It’s sex work, but with the veneer of a real relationship – and that can leave ‘sugar babies’ vulnerable to manipulation.
When two staff members from NZPC: Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective visited a girls’ college recently to present to a history class, they took the opportunity to ask if anyone in the room was familiar with or knew someone who was “sugar dating”.
“Every hand in the class shot up,” says Cherida Fraser, who was one of the two, alongside Dame Catherine Healy. “But the teacher had never heard of it.”
And that’s because sugar dating is probably still pretty new to many of the teachers, guidance counsellors and parents of New Zealand.
For the uninitiated, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, where money or gifts are exchanged for sexual intimacy. “It’s a bit of a euphemism for commercial sex work, really,” says Fraser, a sex work researcher and advocate at NZPC. “But it’s about how people identify – ‘sugar babies’, who are the people providing sexual services, often don’t identify as sex workers, likely due to the stigma around the term. And the ‘sugar daddies’ don’t want to accept they’re having relationships with sex workers.”
Vixen Temple, a 25-year-old Auckland stripper who has been operating as a sugar baby for two years, is familiar with that sentiment. “I’ve had daddies who’ve told me that they’ll happily have sex with me, but they’d never consider going to a brothel and having sex with ‘one of those dirty whores’,” she says in disbelief.
The idea of sugar dating was always attractive to Temple, and once she started stripping she was frequently offered opportunities to meet up with her male clients after hours. “I grew up watching The Girls of the Playboy Mansion – I loved the idea of dating a Hugh Hefner type,” she laughs.
And sure enough, she found plenty of them. “Often they’ll be much older, have wives, be ‘boomers’ in marriages where the love has fizzled out,” she explains. “Most want sex – although some don’t – and while the money is fantastic, I do regularly feel like an on-demand girlfriend who always has to have my phone handy in case my daddy texts me wanting to catch up. There’s a lot of emotional labour that goes into sugar dating!”
Hanne Rachael, 28, began sugar dating in 2017 and now runs an online platform and Facebook group for sugar babies and other sex workers called The Slut Project 2.0.
“Back then I was working bar jobs, but I wasn’t in a very good place mentally. If I didn’t get many hours one week that would feed my anxiety, which in turn would impact on whether I would show up to work, so it was a vicious cycle,” says Rachael. “So I signed up to Seeking Arrangements – which is the site pretty much everyone uses to sugar date – and then got on a bus to Wellington and began life as a sugar baby.”
Rachael says she dated this way for a number of years and enjoyed the variety of men she encountered. “A lot of the guys were really respectful and handsome and gentlemanly,” she recalls. “We’d go out for dinner, I was taken away on holidays, I experienced things I’d never have experienced in life otherwise and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with my dates. Some were older, but one of my first sugar daddies was 24 – the same age I was at the time.”
Both women have embarked on arrangements that have suited their individual needs – whether that’s money (Temple says earnings can be anything from $1000 to $10,000 a week, with sugar babies often dating multiple daddies at once) to gifts to, well, whatever you want. “I had one guy that gave me his Uber password so I could travel wherever I needed to go and order all the delivered food I wanted,” says Temple. “That’s the great thing about this job – there is no limit on what you can earn, and you call the shots. Now that I’ve experienced that, it’s made me never want to work for minimum wage. I want a comfortable lifestyle.”
But the industry carries risk. “It’s something we talk about a lot on The Slut Project,” Rachael says. “Unfortunately, there are many daddies out there looking for girls who don’t know what they’re doing and just want to find someone they can pay less to than a traditional escort. There is a lot of predatory behaviour. I, myself, have been scammed out of my payment, and manipulated into having sex without a condom.”
Temple believes some sugar daddies view taking their sugar babies on elaborate dates as some sort of “down payment” on sexual services, even if they’ve never communicated it as such. “Or their intent is that one day you’ll fall in love with them and they can simply stop paying you. That manipulation will start with little comments like, ‘Oh, I don’t have enough money this week – I’ll pay you next week.’ Or ‘Haven’t we been doing this long enough? I’m starting to catch feelings for you.’”
