“Being able to sit in a Ferrari at 18 years old, cruising down LA, is a vibe… It felt like I was living a super glamorous lifestyle. I got to be in the same places they were in. And because they were successful, I felt like I was being mentored about life by seeing how they made it.” — A former sugar baby who studied at UCLA — and claims her clients were some of the richest men in California.
A “sugar baby” provides another person time and companionship, involving a negotiated form of physical intimacy, in exchange for payment. A lot of controversy veils the experiences of these so-called companions-for-hire, often considered by the public as a cover for unregulated sex work and class/gender exploitation. Nevertheless, it has exploded in popular mythology as a sexy, self-empowering fast track into the lifestyle of the rich and famous. As student journalists working godforsaken hours for little to no pay and strongly considering a potential career change, we wanted to know the truth. Who exactly could make a living like this, and how? UCLA was the perfect place to conduct this investigation. Our campus, beset by rising tuition and rent costs with the lonely rich living right next door, has one of the highest numbers of active sugar babies among universities in the U.S. at any time.
We surveyed different sugar babies from UCLA about their personal experiences with regards to their intersectional identities, benefits, drawbacks, and work-school balance — and this is the result. The responses we got ranged from glamorous and gutsy, to numbing and shocking, to random and hilarious — all to form a bittersweet and unique perspective on realities lived out by college students just looking to catch some honey, being honey. Now that you’re primed for the many sugary puns sprinkled throughout this article, here’s what we discovered:
I. On Identity
We had six respondents in total, but their identities and outlooks were incredibly varied and diverse. In no particular order, we got different perspectives from:
- one straight white woman,
- one bisexual white woman,
- one straight Hispanic woman,
- one bisexual South Asian woman,
- one East Asian trans woman, and
- one straight male (ethnicity undisclosed)!
Different yet the same: their one uniting ability was an overwhelming awareness of the metaphors they became for their customers — often slanted by an equally overwhelming awareness of the ethnic stereotyping that symbolism was based on. Playing into it can be high-risk: “because I’m Asian and trans, they all naturally assume I’m submissive,” one respondent shared. “(Which, okay, I am), but… then I was always hierarchically put under them. [It] affected how they saw me and how much worth they put on me as a person.” To be beautiful, it seems, can be the opposite of empowering when it is objectified as something to dominate — especially when the beholder’s object is conquest. It’s worth noting that she also mentioned feeling underpaid compared to her associates who were white sugar babies. However, one other correspondent of color refused to be stereotyped and so fiercely protects herself against this: “I only talk to sugar daddies who respect me for my intellect and personality and respect the boundaries I set up for myself. Therefore, I don’t feel defined by the way they view or identify me.”
As for how they viewed and identified their customers, we found that glucose guardians are not so diverse as the sugar babies they have a taste for. Glucose guardians tend to be older men, sometimes women who are generally queer, and overall are mostly dominant personalities. And, yes, glucose guardians get a bad rap for being creepy — but each sugar baby revealed different experiences, some legitimately sleazy and gross, while others, awkwardly tender and vulnerable. All of them mentioned how at the core of it, their customers were all just lonely. Their job is to sift through that loneliness and coax something else out, and whether that’s positive or negative depends on the customer. There was quiet sympathy in their casual admissions, in the calculated nonchalance through which they discussed the ever-flipping power dynamics between themselves and their customers: if loneliness is creepy, then maybe we’re all kind of creepy sometimes.
(Still. When they’re really creepy, they’re really creepy. “I feel grossed out about myself every time after, but [at least] the money makes up for it,” one perpetually objectified sugar baby shrugs.)
II. On Experience
On a more boastful note, the respondents listed many benefits that are intended to make up for the occasional discomfort: gifts, allowances, sponsored trips, and adoration, which they’re paid to receive. It was important to many respondents that we see the good parts of their job first, even though their experiences can be difficult and the work they do is difficult. They wanted us to understand first that this should be more positivized and destigmatized in the media than it currently is, as a job that people should be able to be proud of — because not everyone can do it. Many of them emphasized how casually they slinked into the business out of boredom, as criminally beautiful femmes fatales (or hommes fatales, or Ruby Roses, as our very diverse respondents might like to add) who got to “use [their] sexuality in an empowering manner and earn some dough.”
It was with the same enigmatic hauteur that most of them demurred when they were asked whether they considered it as not just work, but sex work. However, we did get a few vehement rejections (“No!”) to saucy confirmations (“I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. It’s work that involves sex. Next question.”) There was a reluctance, it seemed, to lend any strength to arguments against the profession they had involved themselves with — but not all responses were like that.
One respondent confirmed that some people like her were exploited in their desperate economic circumstances and traumatized by the experience. While some of our sugar babies — primarily the white respondents — could see it as a way to earn money passing the time, our respondents of color and those less economically privileged respondents often had to see it as a necessary job to earn the money to survive. And without systemic protections in place, they could not be equal negotiators in their transactions.
In these answers, a common truth began to crystallize. It became clear to us that the majority’s reluctance to admit to any negative aspect was motivated twofold — by the fact that those who did it to pass time couldn’t understand how infinitely different their experiences were to those who had to do it, and the even darker fact that if something horrible does happen to any of them, they can’t complain anyway because of the stigma already attached to the profession. Because they trusted us, we can admit it for them: when you need the money and the economy pushes you into sex work to survive, you don’t need judgment on top of everything — you need a government that looks out for you and protects you from exploitation if it can’t provide you alternatives.
