Where in the world sugar daddies thrive, why, and what's being done about it

Older, wealthy men exploiting financially strapped young women isn’t new, but it’s an exploding phenomenon with the rising price of higher education and a factor in the ongoing HIV crisis in Africa.

The older rich man and his much younger girlfriend.


The relationship between the two is rarely stated explicitly, but the arrangement is this: the older man receives companionship (of what kind?) in exchange for compensation. Morally, it’s an interesting transaction. Though both parties engage in what’s nominally a romance, there’s an undeniable exploitation of a young person needing money by someone older who can provide it. He’s her “sugar daddy”. She’s his “sugar baby”. This isn’t just history — the phenomenon is very much going strong in 2018.

Today, the sugar-daddy business is booming as girls and young women — and some men — struggle to finance their higher education. In Africa, it provides an income for many girls and women, and authorities believe that sugar daddies are the reason that HIV remains out of control across the continent.

Sugar-daddy dating sites

A Google search for “sugar daddy” will reveal an entire industry dedicated to this unique form of “dating”. The largest such site is Seeking Arrangement, which according to Business Insider, has 10 million clients.

2.5 million of Seeking Arrangement’s matched “babies” self-identify as students, with 1 million from the U.S. alone. The arrangements they share with their “daddies” are worked out in advance, and run the gamut from mentor/mentee relationships to arm candy, to sex. According to the site’s Alexis Germany, "Some of the sugar daddies have that 'white knight' scenario where they really want to be helping somebody and saving them from their debt — or whatever you want to call it.” It’s not quite prostitution, and Seeking Arrangement prohibits the direct exchange of money. Babies can have up to four daddies with whom they establish boundaries. One baby, “Christina,” tells Business Insider, “I’m not a person that is interested in one-night stands with people who are visiting Vegas for a couple days — that's not interesting to me. If that's what you're going to come at me with, my response is going to be, thank you for the offer, but I'm going to pass.” Christina says she’s been propositioned anyway.

Finding a sugar daddy can be the only solution a student finds in the face of a mounting higher-education tab. With tuitions steadily rising, Americans owed 1.3 trillion in student-loan debt in June 2017, two-and-a-half times the amount 10 years ago, according to Pew Research. That works out to an average of $28,400 per person, which takes an average of 14 years to pay off.

So the sugar-daddy business is booming, especially in 2014, and in the southern U.S. One school in particular, University of Texas at Austin, saw a 227% increase in the number of its sugar babies between 2013 and 2014.

Vanity Fair recently published a first-person account of what it’s like to be a sugar baby. And after Business Insider wrote about the phenomenon, a sugar daddy requested equal time to present his perspective.

Sugar daddies in Africa

In Africa, the sugar-daddy phenomenon carries with it all the moral ambiguity of the Western version, but with an added, potentially deadly, aspect: Sugar daddies may be a significant factor in Africa’s ongoing struggles with HIV.

22% of all the world’s new HIV infections in 2016 were in young women from West and Central Africa. Those areas contain only 7% of the world’s population but 17% of all the people living with HIV, and with 30% of the entire world’s HIV-related deaths in 2016.

South Africa has the largest number of HIV infections in the world: 7 million people infected. (Number 2 is Nigeria.) In 2016, 40% of the 270,000 people newly infected were young women aged between 15 and 24.

Even more chillingly, a study of seven African nations revealed that 46.3% of HIV-infected adolescent girls and young women didn’t even know that they HIV-positive and could be unintentionally spreading the disease. Only 45% were being treated with retrovirals that control the disease and make it less communicable.

Many experts agree that sugar daddy relationships are part of the cause, including UNAIDS, the U.N. agency for HIV/AIDS. In Africa, these relationships are called "blessings," after the Instagram hashtag #blessed was adopted by some of the young women involved. Johannesburg academic Karabo Sitto tells Reuters, “There is actually a group of women who are happy to be called ‘blessees’, who own it, who are at the mercy of this person that can provide them with money for as long as they’re willing to comply.” The men are called “blessers.” Nonetheless, "Women often do not have the power to negotiate safe sex in these relationships, especially as some men offer more money for sex without a condom," says Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge of charity Embrace Dignity tells Reuters.

African governments can’t do much about the problem other than launch mind-changing campaigns — such as the “Say No to Sugar Daddies” campaign in the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal — that don’t address the underlying economic inequality issue.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations such as Embrace Dignity and Safe Love International are stepping up to help. Safe Love founder Sandra Omo Idugboe tells Lagos, Nigeria’s This Day Live, “The number one thing you can do to change anything is to not be quiet about it. In Nigeria, a lot of people live in denial. They think HIV is something that is so far or something that will never happen to them. They don’t understand that it is so close if you take statistics into consideration. So we will go on to teach young girls how to recognize when an older man is preying on you for sex and what to do about it.”

Omo speaking to school children (This Day Live)

Safe Love has brought a 30-minute educational program called “No Sugar Daddy, Bright Future” into Nigerian classrooms, and has already been presented to 10,000 students. Omo says Safe Love’s campaign has already been successful in six other African countries. “The younger girl does not even have the mental capacity or the ability to negotiate safer sex and when a lot of these older men are with the younger girls, they will want to take advantage of these younger girls. This is the risk we are [presenting] to these young girls,” says Omo.

The underlying problem is economic

How do you feel about these hookups? While it’s true that both partners enter them voluntarily, it’s also true that at least one party — the one who isn’t rich — doesn’t feel like she has much of a choice in the matter. In even the most benign of these relationships, the daddy/blesser receives some sort of benefit as a result of taking unfair advantage of a dire need on the part of the baby/blessee. It’s unquestionably a nasty perk for the beneficiary of income inequality: Just one more thing money can buy when times are hard enough.

--

Develop mindfulness to boost your creative intelligence

Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned mindfulness leader, teaches meditation at Big Think Edge.

Image: Big Think
Big Think Edge
  • Try meditation for the first time with this guided lesson or, if you already practice, enjoy being guided by a world-renowned meditation expert.
  • Sharon Salzberg teaches mindfulness meditation for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

For a long time, the West shaped the world. That time is over.

The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.

Videos
  • Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
  • European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Keep reading Show less

Why modern men are losing their testosterone

Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?

Flickr user Tom Simpson
Sex & Relationships
  • Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
  • While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
  • The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less