And that manipulation is something the NZPC is concerned about too. “When there is an older person – with life experience and disposable income – dating a younger or more naive person, there’s a power imbalance,” says Fraser. “Many of the issues we see coming through the doors are related to non-payment. Young people will trust their client, do the service, and the money never comes through. We’ve also supported workers through assault after refusing a specific sex act, there have been threats about rape, bankruptcy, even clients using the Consumer Guarantees Act as a threat to gain sexual consent.
“We’ve seen sugar daddies throw legal jargon and contractual law at a young person who changes their mind about sexual consent, just to freak them out. Then they start to think that if they promised a blowjob in a text message, they’re bound to it.
“I think the most menacing threat to young people doing sugar dating, though, is the fear of being exposed to their family. When the sugar baby doesn’t want to see the sugar daddy anymore, that sugar daddy can start threatening to tell their parents, or send sexually intimate images to them. It’s a powerful threat.”
There are also the risks of meeting strangers for dating or sex, although Rachael counters that it’s not necessarily greater than if you met on Tinder, Bumble or another dating platform. “It’s vital to tell someone you trust where you are, what you’re doing and who you’re with,” she says. “I’ve been honest with my family about what I do, so I was able to ask my mum if she wanted to put me on a tracking app. And listen to your gut – walk away if something doesn’t feel right.”
Temple agrees. She lives with the experience of being assaulted by a client. “Never compromise your safety or your boundaries for a guy. If it doesn’t work out, there will be 10 others waiting in the wings. And always use a condom.”
The NZPC can’t put an exact figure on how many young people – primarily women – are sugar dating in New Zealand but believes it’s a growing sector of the sex work industry. “We can only count the number of people who come through our doors,” Fraser says. “But if you ask any young woman over the age of 16, they will probably know about Seeking Arrangements, have a friend who has a profile up, or know someone who has gone out on a date.
“We’re also aware that social media has a role to play here – potential daddies message young people through their Snapchat, TikTok or Instagram offering money for dates, and there are likely other sites that we don’t even know about yet. Sometimes a young person will arrange a date for some cash without really consciously deciding to do sex work. I do think as young people continue to spend more time online, we’ll see more sugar-style workers coming to us.”
So, what should someone do if they’re worried about a sugar dating situation a friend, or child, is entangled in? Fraser warns against judgment. “Be realistic – it’s not just the ‘bad’ kids doing this, it exists across all social groups. Also, it’s normal for young people to experiment romantically and sexually, and parents need to remember that online spaces make this a different world than what they themselves have known.”
Vixen Temple agrees. ”Give your friend or teen a chance to explain why it appeals to them and how they benefit. Lots of sugar babies do this kind of work because it feels empowering – they’ve put a price on something that men have always expected for free. If you shut them out, you’re putting them at risk. Come to them with listening ears and be their safety net.”
NZPC offers support to all sex workers needing a helping hand in the form of education, awareness and legal assistance (as well as lube, condoms and dams.) “Sometimes we’ll facilitate informal conversations with police, so someone who’s encountered an issue gets a full picture of what the process is if they report a crime. We also provide information about how the Small Claims Dispute Tribunal works, if someone wants to get money back, and about people’s rights to their images and videos under the Harmful Digital Communications Act,” says Fraser.
She would like to see sex work – and sugar dating in particular – included as part of the sexual health curriculum at high school. “I think it would be so great if young people got good information about sugaring stuff. They all know it exists already – some are doing it – and teaching people about their rights means if a young person has something go wrong while sugar dating, they have an avenue to talk about it, and are better protected from the negative outcomes.”
Rachael agrees. “Secrecy is where shame hides and where manipulation has a strong place to thrive,” she says. “A lot of girls don’t realise the importance of coming under the umbrella of sex work – there are protections in place because of the great work NZPC does and fact sex work is decriminalised here.
“Sugar dating can be amazing and glamorous and sexy and feel naughty and exciting – but know your rights.”