Seeking Arrangement: TikTok, Sugar Daddies

Like most of my peers, I’ve spent a large part of the last year and a half on TikTok. Since its meteoric rise at the onset of the pandemic, the platform has now stabilized as a cultural monolith, clocking in over a billion monthly users as of September 2021, and reflecting––and at times influencing––the tastes and opinions of its users, the bulk of whom are between the ages of 18 and 26. Last summer, as many states’ COVID-19 restrictions began to slacken, I found my feed flooded with videos about new romances, beach parties, and users’ missions to achieve the elusive and highly sought-after “hot girl summer.” Within days these were met with counter-posts reprimanding those who didn’t take health guidelines seriously and parodying the obsession with living a breezy, care-free lifestyle as wildfires tore through much of California. The content presented to me was ever-changing in order to best reflect, with specificity and a share of humor, all of my cached resentments and desires. 

As school started for much of the country, new posts began to focus on creators’ frustration over schoolwork, unrequited crushes, burnout, and mental illness. Then, one hyper-specific genre came to take up a growing share of my feed––initially as a tongue-and-cheek parody, then as a cynical reflection on student debt, and now, increasingly, as an expression of close-to-genuine yearning. A huge number of young creators who had spent the last year concerned with everything from finance to leftist economic policies to romance suddenly shifted focus, converging on what they insisted would be the solution to all of their problems: Generation Z wanted a sugar daddy. 

The term ‘sugar daddy’ dates back to the 1920s, though records of the quintessential sugar daddy/baby dynamic can be found as early as the 19th century in a social practice called “treating,” according to cultural historian Dr. Kylie Livie. The practice almost always involves a wealthy, established, (usually) older man who uses his fortune to lavish a young, attractive partner with money and gifts in exchange for sexual favors. The benefactor can be painted as handsome and the resulting relationship as romantic (think Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, or Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele), but the most common picture is of an old, ugly man who can’t garner a partner’s affection without paying for it.

Unsurprisingly, few TikToks focus on the sugar daddy himself, instead choosing to paint a picture of the exquisite luxury sugaring provides. One TikTok includes a shot of the creator sitting under a Christmas tree packed with Louis Vuitton and Gucci boxes. In another, short clips of beautiful mansions, a yacht, a line of vintage cars, and a group of people holding cocktails at a nice restaurant. One is just a series of shots of Venmo payments, ranging from $25 to over $500, with the caption, “here’s what i got in a month from being a sugar baby😌.” Without fail, the video creators are young and usually appear no more elegant than the average college student. They could be a classmate or friend––you could pass them on the street and think nothing of it––and yet they appear to have access to resources most viewers couldn’t dream of. One of the top comments is, without fail, the mantra, ‘It’s hard to see someone else out living your dreams.’

While stories of beautiful people living extravagant lives aren’t a new phenomenon, TikTok has changed the dynamic by uniquely presenting sugaring as a potentially-achievable goal. Because videos are produced rapidly and often without careful planning, we see creators without makeup or on their way to complete mundane tasks. The medium is also incredibly collaborative: comments feature prominently and can be conspicuously liked by, replied to, or ‘pinned’ to the top of the list by the original creator. As a result, viewers can ask and answer questions about sugaring in real time, creating an intimate, almost conversational relationship between viewer and creator. This intimacy alters the position of sugaring in the cultural imagination––an ordinary viewer can now think to themselves, this is something that people like me do, potentially altering their own behavior. Sugaring is slowly transmuting, at least in viewers’ minds, from a lottery to a career path. 

And, as in any career, many experts are willing to give sage advice. In “Inside the Sugar Baby School of TikTok,” Chloe Meley notes a number of topics taught by the sugaring community, including “respect for one’s boundaries and self-love” and conversations of “what empowerment can and should look like.” Lessons also cover the darkly practical; as TikTok inspires many people to consider sugaring, lessons now include the possibility of being scammed or worse.

By expanding exposure to sugaring, TikTok has brought perceptions of sugaring back to reality. For most, sugaring doesn’t look like the multi-million-liked videos of Gucci bags and private yachts; just as often, it’s done to pay off student loans or hospital bills, support families, or in pursuit of a normal, comfortable life. With its more intimate user-viewer environment, the platform also grants us a peek under the curtain––sugar babies juggling multiple clients, explaining how they act or dress to appear enticing, or sharing terrifying stories of close calls with dangerous or unappealing clients. TikTok does not merely reframe the cultural conversation around sugaring, however; its message is also an explicit departure from the messaging employed by other platforms. For instance, in a 2019 article in The Harvard Crimson, Malaika Tapper emphasizes that the marketing of prominent sugaring sites like SeekingArrangement positions sugaring as a route to free money, “eras[ing] the baby’s work and focus[ing] instead on what she gains…” TikTok’s comparatively transparent culture seeks to give a more nuanced account of sugar babies, a niche which other platforms, by either being too polished or perhaps too sexually conservative, were incapable of filling.

In any case, sugaring has a hold on my generation, both as an idealized rocket ship ride to incredible wealth and a common-sense way to cope with the depressing reality of college debt and increasing feelings of financial uncertainty. It’s strange that sugar daddy culture has found its way into Gen Z’s collective heart, a demographic famous for its interest in Bernie Sanders-ian redistribution of wealth, but Jia Tolentino offers a compelling explanation in her essay “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams.” She writes, “I have felt so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional––to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.” For her generation, the millennials, that meant trying to pull off a fortune-building scam––be it a fraudulent healthcare company or a big short. For Gen Z, far too cynical to believe in any serendipitous climb to becoming independently wealthy, sugaring presents a more reasonable alternative––become desirable, and there are people who will pay to desire you. Whether TikTok will continue to fuel this fantasy is impossible to determine, but it certainly appears to be more than a passing trend. Sugar babies have carved out space in the digital market, and they’re willing to tell you about it.

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