies was stroking someone’s ego – contributing to the illusion of letting them think they hold all of the power. Encouraging the sugar daddy’s fantasy of him holding the dominant role within our sugar relationship, even if I was financially benefitting from this fantasy, meant I was reinforcing traditional gender roles that were at odds with my feminist values. I still feel very conflicted about this. On a macro level, it was empowering to charge for my labour and reap benefit from it, but on a micro level, it was hard to sit face-to-face with someone and participate in their fantasy.
TPZ: You talk a lot about your moral conflicts in the film – Did these conflicts worsen or get better over time? Did you ever feel like you sacrificed some of your own morals, or was there always a clear line?
HD: I don’t think sugar dating is a moral issue. If two consenting adults are engaging in a relationship agreed upon by both parties, then there’s no conflict. For me personally the sugar dating experience dragged me into a moral grey area, and started to affect the other relationships in my life. Often it was the pursuit of financial gain that caused this conflict and stress. What began to matter to me most was levelling up, getting more. Blending relationships with financial gain is tricky territory and to be totally honest it fucked me up a little. I am someone who, above all else, values my relationships with the people in my life. Once I began putting a price on the relationships, it became harder and harder to tell if I was crossing any lines within myself. I knew once I had gone too far, thankfully, and I unfortunately don’t think I have the skin to keep up a sugar relationship. It was too complex to navigate.
TPZ: What would your advice be to someone who is seriously considering becoming a sugar baby?
HD: Being a sugar baby is a LOT more work than I had anticipated. It does not start and end with a date. You are expected to put time and energy into the relationship at all hours of the day, touching base with your sugar daddies and maintaining a certain level of connectedness and care. Finding someone you genuinely like is essential. It is more than a job and will require more than just dates, more than just sex. The sugar daddies will want to feel like the most important person in your life. You also need to have a very good understanding of your own boundaries, and be comfortable constantly asserting them. There are some kind men to be found, but there are also jerks, so don’t meet with anyone who makes you uneasy for any reason. Trust your instincts.
TPZ: Were there a lot of parts of the film that were left out? How did you choose what to keep and what to cut?
HD: Cutting scenes is always the hardest part! For the CBC broadcast version we kept the film focused on me and my sisters, but there were a lot of interesting women who were cut out of the film due to time constraints. Tanya is an intimacy coach and unregistered massage therapist who uses sugar dating websites to meet clients. She treats sugar dating as a business, offering a very clear service within a set time, with very clear boundaries. I also spoke with Mandy, who is now in her sixties, but worked as a sexless escort when she was in her early twenties. She worked for an agency that would set her up with wealthy men of prestige and she would accompany them to events. The men were often married, and she was not permitted to have any sexual contact with the clients (anyone who was caught crossing a line was blacklisted from the agency). It was a job that gave Mandy confidence. She described the experience as the catalyst for cultivating her sense of self-reliance, which helped her enormously in her travels worldwide as a performer. I also interviewed Brenda Cossman, a lawyer and director of sexual diversity studies at University of Toronto. She gave insight into the legal implications of sugar dating, as well as sex work in Canada. It was agonizing to leave them out of this version of the film.
TPZ: Anything else you would like to add?
HD: Many people draw the parallel between sugar dating and sex work in a negative and derogatory way. Sex work is legitimate work, and it’s important we view it as such. I do think sugar relationships sometimes sit on the sex work spectrum, and sometimes it sits in a grey area off of the spectrum. It depends on each individual relationship. Some people fall in love and get married, other people never reveal their full names. After the broadcast premiere, I have been experiencing the sex shaming and morally righteous judgments that are constantly hurled at sex workers. It is absolutely heartbreaking. Every human being deserves touch, intimacy, affection, attention, and the sex workers fulfilling those basic needs deserve as much protection and respect as any profession. They certainly don’t need the hateful judgement.