By Corrin Bond
In an age where status is determined by the number of “likes” a selfie receives, and relationships are void of substance unless they’re “Facebook Official,” it’s no surprise that dating has been so easily converted to a digital affair. From immediate hook-up apps like Tinder and Grindr, to dating websites like Plenty of Fish and Ok Cupid, there is an increasing integration of relationships and technology––a phenomenon which has recently been under more fire than usual, as college students turn to a new breed of dating sites as a means of financing their higher education: “sugar” relationships.
The 21st Century has arrived––our lives revolve around tiny metal rectangles, any noun can be converted to a verb, and the internet now provides greater and more broadly interpreted access to a long-standing practice: the exchange of material goods for companionship or sexual services. Websites like seekingarrangement.com and sugardaddie.com operate under the classification of dating websites, in which older, wealthy individuals seek out relationships with a younger demographic, usually debt-riddled college students. Beneath the surface of these relationships, most commonly formed between Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies, lie desires for control, companionship, and a radically entrenched Peter Pan complex.
In a 2014 article published in The Atlantic, a student at Princeton University disclosed her experiences as a sugar baby. She explained that these relationships are complicated, in that it is not simply the exchange of sex for money, but rather, older patrons requesting the companionship of younger individuals. Sometimes Sugar Daddies will directly pay for expenses like tuition, but other times, the student reported, the exchange is more subtle, such as the sugar daddy paying for travel expenses or rent, or giving their babies a credit card to use freely. This phenomenon is not exclusive to women, either. The Seeking Arrangement website categorizes its members as Sugar Mommas, Daddies, Babies, and Baby Males.
The difference between the sugar daddy-baby dynamic and prostitution is that these are actual relationships, and not solely about sex in exchange for money. In an interview with CNN, sugar baby and California college student Serena Cervantes highlights the differences between “sugar” relationships and, well, everything else. “Escorts get paid to leave,” Cervantes explained to CNN reporter Stephanie Goldberg, “while I share a part of their wealth because they want to see me again.” While these older patrons post their annual income on their site profiles, there is no explicit mention of exchanging money or goods for the company or services of these younger individuals. Some sugar babies on Seeking Arrangement even establish on their profiles that they will provide companionship, but are not willing to sleep with whomever they match up with.
While not all of the younger members on these dating websites are college students, Seeking Arrangement reports that at least half of its participants are students. According to Elisabeth Parker of Addicting Info, Seeking Arrangement pollsters have also reported that the percentages of college students willing to engage in sugar relationships is exceptionally high––ranging from 60 percent at Arizona State University, 63 percent at New York University, and 47 percent at Columbia University.
There is always a tremendous expanse of gray area when it comes to commodification of the human body––as it can be argued that athletics, body building, a number of other professions require one to commodify their body––which is why I find that the issue is less about what students are doing, but why they have to do it.
This is not a critique on sugar babies, but rather, an argument against the American college system. From the University of Virginia’s anonymous sugar baby to Duke’s Belle Knox, students across the United States are being forced to explore alternative means of making money in order to pay for the cost of their higher education.
This isn’t a new or exclusively American phenomenon,either. In 2012, a wave of discussion erupted over the trend of medical students in the United Kingdom turning to prostitution to finance their studies and resulting debt. In 2012, Live Science reported that one in 10 medical students in the UK know of another student who has turned to commodifying their bodies as a means of paying tuition fees. Although this isn’t a new or overtly scandalous trend, the increasing incidence of students being put in a position where the only means of paying for higher education is to commodify their own bodies is alarming.
What does it mean when we live in a society that encourages, and almost requires, higher education but does not make it attainable to the masses?
According to the Project on Student Debt, the average student debt as of 2013 runs at about $28,400 and can take anywhere from 14 to 25 years to pay off. Student debt is a problem even for those who are able to take out enough loans to complete their education, but beneath the layers of those struggling with student debt remains a segment of the population who were unable to qualify for loans, and simply did not even have the opportunity to enter into the world of higher education. The College Board tags the annual cost of college to be around $30,094 for private colleges, $8,893 for in-state public institutions, and $22,203 for out-of-state residents and public universities. It’s the Catch-22 of the collegiate system: you need money to pay for school, but you can’t make enough money unless you have a good job, and you are unlikely to find a job with decent wages without a college degree.
In addition to this kind of contemporary circular logic, Western culture is no longer placing value upon learning, knowledge, and innovative thinking, but rather, is placing all significance on credentials, GPA, and superficial performance. “How well do you think critically?” has become “How good do you look on paper?”
It seems that the focal point of the debates over sugar relationships is about whether or not it should be considered legal, whether or not it is okay for young men and women to exchange their company and sometimes sexual services for material goods. Rather than fixating upon whether or not sugar relationships and the like should be considered a form of prostitution, the question and subsequent discussion should revolve around how we, as a society, organize and prioritize education. It would be a much more productive debate to look beyond the surface––to look past the action and analyze its catalyst. It is not the commodification of one’s body that should be the issue of concern in this instance but rather, the commodification of the Western education system.