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Seekingarrangement.com: An analysis of the 'Sugar Culture' and some personal insights

Abstract

This research paper was written for one of the courses in Intercultural and International Communication program at the Royal Roads University.
Seekingarrangement.com: An analysis of the ‘Sugar Culture’ and some personal insights
Ambar Sulekh
20 March 2016
ambar.sulekh@royalroads.ca
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An analysis of the ‘Sugar Culture’ and some personal insights
Introduction
This report concerns the contentious topic of ‘Sugar Culture’. I, along with my
teammates, namely Dima, Ekta, Ling and Ruthina, gave a presentation on ‘Sugar Culture’ on 29
February 2016 to fulfill our team’s requirement for Assignment 2(a). More specifically, our
presentation was concerned with the rise of the website SeekingArrangement.com (hereafter
referred to as the “website”), which facilitates sugar culture on the internet. The website
facilitates and provides a platform for individuals who are seeking “sugar” relationships. The
term “sugar daddy” is used to describe generally older (middle-aged) and wealthy man who
“lavishes gifts on a younger woman in return for her company or sexual favours” (Oxford
Dictionary). The younger woman in a sugar relationship is colloquially referred to as a “sugar
baby”.
Scanning through the website content, it becomes apparent that most of the registered
sugar babies therein are twenty-something, university-going women. The men present on the
website are wealthy and middle-aged who fit the aforementioned definition of a sugar daddy.
(The average age of sugar babies on the website is 26, and the average age of sugar daddy is 45
(as cited by Cordero, 2015).) Several factors have been put forward to explain the rising
popularity of the website, especially in North American countries of Canada and the United
States. Of these proposals, a compelling one relates to the rising cost of tuition in universities
across North America. Rising tuition cost is a seemingly hitherto reality that confronts every
university student in this part of the world. As of 2015, the student debt in the United States
alone stands at a 1.5 trillion US dollars (CNBC, 2015). In similar vein, tuition cost in Canada is
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projected to increase in all provinces, with Labrador and Newfoundland being the only
exception, by 13 per cent annually for the next two years (Huffington Post, 2014).
With the added burden of rising living costs, many university students view websites like
SeekingArangement.com as a recourse to their financial woes. The sugar culture typically entails
a sugar daddy giving a monthly “allowance” to the sugar baby. The average monthly
“allowance” could be as much as CAD 2,600, a sufficient amount for the sugar babies to manage
their monthly expenses as well as meet their tuition fees (Huffington Post, 2015). In Canada,
University of Toronto and McGill University in Montreal are said to be the “hot bed” for sugar
culture (Huffington Post, 2015). They are followed by the University of Saskatchewan, even
though the province has a comparatively low student population.
The monthly “allowance” is what distinguishes SeekingArrangement.com from
traditional dating websites, as the element of sex and companionship in exchange for certain
recompense – either in cash or kind – is laid out explicitly at the time of registration on the
website. This form of “arrangement” is also what makes sugar culture a contentious area of study
from moral, ethical and legal viewpoint. When viewed from the cultural and moral lens, sugar
culture is seen as a form of prostitution, since the latter is ultimately what sugar culture emulates:
money in exchange for sex (New York Times, 2009). However, as I will examine in the
literature review section, there are certain facets to the sugar culture that place it outside the local
and western definition of prostitution. Certain promotional elements of the website, according to
legal scholars like Motyl (2013), might lump sugar culture and prostitution together.
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Literature review: a north-south divide
As stated in the introduction section, scholars disagree about the popular view that sugar
culture promotes prostitution and that the unique aspect of a sugar relationship involving gifts
and sex places it “outside of both local and Western definitions of prostitution” (Hunter, 2002, p.
1). According to Hunter, there were economic factors in certain towns of South Africa during the
apartheid and post-apartheid era that gave rise to sugar culture in the country. Rising
unemployment played a role in the decline of marriage since men weren’t able to afford the
mandatory dowry for the bride’s family. This allowed men to form polyamorous relationship as
the women remained economically dependent on men, owing to high unemployment rate and
decline of gainful employment for women (Hunter, 2002). Instead of exchanging money, which
they could not afford, men gave gifts to women on several occasions. The town of Mandeni,
where Hunter conducted his study, never considered such a sugar relationship as prostitution. A
local described such arrangement as polyamorous, wherein both men and women maintained
multiple sexual partners. The partners, though, also exposed themselves to the risk of contracting
STD (Hunter, 2002).
