Concerns have been raised that record levels of graduate debt could push young people – particularly women – into exploring prostitution as a solution to their money worries.

The Huffington Post has reported a boom in websites promoting ‘mutually beneficial relationships,’ through which cash-strapped young people are hooked up with wealthy older men. Their sudden popularity — particularly among students and graduates — is being linked to young people’s increasingly desperate financial situation as they are faced with tough competition for graduate jobs and unpaid internships whilst struggling to pay off student debt and keep up with the soaring cost of living.

The piece focussed on America, but there are real fears that the same situation could unfold in the UK — if it isn’t already. Graduate Fog has discovered several websites are operating here as well as in the US.

Shocked? We shouldn’t be. The warning signs have been there for a while.

Back in April 2010, alarmed UK researchers noted a huge jump in the number of young people willing to consider prostitution to pay off their graduate debt. Nearly 17% are willing to participate in the sex trade to pay for their education, while 11% indicated a willingness to work as escorts. Ronald Roberts — a professor at Kingston University — pointed to a ‘perfect storm’ of factors including rising tuition fees, increased debt, a culture of mass consumption and low-wage work.

At the time, these researchers warned that as tuition fees continues to rise, more young people would pursue sex work to make ends meet — and last week, it was announced that those starting their degree in 2012 will face debts of nearly £60,000. Already, students who started university in 2008 have graduated in £22,000 of debt. In America, the average debt is only (!) £16,700. So there is every reason to fear that these websites will become as popular in the UK as they are in the US.

So, how do these websites work? Simple — by matchmaking rich, older men (‘sugar daddies’) with cash-strapped young men and women (the ‘sugar babies’).

While there is no explicit suggestion that users are expected to exchange sex for cash, reports are emerging that these mutually beneficial relationships often include a sexual element.

In other cases, a sugar daddy may agree to pay his sugar baby’s rent every month, or contribute towards their household bills, credit card bills or student debt. The arrangement is presented in soft focus, with some websites referring to the sugar daddies as ‘mentors’ or ‘sponsors’.

On the website, sugar babies now outnumber sugar daddies by 10 to 1, with a 350% increase in the last five years. In the past few years, the site’s owner Brandon Wade says the number of students and graduates using his site “exploded” — and they are now the fastest-growing group within the site’s sugar baby community.

Cash-strapped graduates are showing particular interest, says Noel Biderman, who runs and — which he advertises on MTV and VH1. He told Huffington Post reporter Amanda M. Fairbanks:

“Let’s say you’re a recent graduate, with $80,000 [£49,000] of debt and a job that pays $35,000 [£21,500] a year. It’s tough to pay that amount of debt down, live in a decent city and still be able to socialize and do fun things. At some point, you’ll have to start making major sacrifices. But what if all of a sudden the only sacrifice is that age or success level of your boyfriend or some guy you occasionally hang out with? That becomes a real game-changer in how you get to live your life.”

Sugar daddy websites are big business. While sugar babies create their profiles for free, sugar daddies pay a minimum of £30 each month — but on high rollers can join the ‘Diamond Club’, for £1,500 a year. For this, the site verifies a sugar daddy’s identity, annual income and net worth — and ensures his profile gets the most traction by continually allowing it to pop up in the top tier of search results.

One of the sugar daddies the Huffington Post spoke to — ‘Jack’, 70, the retired founder of several financial services companies — said he pays around £300 a night on his chosen sugar baby, and that’s not including dinner (or shopping trips between ‘dates’). He told the reporter:

“Unlike a traditional escort service, I was surprised to find such an educated, smart population. I only go out with girls 25 and under. But I can’t walk into a bar and go up to a 25-year-old. They’d think I’m a pervert. So this is how I go about meeting them.

“Most of these young women have debt from school [university]. I guess I like the college girls more because I think of their student debt as good debt. At least I’m helping them out, like I’m helping them to get a better life.”

(Wow, thanks Jack. So you’re not just a sleazy old fossil?)

New Yorker Suzanne, 25, told the Huffington Post she was skint when a friend suggested she should sign up as a ‘sugar baby’:

“I was thinking about going on Match but I needed help financially. I guess what finally pushed me over the edge was that I needed help to pay off my loans from school [university].”

She had just been sacked from her waitressing job and was growing desperate after falling behind on rent. Added to that, she had tens of thousands of pounds of graduate debt — plus tuition fees to pay for night classes at law school. She took out a £7,000 loan and went on the hunt for a sugar daddy.

In the past few months, Suzanne has been on 40 dates with sugar daddies she has met online. After meeting a succession of “assholes,” she has finally found a “real gentleman.” At the end of the night, he usually gives her £250-£300. Ideally, she is hoping to make the arrangement permanent, so she has a regular income.

Experts say this can’t be classed as straightforward prostitution — as a clear sex-for-money exchange is absent — but the trend is clearly worrying. Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University says:

“I could easily see people who have been in college at an elite university who are paying a lot of money and racking up a tone of debt being more attracted to something like this, rather than someone who went to state school [university] or someone with little or no debt. Under the banner of sugar daddy and sugar baby arrangements, a lot of prostitution may be going on.”

He also warns that those who start working as a sugar baby may find it hard to quit the habit in future:

“The more you make, the harder it becomes to transition away from – just like high-end sex workers anywhere.”

*Are you tempted to become a ‘sugar baby’?

Will graduates start considering prostitution as a solution to their money worries? Do you know anyone who is already selling sex to pay off their graduate debt?

Like this? Now read:

“The sex industry is the only place where graduates feel welcome”
Graduates have been shut out of every other industry. No wonder they’re turning to escort work to make ends meet, says one graduate…

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