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sugaring, sex trafficking
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Parents, pay attention — Backpage is out, sugaring is in

(Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Cosmopolitan NYFW)

For years, the discussion around kids being trafficked for sex focused largely on Backpage.com. In 2018, federal officials seized the site and new laws were passed to help protect children from the sex trade. Many warned the demise of Backpage and Craigslist’s decision to end its personals would just lead to similar sites popping up. That’s not necessarily what happened, but there is one trend growing more popular by the day that is considered a big threat to kids: “sugaring.”

“Sugaring is a concept where you are essentially signing up for some sort of relationship or construct where you have a sugar baby and a sugar daddy. The sugar daddy is the one with the resources and the power and the privilege, and they give things of value, which could be a trip or a dinner or cash or clothing or jewelry, whatever it is, to the sugar baby in exchange for something,” explained King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Benjamin Gauen.

There are several websites linked to the trend that are now linked to the high-profile investigation of a Florida Congressman, but Gauen says it goes well beyond such high-profile cases. And, though sometimes sugaring can involve just one person providing platonic companionship to another, that’s often not the case.

“The problem is when companionship and that sort of boundary gets extended and pushed,” Gauen explained. “Then you have expectations of sex that can lead to boundaries being pushed even more and mutuality is lost. And there’s something that’s non-consensual.”

That’s also not the only concern.

“There’s a lot of survivors who I work with who have somehow been affected or involved with sugaring,” he said. “And really, it’s a new frontier of exploitation. It’s marketed in a way where you’re trying to sanitize the harms of exploitation or prostitution. And it’s packaged in a way where folks think they’re avoiding legal liability, when in fact, this is still exploitation. It’s just got a creative marketing lingo to it.”

And, its popularity is growing.

“We’ve certainly seen not only an increase in cases, but an increase in the sugaring narrative online,” Gauen said. “I mean, if you Google it, you’ll find mainstream journalists and publications talking about sugaring and not really delving into the true dangers and consequences that this construct can create.”

Targeting minors

Those dangers are many, especially when minors are involved.

“Minors are looking at this as a way to get a cell phone, or a vape pen, or a trip to the mall with a credit card. And so they’re Googling it, they’re seeing it being glamorized, maybe some of their friends are doing it. And so they’re giving it a try,” he explained.

“They’re targeting people in college who tend to be younger, and are not operating with financial independence,” Gauen added. “So they have vulnerabilities because of their age and where they are in their life.”

But we’re not just talking about college kids. High-school aged kids are impacted, too — some are especially vulnerable kids, maybe homeless and on their own. This is also attracting suburban kids from good homes interested in that mall trip, or whatever it may be.

“When we think about sugaring in particular, we’ve seen a lot of young people, and we’re talking all genders here, that typically have already had sex desensitized to them. So whether that is through abuse, or just these general views of being able to be perceived as more valuable for being able to trade sexual services, and so we see folks kind of get involved and enter this world,” said Audrey Baedke with REST – a group that works to help those who were sex trafficked.

“Once involved in the sex trade, there are various ways to be able to advertise services, to be able to find customers,” Baedke explained. “The safest route is often being able to have a regular, and in particular, a sugar daddy, who would be able to provide higher financial means than somebody who’s just doing a one-off date, and has more emotional investment in it, so that they’re willing to be able to continue to support that person.”

“The majority of our clients have experienced sugaring, or will often seek to engage in sugaring as it can be more lucrative and safer than taking dates off of the street or kind of normal escorting,” Baedke said.

Stats we should all be aware of:

“More than 500 people last year — and each year, it’s something similar — in King County, there are estimates that about 500 youth are sold on any given night. That’s both through escorting but also includes sugaring,” Baedke said. “And then for adults, it’s estimated probably between one and 3,000 are sold on any given night.”

As with other types of sex work, sugaring can lead to dangerous situations.

“You could meet with somebody who negotiates terms and follows through with them,” Baedke said. “But you also might meet with somebody who doesn’t follow those terms, who ends up raping you or robbing you.”

A former sugar baby

“It’s not all hunky-dory, like, yes, I’m getting my tuition paid and they are paying for an apartment,” explained a former sugar baby, who shared her story on the condition of anonymity.

“When you get down to the nitty gritty, it’s also you have a lot of clients who will retaliate if you don’t text them back fast enough,” she said. “If you have to cancel something, like if you if you are not holding up exactly like what the standard is in their eyes. Like they own you. And that is what they feel is that they own you because they are giving you this monetary thing.”

At 14-years-old and homeless, she entered the sugaring trade as a means to survive.

“It was always multiple (clients), just because it was like, why not more money? Obviously, as a 14-year-old girl, I can’t really get like a regular job, and so it was kind of just like a means to survive, and provide for myself,” she said.

But how do you get to that point where that’s the choice you make?

“I had experienced sexual abuse, you know, sex was desensitized, and it was kind of like, I get this has already been taken from me, like, at least let me monetize off of it. Like, I mean, you know, on my terms,” she said.

She used various “sugaring” websites, of which there are many, and many that are not shut down like Backpage, as it is less clear what is exactly happening when you’re talking about sugaring. For many of-age sugar babies and sugar daddies, the conversation is similar to one might have when scheduling a normal date. If you go out with someone for dinner and you or they pick up the tab for the date, that’s not illegal, right?

“I use a lot of like sugar baby websites, did a little bit off Craigslist, when that was still a thing,” she explained. “Things like that, and built my clientele — essentially just like, built this business of provisions and certain things that I would do, certain rules that I had to protect myself, but also to keep this lifestyle that I had going for me.”

“Being a young woman, your body and sex … there are always going to be buyers. And on the websites that advertised that, I was 18, but a few of them ended up finding out that I wasn’t and were OK with that. And that is where I see the problem with it. It’s just because being a minor,” she said.

“As a grown man, that should not be something that you are seeking out,” she said. “I really believe that a lot of these men who were my regulars knew that I was underage, could tell that I was underage, and still went forward with it.”

She eventually left the industry after having a daughter of her own and now works with REST to help others.

The prosecutor’s office is also stepping up its efforts to combat sugaring and has partnered with DNA Seattle and nonprofit Stolen Youth for “Project Sugarfree,” which uses an algorithm to spot phrases and language used by sugar babies and sugar daddies on social media to try to interrupt the arrangement and auto-generating messages of warning.

Warning the vulnerable

For instance, a message from a sugar baby that is recognized might prompt a message like this:

While a message from a sugar daddy on the hunt could prompt this:

The goal is to try to interact and interrupt the would-be sugar daddies and educate both parties, while also finding those who may be caught up in a dangerous situation they don’t fully understand.

“We want to provide a real-life awareness to the dangers that people can fall into with sugaring,” Gauen said.

“We’ve seen obviously children on these websites,” he added. “We’ve also seen boundaries be misconstrued and people that are harmed through some level of sexual assault.”

Another layer of the danger involved is young people who believe sex is what makes them valuable, a way of thinking that often has chilling ramifications for people for years, including depression and worse.

One point prosecutors want to be sure everyone understands is that this is an illegal activity if there is sex involved for anything of value. That is true whether the parties are minors or adults.

While there are those in the sex trade who choose to make their living that way and are empowered by their choice, despise being made out as victims, many others are, in fact, vulnerable and have no other choice and possibly no way out.

If you or anyone you know is being trafficked and needs help, there are resources, even if rescue is not what they need. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.

For help or more information, visit REST here, Stolen Youth here, and the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center here. Public Health — Seattle & King County has a website about how to help stop human trafficking here.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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