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Seeking Arrangement: College Students Using 'Sugar Daddies' To Pay Off Loan Debt

First Posted: 07/31/2011 10:51 pm Updated: 04/30/2012 1:01 pm

To play it safe, Dayanara and most of the women generally tell one friend where they're going. In the case of Suzanne, neither her father, who works as an emergency room physician, nor her mother, who works as a registered nurse, knows about her new job. Both Suzanne and Dayanara also have to keep their work hidden from most of their friends, fearing the stigma associated with revealing their secret.

"Some people can have difficulty integrating those two lives. You're involved in both a secret world and a public world," says Weitzer. "This type of concealment can create a lot of stress for people involved in these types of relationships. The question becomes how well you can manage this cognitive dissonance."

Besides the stress, Weitzer mentions other challenges for the college student hoping to leave sex work behind and eventually assume a nine-to-five gig. Gaps on resumes notwithstanding, the difference in pay can come as quite a shock. "For someone who's been doing it for a while, it can be difficult to stop doing it and suddenly transition into a normal job or date men without as many resources."

As two enterprising anthropology undergraduates at George Washington University, Elizabeth Nistico and Samuel Schall tackled the phenomenon of sugar daddy culture for a recent school project. Schall studied young, gay sugar babies, and Nistico explored the straight scene. Of their study's 100 participants, more than half said the money they received financed their education. On average, the relationships lasted between three and four months.

Nistico found that some of the sugar babies used the excuse of the economic downturn for behavior she thinks they would still have otherwise condoned. "We concluded that people who say they have a sugar daddy to pay off their loans are people who would already contemplate being in that relationship if the economy was doing just fine," says Nistico, whose subjects frequently mentioned the recession, a bad economy or debt as motivating factors in their decisions.

Outside the U.S., a handful of scholars in the United Kingdom recently examined shifting patterns of sexual behavior among college students tied to rising amounts of debt. Ronald Roberts and Teela Sanders, two social science professors in the U.K., contend that a combination of rising tuition, increased debt, a culture of mass consumption and low-wage work are luring students to the sex industry in greater and greater numbers. They fear that as college costs continue to rise, more students will pursue sex work.

Roberts asked 315 college students at a university in London about their participation in sex work. The findings were stark. Nearly 17 percent said they would be willing to participate in the sex trade in order to pay for their education, while 11 percent indicated a willingness to work directly as escorts. A decade ago, only 3 percent answered in the affirmative. Today's respondents are far more likely to have peers who are working in the industry.

This past spring, two researchers at Berlin's Humboldt University reported somewhat similar findings in other parts of Europe. In Berlin, a city where prostitution is legal, they found that one in three university students would consider sex work as a viable means of financing their studies. Nearly 30 percent of students in Paris similarly responded in the affirmative. Finally, of the 3,200 Berlin students sampled, 30 percent of students working in the sex industry reported being in some amount of education-related debt.

"I attribute it to the rising cost of college and ease of loans, especially in an economy where the buying and selling of emotions and companionship is increasingly easy to afford," says Sanders, who teaches at the University of Leeds.

Roberts fears arrangement-seeking websites are but another invitation for rich men to abuse young, vulnerable women. "It's really the perfect storm of debt and a down economy, not to mention a generation of middle-class women coming of age who were raised to believed that their sexuality isn't something to be afraid of," says Roberts, a professor at Kingston University.

"I'M NOT A WHORE."

"I'm honestly surprised there aren't more college students doing this," says Jennifer, not blinking. She's a 23-year-old recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College.

Fed up with young, unemployed men her own age, Jennifer recently began trawling for a sugar daddy to pay down about $20,000 in student loan debt. She also wouldn't mind a clothing allowance or rent money for her studio apartment in New York's East Village.

A week ago, she boarded a plane to Florida to spend the weekend with a 30-something banker she met on SugarDaddie.com. He told her his house was undergoing a renovation and instead drove her to a nearby hotel, where they spent the night together.

"Yeah, sure, he could have been a psycho, a killer," says Jennifer over breakfast. At nine o'clock in the morning, she's in a full face of makeup. On her profile she describes herself as a yoga teacher and personal trainer. "Barring rape or death, what's the worst thing that could happen to me?"

At the end of the weekend, the man handed her 10 crisp $100 bills. They next plan to rendezvous in Orlando in August.

Jennifer doesn't label what she's doing as prostitution. "I'm not a whore. Whores are paid by the hour, can have a high volume of clients in a given day, and it's based on money, not on who the individual actually is. There's no feeling involved and the entire interaction revolves around a sexual act," says Jennifer, who wears a $300 strapless dress purchased with money from her most recent conquest. The rest of the money, she says, went towards paying down her student loans.

"My situation is different in a number of different ways. First of all, I don't engage with a high volume of people, instead choosing one or two men I actually like spending time with and have decided to develop a friendship with them. And while sex is involved, the focus is on providing friendship. It's not only about getting paid."

Jennifer and many of the other young women realize the clock is ticking -- and it's not ticking in their favor. In these circles, youth and beauty reign supreme, with most men preferring the company of a sugar baby in their early-to-mid twenties.

"I realize I'm not going to have it forever," Jennifer says, brushing her blond, wavy hair off to one side. "While I've still got it, I'm going to milk it for all it's worth. I mean, maybe I'll get swept off my feet. Really, anything could happen."

Andrew Lenoir contributed reporting.

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