When Jenna, a 19-year-old honors student at an Orange County university, signed up for a dating website designed to match young women with older, wealthier “sugar daddies,” it was nothing more than a joke between her and a few friends.
“Originally, I had no idea what SeekingArrangement was,” said Jenna, who wished to remain anonymous. “I was joking about finding ways to pay tuition, and I thought ‘Why don’t I actually try that?’ So I looked more into it … and I started getting messages the first day after I signed up.”
Last year, as an 18-year-old college freshman, Jenna joined more than 37,400 Orange County residents and 1.9 million university students nationwide with a “sugar baby” profile on SeekingArrangement, a dating website founded in 2006 to connect young, attractive “babies” — primarily college-aged women — with “sugar daddies,” typically older men who lavish their dates with expensive gifts and money allowances — an average of $3,000 per month.
Like Jenna, one third of SeekingArrangement’s current users are college students, which the website claims is a response to rising tuition costs at universities nationwide, particularly in California. Several California universities, including UC campuses, appeared on SeekingArrangement’s 2016 list of the top 20 fastest-growing sugar baby schools in America. At UC Irvine, 108 sugar babies are currently registered.
“Many [students] are opting to bypass student loans in favor of sugar daddies to finance their education and future,” said Brook Urick, a SeekingArrangement representative. “A lot of [sugar babies] are graduating debt-free with elite professional connections after graduation, so it works out very well for them.”
According to the site, on average, sugar babies annually receive $20,920 more in “allowance money” than a student working full time at federal minimum wage. Of this allowance, sugar babies spend an average of 36 percent on tuition, 23 percent on rent and 20 percent on books.
Despite this, for some student sugar babies in affluent areas like Orange County, even their “allowances” aren’t enough to cover school-related expenses. In addition to being a sugar baby, Jenna works part-time as a nanny to cover living costs.
“I am using [being a sugar baby] to get through college,” said Jenna, “but there’s no financial contract or set amount a sugar daddy has to pay; the sugar daddies provide whatever they want out of the goodness of their heart.”
According to Urick, the amount of “allowance” given by daddies varies per situation, and is not regulated by SeekingArrangement.
“There is a certain expectation going into it, but not every sugar daddy will necessarily pay all of your tuition,” she said. “It depends on the relationship, but it is common to see sugar daddies contributing a lot to school costs.”
The spike in Californian student sugar babies over the past decade coincides with unprecedented college tuition increases throughout the state. From the 1995-96 academic year to the 2005-06 academic year, when SeekingArrangement was launched, average in-state tuition and fees for UCs rose from $4,354 to $7,434. In the decade since, average in-state tuition and fees have more than doubled to an estimated $15,500 for the 2015-16 academic year, according to the University of California.
SeekingArrangement began their “Sugar Baby University” marketing campaign last year, targeting college students as the average student debt in California topped $21,300. The campaign offers free premium memberships to those who sign up with an .edu email, and their tagline touts the dating site as “an alternative method of financial aid.”
Brandon Wade, the founder and CEO of SeekingArrangement, says that the success of his site among college women highlights the fact that growing numbers of students are turning to unconventional methods to pay off student loans.
“Some see this as a controversial solution,” admitted Wade in a press statement. “However, SeekingArrangement has helped facilitate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of arrangements that have helped students graduate debt-free.”
Some critics of sugar baby culture on campuses argue that the system is exploitative of college sugar babies — 65 percent of whom come from low to middle-income backgrounds — and is inherently misogynistic, based on the expectation of romance and sex in exchange for gifts and money.
However, students like Jenna argue that this is a misconception. She says that being a sugar baby can be empowering for young women and results in genuine, multi-dimensional relationships.
“A lot of people have a negative idea of it because they lack understanding of it. I don’t even share it with my family,” she said. “But I wouldn’t do anything that would put me in a bad place or harm me. Emotionally, it’s actually an incredible support system … it’s something that I want to do and something I find pleasure in.”
Urick also notes that SeekingArrangement does not strictly match young women with older men. The site is LGBT-friendly, and though the majority of the site caters to young women and sugar daddies, about 10 percent of pairings are between young men and sugar “mommies” — a dynamic with which Jenna is also familiar.
“My first sugar daddy was a sugar baby himself, and he did it as means of getting through college,” said Jenna. “I could relate because I was doing the same thing, and my goal is when I’m financially stable enough and everything, to be able to provide that for someone else because I know how beneficial it was for me.”
She notes that, although young women are primarily drawn to the website for immediate financial reasons, her relationships with successful sugar daddies have resulted in valuable professional mentorships, lasting friendships and experiences from “learning how to surf together” to “exchanging career advice.”
“They’re there to mentor you, they’ve experienced life a bit more and they understand what it takes to be successful,” said Jenna. “A lot of them are very willing to share their experiences and help you out. Once you meet them, they’re part of your life, and they stay in it.”