Behind Toronto’s towering skyscrapers and multi-million dollar neighbourhoods, a discreet community is growing. Initiated online, this community brings together young, often economically struggling people and older, richer figures. With the cost of living skyrocketing, the ‘sugaring’ lifestyle has made its way into the hustle and bustle of Toronto.

‘Sugaring’ is a term used to describe a transactional relationship between a young person — traditionally a woman — and a wealthy, older patron — traditionally a man. In exchange for material and financial compensation, sugar babies give their time in various forms of relationships — sometimes romantic, sometimes sexual. Frequently, ‘sugar babies’ meet potential ‘sugar daddies’ on dating websites such as SeekingArrangement and Miss Travel. On sites like these, there is usually a set expectation of a long-term arrangement rather than a one-time fling. Despite mainstream heteronormative representations, this arrangement is not limited to just younger women and older men; younger men also have the option of creating a profile seeking out wealthier, older women, and same-sex patronage is also quite common.

This lifestyle has been met with criticism, considering the implementation of Bill C-36 in 2014, which identifies “prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation,” and the unfortunate stigma surrounding sex work broadly. The government’s position on the illegality of elements of sex work, namely solicitation and pimping, has raised concerns with lawmakers and sex-positive activists who are questioning whether ‘sugaring’ falls into the same legal quagmire. The sugaring lifestyle encourages and promotes interpersonal relationships and is not just about a transaction of services. One thing, however, that’s similar between explicitly illegal sex work and sugaring is discretion. Could an alias behind a screen make the sugaring lifestyle more attractive?

Young and educated, but broke

According to a 2018 press release from SeekingArrangement, 224,582 students have signed up on the site. Financial reward is a major incentive for students to join these websites, especially given the hefty debts many students carry. In fact, SeekingArrangement’s latest public relations campaign is explicitly directed at students — many of whom may be broke and in search of wealthy benefactors to pay for tuition and living expenses. Students who sign up with a university email address are automatically upgraded to a premium account, which boasts features such as unlimited messaging and searching, enticing users from the 18–25 demographic to join.

While the whole purpose of the site is to encourage relationships with younger women, the average age of a sugar baby on the site is 26.

The University of Toronto boasts the most registered users on the site in 2018, with a little over 800 connected profiles. Ryerson University follows with 737 users, while the University of Ottawa had the most user growth, with 206 members registering an account in 2017. Though some users cite concerns over personal privacy and discretion, and some may not be fond of the idea of direct messages in their university inbox or explicitly naming their school, others worry about the issue of data security, especially after the data breach of Ashley Madison, a dating site for married people, in 2015.

Emma*, a third-year U of T student, spoke about her short-lived experience on SeekingArrangement, recalling the decisions that led to her ultimately signing up for an account.

Unlike the common goal of pursuing a long-term relationship, she used the site as a quick fix amid personal struggles.

“Last year, I had been financially in strain. I had just gone through a breakup and needed to move out of my mother’s house. I needed finances to pay for this move and change in my life,” she explained. “I had only ever met up with two men, one [whom] I met twice. It took approximately a month or so to meet up with someone who I felt comfortable going with; someone who did not seem scary, overly kinky, and unattractive.”

Emma views discretion as a major factor concerning personal safety and protection from judgment and stigmatization. “Every girl on the site, from my experience, creates a new identity. For myself, the user name did not include any personal information of mine. I gave myself a new name and backstory. I had never gone into depth or talked about myself, to keep privacy and myself safe,” she described.

According to an email from Brieanne Christian, a public relations representative for SeekingArrangement, the site recognizes that privacy is a key concern among users. “For privacy reasons, aliases are welcome to use on the site and profile. Contact information such as last name, phone number, social media usernames, email address, etc. are not allowed for use on the profile,” Christian wrote.

Christian also wrote that standard ‘attractive member’ account profiles must be completed in entirety for approval. This includes one approved public photo, which must show the user’s caricature. Faceless photos are also permitted. Premium members can communicate without a photo, but are required to fill in certain sections including gender, age, ethnicity, body type, and biography.

These mandatory profile sections are to ensure that there are no scams or illegal activities conducted on the site. As part of the site’s purpose, online-only relationships and pay-per-meeting are not allowed to encourage real-life connections and arrangements.

   

Feeding the sugar

Sugar daddies are no different when it comes to matters of discretion. A blog post on the site titled “Sugar Dating Discretion” covers the significance of discretion in a relationship. It cites key factors including stigma and personal commitments, such as marriage or another serious relationship outside of the arrangement.

The post also covers tips for keeping an arrangement secret, such as keeping a locked photo folder and creating a backstory in case anyone associated with either party finds out, so the parties can “enjoy the best parts of being in a mutually beneficial relationship while leaving the stress behind.”

After much curiosity, I signed myself up for a profile, keeping my identity anonymous.

Upon signing up, I noticed something interesting: one had to pay extra for discretion and a low profile. Student sugar babies, who are given a free premium profile as a result of being in school, are placed at an advantage, as they are able to customize their profile to the fullest extent. Sugar daddies are not given the same option, having to pay out of pocket for a premium account and features such as having zero public photos and leaving profile sections empty. Anonymity comes with the price of privilege and wealth.

A majority of premium accounts featured zero photos, mainly displaying a straightforward profile and username detailing a little bit about themselves and a few expectations regarding potential arrangements. A defining factor in a profile was a sugar daddy’s net worth or salary, which sugar babies can filter according to their expectations. It was a rare occasion to see a profile filled with several uncensored photos of the user, owning up completely to the sugar daddy lifestyle.

Of course, several users indicated that they were either married or in a serious relationship and were only looking for casual arrangements with sugar babies. One user indicated that he was a professor who was unsatisfied with his current relationship. Another indicated that they had high standards for their sugar babies, going as far as including that they only date Caucasian women with blonde hair.

Can students keep up?

Even with the provincial government’s recent tuition cut announcement, living costs continue to rise, and one can only wonder if financial pressures on students will further increase site traffic and registration on SeekingArrangement. The sweeping changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), including the elimination of free tuition and non-needs-based grants, also makes it difficult for students to have a stable financial footing.

When asked about the future of SeekingArrangement in relation to OSAP cuts, Christian wrote that “the budget cut announcement will likely spike interest in signups as Canada ranks fourth for the most expensive country to attend university.”

Sugaring offers significant financial incentives, as well as opportunities for meaningful personal connections, and students may choose this lifestyle for any number of reasons. However, sugaring may not be so sweet when it’s a last resort for paying tuition.

*Name changed at the individual’s request.