Because sugar babies almost exclusively receive only judgment, those who can’t quit when it becomes dangerous have nowhere to turn to, because the only response they can expect is a heartless I told you so. In our eyes, the only recourse many of them see is the counterintuitive tactic to oversell the positive aspects so as to deter the negative criticisms which only serve to embed more danger into the profession.
III. On Campus
UCLA’s premium location by Beverly Hills, the majority of our respondents agreed, definitely helps with sweetening the deal as much as possible. “I didn’t realize how big (and okay) of an industry this was until I came to UCLA,” one respondent reveals. La La Land, whether you love it or hate it for this, eats beauty up — and its appetite is bottomless. Being able to couple beauty with brains was often an additional selling point to customers as well: “they definitely have a lot of respect and admiration for the fact that I go to UCLA,” another respondent shares. A smoking hot date you can bring to a charity research gala, who can exchange repartee fluidly in Vietnamese with your client and dissect the latest nuclear energy developments directing environmental policy with your advisor, all while casually flexing serious biceps that curl elegantly around your back? These UCLA students are diverse, golden-hearted, and hardworking dreamboats who excel in everything they put their minds to, like, say, making you and everyone you know fall in love with them. They won’t act ashamed about it.
Interestingly enough, some of them argued that UCLA’s academic calendar uniquely encouraged them to become sugar babies. The quarter system is rough — UCLA students are expected to master whole fields of academia in 10 weeks and then do it again two or three more times every year, and that puts an unforgiving time restriction on the kinds of part-time jobs one can realistically take on. Sugar babying is one potential solution to make enough money in a short time with less commitment than most other jobs… at least for some students. For others, it can be less of an empowering solution and more of a bleak lifeline, in a way that we’ve discussed it really shouldn’t have to be. Given UCLA’s unique position between Beverly Hills and Hollywood, the profitability of the business is an unusually strong siren call. An institutional imperative to establish measures to protect students, who may be unwillingly involved in sex work, is soberingly clear.
IV. Final Thoughts
Whether you agree that sugar babying is actual work that should be protected or not, it takes actual work to do. For one, it’s exhausting to play someone’s fantasy 24/7 when you’re a human being who can’t be “on” all the time. For another, you’ve got to be able to protect yourself because no one is going to look out for you. It’s part of the brand — for better or for worse, no one cries for sugar babies. Except, of course, other sugar babies who get it.
In the spirit of solidarity, the more seasoned respondents had plenty of cautionary tales and words of wisdom to share for prospective and beginner sugar babies looking to get into the business — lessons they wish had been accessible to them when they themselves first started out, if not for the stigma attached.
If this is something you’d find yourself interested in, here’s your bible to check back to in whatever situation, whatever way the cookie crumbles:
Lesson #1: “Pepper spray. L – O – L!” Let this be self-explanatory.
Lesson #2: “Meet publicly.” It’s not standard to meet at someone’s house for the first time. Go somewhere you wouldn’t be alone with your glucose guardian and yet not so crowded that you wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about potentially sexual topics for the first time.
Lesson #3: “Don’t give out your bank account number to people . . . ” if you haven’t met them yet. A lot of scammers pretend to send money to you only to steal your money.
Lesson #4: “Know your worth.” Know how much your time is worth. Really upsell your value from the get-go, because it’s harder to renegotiate once the first price has been set. Sugar daddies and mommies are more willing to negotiate on the initial offer than later on.
Lesson #5: “Know that you can lie.” About anything and everything. You can use a fake name, fake number, fake life if you want to — they’re paying for a fantasy, so it’s not personal. It’s also self-preservational not to sell your private information and put a hard line between what you’re selling them from who you are. It’s customer service, not emotional labor. In this way, it’s very much just like any other job you might not like.
And there you have it.
We set out to explore the wild side and came back floored at what we learned. The reality of it all isn’t all glamorous — the business has its equal share of angels and monsters, and it’s been an uphill battle for these sugar babies to tip the scales for the better. Thankfully, they gave us the best insider tips and tricks to get through the glitzy rock sugar mountain in (mostly) one piece, and the evidence of their combined ferocity was awe-inspiring. This is a ballsy business, pardon the double entendre — and you’ve got to dish it out as equally as you get dished.
Maybe our humor’s a bit macabre, but our respondents were so primly, delightfully tongue-in-cheek about it all: almost violently independent, with the guts to get down and dirtyyyy, and then flash us a smile with the blood all over their teeth. They’re all just so unfairly pretty the whole time, too. Never a hair out of place. But their nails are sharp. And their eyelashes are heavy, but their eyes are wide open.
And even with the ugliest details they had to reveal, what most stood out about this hidden population at UCLA was that they harbored such a wealth of resilience. Not just anyone can do what they’ve done, and equally so, not just anyone can embrace the parts of life that they’ve embraced as reality.
It’s tough, intricate work. Sometimes it’s dangerous. Often, it’s unfair. But they pushed through it all, undauntedly and indefatigably glorious, and maintained their empathy as well. No shade, but not half the premeds who volunteer at prestigious health centers can claim nearly the same level of proof of concept.
Call it whatever you want: sex work, not work, a lifestyle, a joke, a fantasy… But it takes a strong heart to fight through the bitter truths of life, and still find ways to make it so sweet. That’s mint.