Female agency in sugar relationship is another topic that scholars like Selikow and
Mbulaheni (2013) discuss in their work. Their research concerns the sugar culture as seen in the
urban university campus in South Africa. Female agency – that is the ability of a sugar baby to
initiate the relationship, delay sexual intimacy or end it – is also what distinguishes sugar culture
from prostitution. Selikow and Mbulaheni (2013) argue that previous scholarly works on the
sugar culture in the country have ignored the element of love that is present in many such
arrangements. They also lament that scholars have accused sugar culture of being culpable in the
rise of HIV/AIDS cases in sub-Saharan African regions. To them, it is unfair to reduce sugar
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daddy relationships, dubbed widely as “transactional sex” by African scholars, as mere exchange
of sex and money (Bhana & Pattman, 2011; Masvwavure, 2010; Poulin, 2007; Stobenau et al,
2011).
Moore et al (2007) report on the prevalence of “transactional relationship” between sugar
babies, aged anywhere between 15 and 19, in sub-Saharan African countries like Niger, Benin,
Kenya, Zambia and Cameroon, among others. However, scholars have challenged the
widespread belief that the prevalence of sugar culture has its basis in poverty, as their data
suggests that a sugar baby’s involvement is not just motivated by their want for economic
survival (Moore et al, 2007). Passive or active pressuring from girl’s parents to secure goods
needed for the household; improving one’s long-term life chances by going to university, and
peer pressure to gain validation of one’s attractiveness and amorousness, are cited as primary
reasons for girls to enter into a sugar relationship (Luke & Kurz, 2002). Furthermore, scholars
also note the “empowerment” that women feel by demanding gifts from their partners. In
Tanzania, for instance, women “interpreted the gifts as a demonstration of self-respect and how
much they perceive they are valued by their partner” (Wight et al, 2006).
Thus, while the African scholars have fleshed out nuanced analysis on sugar culture,
scholarship in the other side of the Atlantic is more sceptical of such an “arrangement”. From
legal, if not moral or ethical, standpoint the online nature of the sugar culture makes it
susceptible to prostitution laws in the United States. Cordero (2015) states that insofar as the
financial arrangement is made between the two parties in sugar dating, the arrangement could be
deemed as prostitution. However, she also invokes French philosopher Michel Foucault in her
analysis to assert that lumping prostitution and sugar culture together would be merely to
establishing behavioural norms in the society to perpetuate “social construct and limits of
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sexuality” (Cordero, 2015, p. 9). Cordero (2015) also gives a brief chronology of the website and
how it clearly underwent a change in its user interface. For example, in 2012 the website’s
statement read: “online matchmaking site for ‘wealthy benefactors’ and willing women – women
who understand there will be no long-term romance, who understand their Sugar Daddy may be
married, who understand that sex, and secrecy, is expected (sic).” (Miller, 2012, as cited by
Cordero, 2015). While the statement has since been revised, critics have pointed how the
website’s language resembled that of an escort website which promotes explicitly the notion of
short-term romance, discretion and money (Cordero, 2015).
It is also interesting to note that while sugar babies in Africa view themselves as
empowered individuals through their actions, in the United States, such notion of empowerment
is fed by the website to the admittedly skittish college-going women. Legal scholar Motyl (2013)
argues that the website differs significantly from other escort websites as the former promotes
long-term relationship. Motyl (2013) further states that the website does not directly violate the
prostitution laws or the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. She categorises the
sugar arrangement in three forms. A “category 1” arrangement, wherein sugar daddy gives
money to sugar baby on per meeting basis, instead of monthly basis, may fall under the
definition of prostitution where both parties would be guilty. In “category 2” arrangement, sugar
daddy relationship “mimic traditional dating form” in that the focus is on building long-term
relationship and sex and money are only incidental to the relationship. This “arrangement” will
be deemed outside of the purview of prostitution laws. “Category 3” is a hybrid of first two
categories, “offering long-term sex for money exchanges with little social companionship”. Such
arrangements are difficult to generalise. If the sugar baby receives “per-visit allowance” from the
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sugar daddy, and the visit is solely sexual in nature, then it will fall under the purview of
“category 1”, since it puts sugar baby “on retainer for sexual services” (Motyl, 2013).
Despite the nitty-gritty of the law involved, Motyl (2013) concludes that sugar culture, on
the whole, “remains elusive to the confines of both criminal and civil law [in the United States].”
This conclusion also rests on the findings that within sugar culture, most “arrangements”
resemble the “traditional boyfriend-girlfriend experience, but with an accompanying financial
incentive” (Wexler, 2013, as cited by Cordero, 2015, p. 33). To avoid the uncertainty of
prostitution allegations, Motyl (2013) suggests reforms in the prostitution laws to accommodate
sugar arrangements.
