'The money blinds you' - Student reveals 'darker side' of life with sugar daddy
PUBLISHED: 16:41 08 December 2019 | UPDATED: 17:06 08 December 2019
Financial pressure on students is leading many to find alternative ways of bringing in cash. As the paid dating industry experiences a boom, concerns are growing that some students are placing themselves in potentially dangerous situations. BETHANY WALES reports.
Google the term "sugar baby" and you will be flooded with stories of young women with lavish lifestyles, funded by men looking for "attractive company".
In the UK, a large proportion of paid relationships are set up through a website called SeekingArrangement, which promises "attractive members" fine dinners, exotic trips and allowances.
The site offers membership deals for students, and its marketing images show young women posing suggestively with older men. However, with no way of checking people's backgrounds, there is the potential for it to go very wrong.
Elise, now 22, was studying at university in Cambridge when she met David, 74, via the site.
Six months after their relationship ended, the now-graduate said she felt exploited by her former partner, and believed the paid dating industry was deliberately targeting vulnerable young women.
More than just expensive gifts, Elise said the potential to make contacts in the television industry was what drew her to sugar dating.
She said: "I felt pretty lost with what I was going to do after university. I'm from a normal family in Norfolk and don't really have any connections or money from parents.
"A lot of guys on there had secure jobs and probably knew people in the TV industry, which I was trying to get into. He offered me mentorship and that was appealing."
David paid for the 22-year-old to get her hair styled, and paid for new clothes, which he required her to wear when they met.
According to the retired TV producer, the gifts were to create a "professional image".
After a few weeks of meeting for drink, David proposed a permanent arrangement.
She said: "His offer was a weekly allowance of £1,000, an apartment paid for in London and gifts, basically anything I wanted I could get. He also gave me career guidance. My head was spinning. It was such a different world. I just thought it was a crazy opportunity."
The pair began dating, and although her career began to progress under David's mentorship, Elise said a darker side of the 74-year-old started to emerge.
She said: "He became more and more controlling. He would tell the waiter to take away my food before I'd finished, because he liked skinny girls. He said I had to take my nose ring out because it made me look working class. If I disagreed with his opinion he would lose his temper, call me stupid. He called it advice but it was really control because I wasn't allowed to question it."
Elise said things came to a head while on a weekend break in Paris.
She said: "He told me I had to have unprotected sex with him because he wanted it to feel like a real relationship, and not like being with a sex worker. The crazy thing is I actually felt guilty saying no, but I knew it was a step too far for me. We had a massive row and he turned on me. It was terrifying because I was completely reliant on him for everything - my apartment, my Masters degree, my future. He told me I wouldn't be able to survive without him, and I really believed it."
David kicked Elise out of the hotel room, leaving the student stranded in France. She was forced to call her parents, and confess what had happened.
Nearly a year later, the graduate wants to warn other women about exploitation in the paid dating industry, and the long term consequences of financially controlled relationships.
She said: "This industry is painted as glamorous from the outside, but for a lot of girls the reality is a lot darker. When you're relying on someone for your rent, your income, your career, it leaves you so vulnerable to being controlled. That kind of money blinds you to the truth of the situation. But it's easy to lose sight of yourself. He took over my life, made me terrified of what would happen if I didn't follow his instructions. For a long time after our relationship ended I was in a really bad place, it destroyed my confidence. Exploitation is the only word for it."
A spokesman for SeekingArrangement said Elise's experience was "unique", and that most of its members were not vulnerable to abusive relationships.
She added: "We make very clear that SeekingArrangement is not for people who are desperate, rather it is for people looking to elevate their dating life. Our members, both Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies, are very honest and direct about what their expectations are."
However, according to domestic abuse experts, dangerous power dynamics often develop when one partner controls the other's finances.
Mandy Proctor, chief executive of domestic violence support charity Leeway, said monetary control was often employed by abusive partners to isolate them, forcing dependency.
She said: "Abusive relationships will centre around the perpetrator having control over their partner, whether that is limiting their access to money or deciding who they see or what they wear. This control works to isolate the victim to the point where their independence is removed and they are heavily reliant on the perpetrator and have become withdrawn from support networks, such as family and friends."
Student sex work on the rise
Charity Save the Student polled 3,385 students in the UK, and discovered that 5pc of those living in the east of England had been involved with sex work. That, when worked out across the total student population, equates to around 6,350 in the region.
The charity said this number had more than doubled in the past two years, rising from 2pc in 2017 to 5pc in its most recent study.
Jake Butler, operations director, said the increase was unsurprising, given the level of financial hardship students experience in this region.
He said: "In the east of England, the gap between living costs and what they receive from parents each month is the largest in the UK.
"After their loans and parental contributions, the average student is still left £139 short a month and they need to look at other options to make up the difference whether this is a part-time job or something such as adult work."
Amelia Trew, welfare, community and diversity officer at UEA, said the university recognised the need for its students to work alongside studying, and did everything it could to offer well-paid employment at the Students' Union.
She said: "We support the right of students to work in whatever industry they feel is best for them but would call for greater levels of scrutiny and oversight of sites and services such as this to avoid there being any cases where people may find themselves being faced with situations which they didn't expect.
"It's important that support exists for people who may be faced with choices they don't want to make and so we'd encourage anyone who wants to come to the SU advice centre for supportive, independent advice."
For Emma, 33, the site has provided an opportunity to both supplement her income, and find relationships with like-minded men.
The mother, who lives in Norwich, has been communicating with sugar daddies via SeekingArrangement for a year, and said she has met a "higher calibre" of matches than on traditional dating apps.
Often she does not meet the men in person, but exchanges photos and flirtatious messages, in exchange for gifts.
She said: "They just want to make some genuine friendships and often sex does not even come into it."
Despite her positive experience, Emma said she keeps her sugar dating life hidden from friends and her teenage son, fearing that misconceptions about the industry would concern her loved ones.
She added: "Unless you've actually used those sites you're going to assume its something it's not. It's just easier this way."
If you need help with domestic abuse, contact Leeway on its 24-hour helpline on 0300 561 0077.
This is a completely free, confidential and non-judgmental service.
If you are unable to use the telephone or if you would prefer to email you can also do so on firstname.lastname@example.org If you are in imminent danger, call 999.