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There were 703 sugar babies at the U of O registered with the popular site Seeking Arrangement in 2018. Illustration: Kelsea Shore.

The U of O boasts one of the largest sugar baby populations of all post-secondaries in Canada

It’s a familiar weekday night in Ottawa and Charlie is getting ready for work.

She dons a new dress and fixes her freshly done hair, both of which she didn’t pay a dime for, while she waits for a pre-paid Uber to arrive to take her across the city to one of the most expensive restaurants in all of Ottawa.

But when Charlie arrives at said restaurant, she won’t be clocking in as a staff member. She’ll be working on her own terms from the comfort of her seat, making double or even triple what some of the minimum wage staffers might take home in an eight-hour shift.  

Charlie will earn her income by eating a fully-paid-for five-star meal with a man almost twice her age with money to blow, after which she’ll receive a hefty direct deposit or hard cash payment. Her only task is to be a companion.

Charlie, a third-year criminology student at the U of O who asked that her real name not be used to prevent damage to her reputation and relationships, is known in the realm of sugar dating as a sugar baby.

In the simplest terms, sugar dating involves romantic and sometimes sexual relationships between older adults (sugar daddies or mommas) and younger women or men (sugar babies) where sugar babies provide their time and companionship in exchange for hard cash, gifts, experiences, or all of the above.

“It’s such easy money, like the easiest money ever,” Charlie said, who is now in a non-sugar relationship and sugar dates less. “I was just rolling in money.”

In tight economic times, sugar dating has emerged as a prominent way for students to make and maintain a solid income, and the most popular sugar dating website, Seeking Arrangement, knows this better than anyone else.

“Drowning in debt is no way to exit college,” the site’s founder and CEO Brandon Wade wrote in a statement from January 2018. “Starting your career life hoping for higher salaries and better opportunities is less of something to look forward to when students know they’re going to be struggling out of the gate.”

Sugar dating 101

Charlie signed up for Seeking Arrangement in October of 2016, not expecting to actually use it. The site claims it boasts close to 20 million active members in 139 countries, eight million of which are sugar babies, and two million which are sugar daddies and mommas. Its user base of students continues to grow rapidly.

At the start of 2018, the site claimed about 13 per cent of all post-secondary students in Canada had tried sugar dating.

The U of O has emerged as a hotspot for sugar babies in Canada, according to the site. In 2018, Seeking Arrangement reported there were 703 sugar babies at the U of O, up 206 from the previous year, making it their top-ranked university for sugar babies in Canada.

Jessica, a second-year arts student at the U of O who has been sugar dating for about a year-and-a-half, attributes the popularity of sugar dating in Ottawa to the sheer number of sugar daddies in the area, many of whom she’s noticed work as government officials. She asked that her real name not be used to prevent damage to her employment and reputation.

“They have money to spend, they’re lonely, they’re busy … they just want someone to interact with,” she said.

Much like popular mainstream dating apps such as Tinder or Bumble, users craft a personal profile with photos and a brief bio. But unlike mainstream dating sites, sugar babies also list their spending habits, while sugar daddies and mommas add information about their net worth, annual income and lifestyle budget, and the amount of money they are willing to provide sugar babies with. From there, the matchmaking begins.

“The rise of sugar dating (may be) connected to tuition fees, to the increased cost of living, and the precarious workforce and the low employment rate for youth,” said Sarah (Daly) Polowin, who holds a master in law and legal studies from Carleton University and wrote her thesis on sugar dating and post-secondary students.

“I think students are recognizing that the time-to-money ratio is in their interest to be sugar dating, compared to working eight hours at Starbucks, which … is not necessarily enough,” she said.

A study put out by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in September 2015 found that tuition and compulsory fees for Canadian undergraduate students had tripled since the 1993-94 academic year. In September 2018, Statistics Canada reported the average Canadian undergraduate paid close to $7,000 in the 2018-19 academic year, up 3.3 per cent from the previous one.

Meanwhile, a report from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now released in August 2018 found the average market rent in Ottawa increased by 25 per cent from 2005 to 2015.

But while floods of students flock to sites like Seeking Arrangement to pay their bills, they’re beginning to notice the fine line sugar dating walks between sex work and legality, a line that can easily be blurred.

The sugar baby experience

Charlie forgot all about signing up for the site until a friend directed her to a sugar daddy who found her on Instagram in March of 2018, offering to pay her $2,000 for a single dinner date. She didn’t make quite that much (about $200 instead), but from then she was hooked, making her return to Seeking Arrangement’s website.

From then until November 2018, when she entered into a non-sugar dating relationship, Charlie estimates she earned about $13,000 from eight different sugar daddies: $10,000 in cash, the other $3,000 in free meals, drinks, transportation and gifts.

Charlie is blunt about the fact that sometimes these relationships involved sexual exchanges, making it clear that others she’s been with were just looking for a companion or partner to show off publicly.

“All these guys want one thing and it’s sex … you have to give them sugar,” she said. “I’ve been paid $1,000 for 10 minutes.”

Either way, Polowin found through her research, the chance one would be prosecuted for sexual exchanges while sugar dating is low.

“At face value, if they explicitly say (the exchange) is sex (rather than companionship) for money, then yes,” Daly said. “But sugar babies and sugar daddies work actively to detract from this idea … using traditional romantic discourses to legitimize their relationships.”

“I see (sugar dating and sex work) operating within the same sphere,” Jessica admitted, also speaking to the sexually-nuanced terminology sugar daddies have used when speaking to her. “They talk around it to try and make themselves more comfortable.”

“When you have an arrangement, you’re a sugar baby,” Charlie added. “When you’re meeting up with someone to have sex, you’re a sex worker.”

Jade Sullivan and Judy El-Mohtadi, co-ordinators of the Women’s Resource Centre at the U of O, explained their perspective on sugar dating.

“Even though some people may compare (sugar dating) to sex work or prostitution, we as feminists believe that sex work in and (of) itself is a valid source of income,” they wrote in an email to the Fulcrum. “It is a person’s choice to do what they want, and if they are using their sexuality as a source of income, no one has the right to oppose that.”

Seeking Arrangement makes it clear that it differentiates itself from sex work: The login page of the site clearly states “promoting illegal commercial activities (such as prostitution) is prohibited,” and adds “if you are an ESCORT, DO NOT use this website.”

Their blog even has a post titled: “The Difference Between Sugar & Prostitution.”

Emotional labour

While sugar dating comes across as a simple way to earn cash, Charlie and Jessica spoke to the emotional labour in the work that can start to take a toll on even the most experienced sugar babies.

“I’ll get super drunk before almost every single date because I have to be nice and it’s hard when a lot of (the sugar daddies) are super irritating,” Charlie said.

“The thing is, you have to be the certain kind of person to do this,” Jessica said. “In your head, you really have to differentiate between your job and your real life, and you can’t let it seep in.”

“You have to be an actor, because if you don’t act like you’re into (the sugar daddy) then they won’t want to see you again,” Charlie said, adding she’s rarely attracted to the men she meets through sugar dating. “A lot of the guys on the site want you to be on there because … you like older men and you want to be with an older man.”

But Charlie won’t stop sugar dating anytime soon, and her attitude about the whole thing is strikingly clear.

“You’re not hurting anyone (and) you’re helping yourself,” Charlie said. “Remind yourself that this is an old man that has to pay for my presence: Why would I care about what he thinks of me?”