$63,532. The annual total cost of attending Vanderbilt University. Although 70% of Vanderbilt students come from top 20% of family incomes in the United States, many students walking across campus are struggling to afford the cost of higher education. How do most students afford this extravagant price tag? Some undergraduates subject themselves to “for-pay” psychology studies, others laboriously man the front-desk of Branscomb on Tuesday nights, and many students still spend after-school hours at an outside job in Nashville. These burdensome ways of making extra money to fund one’s education are being met with a controversial alternative: becoming a sugar baby. As online websites and mobile apps are beginning to cater to sugar daddy/sugar baby relationships, college women are utilizing the opportunity to make money, meet their financial needs, and use patriarchal gender roles in their favor.
The most popular website for finding sugar daddies, Seeking Arrangements, now has over 1.2 million registered students seeking monetary aid for their education. The portion of the website for these female students is named “sugar baby university,” and has website features a student debt clock, ticking numbers that remind them of their own looming financial responsibilities. The website allows women to join for free and requires sugar daddies to pay $49.95 per month for a premium membership. A Diamond Club certification costs $1,200 a month but requires the male to verify his net worth through tax-return data. Other sugar daddy dating websites are on the rise including Sugar Sugar, Miss Travel, and What’s Your Price – all of which have experienced increased amounts of college women signing up to meet a wealthy male partner. Students now make up one-third of Seeking Arrangement’s “babies.”
Sarah, a Vanderbilt Senior [*], met her sugar daddy Tom on the dating app Sudy. She receives $200 per week from the relationship. After entering college without financial support from her family, the 22-year old student began working two jobs before meeting Tom, a 25-year old male living in the Nashville area. Their relationship is sexual but the pair also occasionally go on conventional dates. Since most sugar daddies exceed the age of thirty, I asked Sarah how her daddy’s age affected the relationship. She stated she “would rather have the power of knowing that [he] could never get someone who looked like [her] without the money.”
Sarah’s response speaks to the complicated power dynamic between sugar daddies and babies. While power may seem to lie in the hands of the man with the money, many women who choose to partake in these arranged relationships find power in their leverage over the man. Most men in these relationships are significantly older and struggle to meet women in normal settings. The feeling of being both young and beautiful, and in the case of our “Ivy League babies,” intelligent too, creates power and partial control of the relationship for these women.
Another intriguing aspect of Ivy League babies is the heightened interest they receive from daddies compared to babies who are seeking support for alternate reasons. Brandon Wade, the founder and CEO of Seeking Arrangements, found that women who say they need money to pay for school get asked out more frequently than “those who admit they want cash for breast implants, for instance.” Perhaps these men want to know their money is going to a good place or maybe they find a level of attractiveness in women seeking an education. Regardless of the reason, Ivy League babies’ popularity points to the new wave of sugar daddy/sugar baby relationships that has been cultivated by young women’s ambition and scholarship. At a school like Vanderbilt, where both financial pressures and female intelligence are high, it is likely that far more girls than we know of are using sugar dating to pave their way.
Sugar daddy relationships attract criticism, especially when they involve college-aged women. Many question the thin-line between prostitution and sugar dating, as the majority of these relationships come with sex as a necessary component. Websites such as Seeking Arrangements claim to ban members who are online for the selling of sex, but sugar dating is rarely monitored by authorities, as it often parallels conventional romantic relationships. Sarah had her own concerns when it came to sex with Tom, saying, [he was] too obsessed with making sure [she] had a good time” because she saw it as “doing a job.”
Although the benefits for women in these relationships are clear–increased upward mobility and a more affordable education–one must consider the history of survival sex, which is prostitution cultivated by acute necessity, in the United States. The existence of sugar dating and the increasing use of sugar daddies to pay for higher education highlights the continual marginalization and objectification of women and the inequality of power between genders in the United States. These women are using the resources they have to advance their own scholarship, but the recurring theme of women having to utilize their sexuality, sell their bodies, and give in to hyper femininity for equal opportunity is an exhausting and destructive part of American society.
An anonymous student from the University of Pennsylvania became a sugar baby Spring semester of her freshman year in college and has stayed with her 43-year old sugar daddy for the past few years. Although the two have not gone beyond oral sex, the young Ivy League student gets paid $2,000 a month and says that her sugar daddy “really likes to cuddle.” When asked about her thoughts on sugar dating and feminism the young girl simply stated, “I have no problem using men as a stepping stool to achieve my goals —they’ve been doing the same to women for as long as we have existed.”
As sugar dating becomes more prominent on college campuses, students and society must acknowledge the potential for both degradation and empowerment in these relationships. Sugar daddy/sugar baby relationships are providing educational opportunity and an alternative financial aid, but at a steep price. Older men are continuing to pay money for company, attention, and validation, something that young women have been unfortunately taught to seek for themselves from a young age. However, regardless of the profits of these relationships, women and men alike must work towards a reality where no woman must use her body to fund her education. Hopefully, with the opportunity of education, young sugar babies across top university campuses will one day take over the jobs these wealthy sugar daddies currently occupy, but may one day lose due to their predilections and vices.
[*] Name changed for purposes of anonymity