Prostitution as Financial Aid: Three College Students Speak Out

Taina Bien-Aimé, CATW Executive Director April 5, 2017

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Last summer, three interns at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Averi Barron (CUNY Hunter), Sarah Faruqui (Northwestern University) and Raphaela Kunze (Brown University), initiated extensive research on the “sugar dating” website, Seeking Arrangement. One of many “sugar dating” sites, Seeking Arrangement matches very young women defined as “Sugar Babies” with “Sugar Daddies,” older men with money who pay for college tuition, interstate and international trips or goods in exchange for a “sugar relationship.” These young women share their thoughts about how Millennials navigate conversations about prostitution, pornography, sexual harassment, and violence against women.

What were your findings about Seeking Arrangement?

Averi: Seeking Arrangement describes itself as a dating platform, but it’s a thinly veiled prostitution site. The site entices college-age women with sexy photos and videos of girls at “Sugar Baby University,” with wads of cash in their hands, but it offers something far darker than sparkly packaging. Any high school or college kid who searches online for financial aid, college loans, or scholarships, will see Seeking Arrangement pop up on her screen. You can’t tiptoe around it: Seeking Arrangement is about middle-aged men hunting for sex with young women who need the money.

Raphaela: Seeking Arrangement has over five million active members (four Sugar Babies to every one Sugar Daddy) in over 139 countries. Some 40% of the Sugar Babies are college students in the U.S. Membership for Sugar Babies is free with an “.edu” email address and Sugar Daddies—almost half report they are married—pay fees up to $2,400 a year. The company is worth over $10 million.

Sarah: Seeking Arrangement knows its target demographic and who is most vulnerable. It boasts about schools with large populations of Sugar Babies, like Temple University or Georgia State. It claims 500 New York University first-year students registered. Most Sugar Daddies on the site identify as Caucasian, although they rarely provide photos of themselves, unlike the Sugar Babies who must.

Why do you say Seeking Arrangement is linked to the sex trade?

Averi: Although the website asserts it does not promote prostitution, we found that many of the women profiled on Seeking Arrangement matched photographs of women featured on escort review websites and in the “adult services” section of Backpage.com

Raphaela: We asked a lawyer working on issues of prostitution and sex trafficking to create a fictional profile on Seeking Arrangement. He posted an ad, “looking for an excellent body and witty girl with a flexible schedule.” Within two weeks, a dozen explicit proposals for paid sex landed on his account page without him initiating contact with anyone on the site. 

Sarah: Although we’re not lawyers, we understand that websites like Backpage hide behind the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects Internet service providers from responsibility for third-party content. What is different about Seeking Arrangement is that it advertises and hosts dinner parties for Sugar Daddies, guaranteeing top five Sugar Babies at his table to “sugar date.” This direct procuring would mean that Seeking Arrangement is engaged in facilitating prostitution, pimping or sex trafficking, which shouldn’t be protected by the CDA, but as far as we can tell, law enforcement does not seem to care.

Did you reach out to students who “sugar dated” through Seeking Arrangement? 

Sarah: Yes. One student told us her Sugar Daddy was her “first boyfriend;” he flew her to Colorado and later found her a job. Another said she wanted a Sugar Daddy to pay her just to hang out with him, but it didn’t turn out that way. She said she felt degraded, like a piece of meat, and that as long as you don’t feel weirded out dating your parents’ creepy old friend, you’ll be fine. What struck me is that not one Sugar Baby mentioned the word “prostitution.” Each woman portrayed herself as super feminist and said she joined the site looking for mature men “with benefits.” They don’t talk about objectification, the power imbalance, or the harm these encounters can cause them.

Raphaela: Another student told us she went on three “dates,” then stopped. It made her uncomfortable. They convince themselves that it’s not prostitution, just dating in exchange for travel, money, and shopping, but every Sugar Baby we spoke to was offered money for sex. The three of us are privileged, so college tuition is thankfully not a crippling concern, but no girl should have to sell her body for an education in the United States.

Averi: The existence of Sugar Babies harms young women everywhere. The implications are much broader than the experiences of just one person. If a future supervisor happens to be one of those Sugar Daddies, for example, he might see any of us as a potential Sugar Baby. That narrative of women as commodities is pervasive and dangerous.

You conducted an informal survey asking one hundred of your peers, age 12 to 30 years old, what they thought about the sex trade. What were your findings?

Averi: Among a number of questions, we asked whether prostitution should be legal. The 12-17 year old group did not think it should be, but the 18-24 year olds favored legalization. 

Raphaela: We infer that this deviation stems from the college experience. Gender and sexuality studies professors ram down our throats the idea that “sex work,” which is what they call prostitution, is empowering. Dissenting in the classroom is hard, particularly if a student has never thought about the issue. Even if there’s a sense that something is amiss in the professor’s reasoning, we don’t always have the language, or the courage, to speak up.

Sarah: We have to reach kids before they leave high school to break this tidal wave of normalization of sexual exploitation and sexual violence. It is a dominant rhetoric on campuses and almost a punch line: everyone is empowered to watch porn and women should feel free to try “sex work.” 

Millennials are stereotyped as examining the sex trade, including prostitution, within the framework of women’s sexual freedom. Are you the exception?

Sarah: I’m nineteen and it’s a tough battle for my generation. Intuitively, I’ve always analyzed prostitution as violence. It’s so logical when you think about what the sex trade offers women, but many of my peers have a vague idea of what feminism is and don’t see the disconnects. Take pornography for example. The documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” blew my mind. It shows the ugliness of porn and the way the hook-up culture leads to negative treatment of women by men. About 90% of the guys on campus watch porn weekly, so when you date, they’ll say: “I saw X done on this site and I want you to do the same to me,” no matter how vile or degrading. Sometimes, they confess that they don’t even like watching porn, but it’s a social expectation. They treat their girlfriends in a way, I feel, they would never treat their sisters or friends.

Raphaela: Educated, liberal Millennials would apply the power and control analysis in a situation where a woman is pressured to date her boss for a promotion, but when it comes to pornography or prostitution, they leave that analysis at the door and veer into the sexual rights framework. All of sudden the sanctity of choice, without a clear definition of what that so-called choice is, clouds their heads. 

Averi: And most people don’t know how interconnected the sex trade is, how strip clubs and sex trafficking are on a continuum of exploitation, or what prostitution entails, how degrading it is. I ask my friends where they think prostitution occurs? It’s not necessarily in a van parked in a dark alley. We must reframe what it means to be male. When we know male domination is directly connected to rape culture, we have to talk about toxic masculinity and how it links to the sex trade.

You will soon enter the professional world, what are your hopes and concerns as you launch your careers?

Raphaela: I realize the careers that interest me focus on effecting long-term systemic and legal change, but they’re also male-dominated spaces. My greatest concern is that the challenges of operating in a predominantly male field will eclipse opportunities to address these controversial issues. On the other hand, this challenge is also what I am most looking forward to: the chance to engage with people who might otherwise resist confronting prostitution and the sex trade as violence against women.

Sarah: I am optimistic. Ambitious and intelligent women around me constantly lift me up. I believe that my generation wants to incorporate a socially conscious mindset in whatever career path we pursue, including involving these issues, and this inspires me.