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Britain’s staggering levels of private debt has had some unexpected consequences, namely: the rise of the sugar-daddy industry. Investigative journalist, Manisha Ganguly, went undercover on premier sugar-daddy site, ‘Seeking Arrangements’ and discovered this disturbing sub-culture is a direct result of Britain’s student loan crisis.

A close analysis of the data gathered from the verified profiles on the website show the emergence of some disturbing trends. With the rising tuition fees, last year the website saw a 22% increase in student sign-ups. It recently ranked the top colleges in each country by the number of sugarbaby sign-ups.

In the UK, the University of Westminster tops the list.

Undercover ‘Sugarbaby’

Manisha Ganguly is an investigative reporter who, over the past few months has been investigating the rather disturbing sugar-daddy sub-culture, whose rise in prominence is a direct result of student debt.

“My friend came to me and said that a lot of their friends have been going on dates with older men in exchange for allowances. I created a fake profile to find out what was going on behind the scenes,” Ganguly told Renegade Inc.

Ganguly signed up to Seeking Arrangements, “one the elite sugar daddy dating site for those seeking mutually beneficial relationships and mutually beneficial arrangements.”

“I started receiving hundreds of messages from men offering me money in exchange for sex and what I found when I went for these dates is that I was entirely a commodity.

“They were sizing me up very physically. These were all extremely high profile men and were clearly millionaires. They were out there flashing cash buying six seven glasses of champagne and shots.

“There is a legal disclaimer on the website which very specifically states that this is not an escort service because what happens after you set up this arrangement with this old man is entirely up to you.”

Young, female, in debt? There’s an easy fix

Launched in 2006 by Brandon Wade, Seeking Arrangement is one of the largest sugaring websites on the internet, boasting of 5 million users worldwide, including 2 million college students. Despite the gendered transactional nature of the relationship, the website is keen to promote itself as a “set-up” website aimed at empowering independent women, with a blog for guidance on ‘finances’, how ask for money, and ‘dress to impress’.

One of the blogs state that “the average Sugar Baby allowance is $3,000, but that varies depending on location and lifestyle expectation.” However, their legal disclaimer specifically states “if you are an ESCORT, or if you are seeking the services of an escort, please DO NOT use this website”.

Sugaring exists in the grey areas where the transaction explicitly places it within the parameters of prostitution, but due to the marketing of the website as something more than purely transactional, it is allowed to not only waive accountability over how this platform is used, but also create an alternative narrative, carefully marketed to rake in money and support the multi-million dollar empire.

Seeking Arrangements couches itself as a gender neutral platform, i.e, it claims to offer services to both sugarmamas and sugardaddies, empowering sugarbabies who are mostly college students. But a close analysis of the data gathered from the verified profiles on the website show the emergence of some disturbing trends.

Sugaring by the numbers

There were no sugarmamas registered on the website among the verified profiles (we used only verified profiles in our dataset to eliminate the possibility of including fake profiles) despite the option in the sign-up process, and all of the sugarbabies listed were exclusively female. We used the data to also analyse the age gap: most men were between the ages of 40-60 while the majority of women were between the ages of 18-30.

This is not surprising, considering the website specifically targets female students. In the UK, it capitalises on three social problems faced by young millennial women: housing crisis/rent prices, high college tuition fees/job crisis, and ‘lifestylism’. The Seeking Arrangements media kit explicitly refers to this precarious situation: “The cost of living continues to rise….The likelihood of getting a job after graduation has decreased significantly.”

A quick search on the internet shows several advertorials, where sugarbabies boast of getting through law or medical school without incurring debt, through ‘sugaring’. With the rising tuition fees, last year the website saw a 22% increase in student sign-ups, and recently released a list of top colleges in each country by number of sugarbaby sign-ups.

In the UK, the University of Westminster tops the list.

We analysed the data of the top 5 universities in the UK with most number of active sugarbabies, against the tuition costs of attending those universities and found a steady increment, showing the direct correlation between rising student debt in the UK due to austerity, and growth in the sugar market.

Data: Seeking Arrangement and GoCompare / Representation: Manisha Ganguly

These services are essentially exempting themselves from all possible safeguards they might have to put in place to ensure that there is a healthy, non-coercive interaction that goes on between the members on their side.

“If you look at the marketing of the website, they are marketing it as a ‘new age feminist thing’, where girls are taking control of their body and trying to get rid of their student debt on their terms,” says Ganguly.

“This is not freedom. They are redefining free will and consent because you are being coerced into this by socio-economic circumstances.

“They are saying ‘this is an easy solution out of student debt’. Yet at the same time by saying that you are empowering yourself, you are actually cutting yourself off from the socio economic reality of student debt.

“As long as student debt persists these problem spaces will continue to exist and companies like this will capitalise on this because what they’re essentially offering is a quick fix a magic solution.”

Many of these sugar-daddy websites claim their services offer a way for women to reclaim their bodies, in exchange for generous allowances from wealthy older gentlemen.

Troubled by the growth of this problem we asked Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities Dawn Butler for comment. She said that reports of this growing culture are ‘extremely concerning’. Yet another example of power imbalances and the degrading treatment of women.

These are often young people in desperate situations facing financial hardship in many cases due to high levels of student debt. It is crucial that ministers ensure there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect those vulnerable from exploitation and to prevent abuse.

Watch the video above and tune in here for the full episode of Renegade Inc’s ‘Student Debt Time Bomb’.

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