A growing number of students at the University of Manchester are turning to ‘sugar baby’ and sex work to help support them financially.
That’s according to figures from a popular sugar baby website called SeekingArrangement. It claims the University of Manchester had the second-highest number of new student sign-ups in the UK in 2019, with a total of 937 student members.
A sugar baby is typically someone who receives gifts, money, and other material benefits from a typically older, wealthier and successful partner – also known as a sugar daddy – in exchange for being in an intimate relationship.
The website advertises finding an “honest and empowering arrangement”, and offers free premium membership to students if they sign up using their university email address.
However, there are concerns that sites like these target financially vulnerable groups like students, who could become reliant on sex work in order to stay afloat.
SeekingArrangement’s website details how becoming a sugar baby can help students manage the cost of university, stating: “Students registered on SeekingArrangement get help paying for fees and even more benefits.
“Finding the right Sugar Daddy can help students gain access to the right network and opportunities. Student Sugar Babies in the UK can get help paying for other university-related costs, such as books and housing.”
The website explicitly prohibits “any unlawful use of the site, including escorting, prostitution and human trafficking,” and images are moderated before they go live. Sugar Babies agree not to share bank details, and must confirm that they will not operate ‘online-only’ before they are allowed to privately message Sugar Daddies.
Using a student email address, The Mancunion created an account on SeekingArrangement. In the four days the account was active, our profile received 42 views and 19 favourites, with eight sugar daddies reaching out via the private messaging function.
One of these sugar daddies asked us to share our number so we could continue to talk through Whatsapp, showing how some use the website merely as a meeting place, and continue their interactions on other sites, where the rules about the use of indecent images and sharing bank details do not apply.
SeekingArrangement data shows that ‘student’ is the most common occupation of their sugar babies, and estimates that there are currently nearly 500,000 student sugar babies in the UK.
The average age of a sugar baby on the site is advertised as 26, and the average age of a sugar daddy as 41, with ‘tech entrepreneur’ the most common occupation of a sugar daddy.
A survey conducted by the site also showed that 30% of sugar babies spent their money on “tuition/school-related expenses”, while the average income of a sugar daddy is estimated by SeekingArrangement as £250,000.
The Mancunion spoke to Marie*, a University of Manchester student who signed up to SeekingArrangement in her first year: “It was a while ago now but basically I was broke. I got onto googling sugar babies but I can’t remember where I got the idea from. The site was one of the ones near the top. I signed up for it and did some generic flirting. To be fair the people I talked to were quite nice. I didn’t get any unsolicited pictures or anything.
“I met up with one guy actually at Patisserie Valerie. It was hard to make money actually. Maybe it’s just me but nobody really spoke about money and I don’t think any of the guys were going to bring it up. I went on a date with a guy and he was nice but I didn’t get paid for it. Nothing happened, we didn’t even kiss.
“But I was just a baby 18-year-old without a lot of common sense. Maybe if I had talked about more money-related stuff first instead of just thinking ‘oh I’m sure they’ll give me a handout’. Also, the kind of account I had was probably quite ‘girlfriend experience’-centred.
“I don’t think anyone asked me to sell anything. In my experience, it’s not a great as a way of making money. It must be quite hard to get it to really work because so much time and effort goes into texting and remembering their names and what their interests are. It felt like being in a relationship even though you weren’t interested in being in a relationship. Traditional sex work in my experience is much more clear cut in terms of money – it’s more like, ‘I will be working 1 hour and you will pay me this much money for these services.’ Then you can go home and forget the person.”
Sugar relationships do not necessarily involve sex. Speaking to Cosmopolitan, a sugar baby explained that she had never slept with a client: “I only would if I would do under normal circumstances; you get paid for your time, not to be slept with.”
SeekingArrangement’s website describes what they perceive as the difference between a prostitute and a sugar baby: “A prostitute and a client have a transactional relationship […] Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies have on-going relationships, not transactions. More often than not, a Sugar relationship will resemble that of a girlfriend-boyfriend relationship. There are real connections and real possibilities at romance, something that is not in the realm of possibility with an escort or prostitute.
“Just because a relationship doesn’t follow the traditional rules of courtship, doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. It also doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”
Despite this possibility of romance, the CEO of SeekingArrangement, Brandon Wade, told CNN in 2014 that: “Love is a concept created by poor people.”
Victoria*, also a student at UoM, signed up during her final year. “I initially decided to sign up out of curiosity cause I wanted to see what type of people were on there. I also liked the idea of easy money, so I was open to meeting up with someone.
“I felt safe talking to people on the site, but there were two people who wanted to come to my house – one guy wanted to get kicked in the balls and one wanted to buy my underwear. I would never have felt safe with anyone knowing where I live.”
In a statement accompanying the figures on student sign ups, Brandon Wade said: “With little regard from the institutions of the student’s inability to pay increasing tuition and living costs in the UK, university students are being forced to find alternative methods to fund their educations.
“Young people understand the importance of a degree and want to achieve their educational goals, but they can no longer depend on traditional means to get through school.”
The Mancunion has contacted SeekingArrangement for comment.
If you need support with any of the issues addressed in this article, you can email Support for Student Sex Workers at [email protected].
*Names have been changed.