Saturday, September 23, 2023
The normalization of sex work
One of the cultural differences between the USA and Europe is that prostitution is mostly illegal in the USA, and mostly legal in Europe (please check for details before trying that). And I never thought that the USA would ever change that. Then I read a “funny story” about social media, got curious, googled, and was surprised by the result. The “funny story” was about a trend on TikTok, where some influencers were promoting the sugar baby lifestyle, with the hashtag #sugarbaby getting over 720 million views. Branded as “rich sugar daddy paying holidays / rent / shopping trips to sugar baby”, that is just, let’s say, sugarcoating. The reality behind that is the exchange of money for sex.
Now by itself that story wasn’t very surprising. This is in parallel with the rise of online services like OnlyFans, and a growing social acceptance. A congressional candidate in the 2022 election was on OnlyFans, and other politicians at various levels have been found to have sold sexual images for money. In the UK tabloid press I have seen a shift, where stories now present examples of the big money ordinary people can earn on OnlyFans in a rather positive light. There are also growing “sex work is work” social trends, although somewhat surprisingly the resistance against that these days comes less from conservatives, and more from progressives, who have a really hard time believing that women aren’t necessarily victims in sex work. In another surprising twist of fate, porn on the internet these days isn’t regulated by governments, but by Visa and Mastercard.
What was surprising to me was the scale of sugar dating. The largest site, previously called “Seeking Arrangement”, now rebranded to just Seeking.com and promoting “luxury dating” instead of sugar dating, has 40 million users, with more women than men. As opposed to sites like Tinder where men outnumber women up to 4:1, Seeking.com at one point had a ratio of 1:3. I didn’t push my research as far as signing up for the site, but the secret appears to be that Seeking.com asks men for their net worth and there are different levels of verification. Pay $250 for a premium account, and get your net worth fully verified, so the woman looking for a millionaire can be sure that he is the real deal. According to statistics the site published before rebranding, the average sugar daddy was 38, the average sugar baby 25, and the average monthly payment from sugar daddy to sugar baby was $2,500. The sugar babies wouldn’t call themselves sex workers, but at the end of the day an older man or woman is paying their rent plus extras, and that probably isn’t just for holding hands.
For comparison, Germany with it’s legal and regulated prostitution had 40,000 prostitutes before the pandemic, which went down to under 30,000 since. The millions of sugar babies on Seeking.com and other sugar dating websites seem to be of a much higher scale. While different people will have different moral ideas about sex work, I would say that economically the spread of sugar babes is not a good sign. It shows that the sugar babies don’t make enough money to live comfortably otherwise, while the sugar daddies (or mommies) have more than enough money for two. Another sign and consequence of rising inequality.