Methodology
My admission here will be frank: given the complexity of the topic, we did not have a
concrete plan in place on how best to approach it. I think it also might have reflected in our
group coordination in weeks leading up to the presentation. We were also hampered by the
unavailability of certain team members on certain days. Even though I am personally not a big
fan of team-based projects, I appreciate the value of a good brainstorming session and how it can
lead to a definite goal. We had decided on the questionnaire, and it reflected each member’s
contribution to it.
The participants of the survey were selected based on their nationalities to reflect
diversity in opinion. We chose five males and five females for the survey. Participants were
natives of Canada, France, South Korea, Vietnam, Brazil, Nigeria and China. The male
participants were called into a meeting room; Ekta narrated the topic we were surveying and then
gave a brief overview and modus operandi of the website. Afterwards, each participant was
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picked by a group member who helped fill the questionnaire. An identical procedure was
followed for the female group. Each participant’s views on the topic were filled in and recorded
by the team members. The questions were semi-structured, and we made a point of not asking
any leading question, regardless of our personal views, so that it did not colour the participant’s
views. The topic was also narrated in a neutral tone so as not to provide participants with any
judgmental cues.
It was only after we had gathered all the data points that we formed a hypothesis. This
approach could be included under the framework of grounded theory. As Charmaz (1996) puts it,
grounded theory methods help create “[…] analytical codes and categories developed from data,
not from preconceived hypotheses” (p. 28). The hypothesis that we created from our findings
was: “What are the factors that determine an individual’s perception on
SeekingArrangement.com?” We had also wanted to find out if the participant’s cultural
dimension of individualism and collectivism, as conceptualised by Hofstede (2005), also played
an imperative role in determining their views on the website and sugar culture on the whole. It is
for this reason that two questions out of the total 10 included individualist/collectivist nature of
their country’s culture and where they leaned personally on this dimension, that is if they viewed
themselves more as individualists or collectivists.
Results
A number of survey participants talked about the undeniable convenience the website
provides to its patrons, echoing what the website’s founder said in one of the interview clips that
were showed in the presentation. Participants also expressed their worry towards the issue of
consent, that is whether the sugar babies were entering into the arrangement on their volition and
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of their own accord. Some participants deemed sugar culture as a deviant practice, both from
moral and religious viewpoint. Almost all participants opined that sugar culture was a form of
“business transaction”. Interestingly, participant opinion was mixed with regard to whether sugar
culture was tantamount to prostitution. It should be noted that none of the questions in the
questionnaire asked whether sugar culture promoted prostitution; the first question was about the
“first thing that came to [the participant’s] mind when they heard about [the website].”
Participants were free to form their own perception around it.
It is also noteworthy that the findings could not establish correlation between individual’s
cultural dimension and attitude towards sugar culture. We had assumed that participants who
came from countries defined as “individualist” would be more open to sugar culture than
participants from “collectivist” countries. We had further assumed that participants who
personally identified as “individualist” would be more open to accepting the sugar culture, which
was also not found to be the case.
Discussion
Our study was subject to certain limitations. We had only a limited number of
participants to safely draw any correlation of cultural/individual dimension. We also could not
directly interview any direct stakeholder in the sugar culture, viz. sugar babies and sugar daddies.
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Conclusion
While the literature review stands in stark contrast to the survey findings, I would still
affirm that study on sugar culture lacks the male perspective. For instance, Cordero (2015) and
Hunter (2002) invoke the feminist theory of patriarchy as a cause behind the rise of sugar
culture. Citing Bryson, Cordero defines patriarchy as male power that “[…] characterises all
relationship between the sexes, including the most intimate, and that it is sustained by the whole
of our culture.” (Bryson, 1999, p.3, as cited by Cordero, 2015, p. 34). However, as Shibles
(1991) analyses, theory of patriarchy is disputed even among the feminists. Citing various
scholars, Shibles concludes that patriarchy is a myth, as there doesn’t exist any consensus
regarding “male power”. “There are problems for men, and for women… but “patriarchy” seems
not to be one of them” (Shibles, 1991, p. 311-12). Furthermore, the term “distracts from the
genuine problems involved and treats relationships as mere adversarial struggles for power.”
(Shibles, 1991, p. 311-12). When this argument is extended to include sugar culture, it becomes
clear that the “arrangement” is a gender issue, not exclusively a feminist one.
As I stated in the introduction, sugar culture exemplifies the inter-gender dynamics of our
times. It might not be controversial of me to conclude that the “arrangement” showcases the base
desire of both genders in a more conspicuous manner.
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