Say the words “sugar daddy” and chances are, the first image that springs to mind is of a successful, suavely dressed middle-aged man with an unquenchable thirst for 20-somethings, and an unlimited bank balance to spoil them in exchange for time, companionship and/or sex.
Sugar daddies have been around for centuries. In fact, cultural historian Kyle Livie points to the existence of a phenomenon called “treating” as far back as the 19th century, where the lifestyles of unmarried women with low-paying jobs were funded by men in exchange for their company.
Even today, sugar daddies help the young and the broke to enhance their lifestyles. In fact, thanks to the financial backlash and rising unemployment driven by the pandemic, sugar daddies have become a means of escape and assistance for young people across the world.
Yet, pop culture often portrays sugar daddies as nothing more than controlling, cantankerous old men who like their whiskey aged and their women young. While sugar daddies are often glamourised and looked upon as aspirational in passing jokes, in reality, the societal stigma associated with sex work also spills over to these unconventional arrangements, villanising both the involved parties.
But these preconceived notions can make it easy to forget that beneath all the sugar and added spice, there lies a human being with their own motivations and experiences that catapulted them into this world of transactional dating.
In a 2019 study published in the journal Sociological Perspectives, sociologist Maren Scull outlined seven types of sugar dating relationships that ranged from “sugar prostitution”—an arrangement devoid of all emotions, only involving the exchange of gifts or money for physical affection—to “compensated companionship”—where a platonic intimacy built through interactions is essential. But even as experts have attempted to outline the different types of relationships a sugar baby and daddy may share, often sidestepping sugar mommies from their analyses, there remains an undeniable social stigma that rejects these kinds of relationships.
To understand what drives sugar daddies, and why they may feel attracted to the idea of paying for a stranger’s lifestyle, VICE spoke to daddies around the world.
“From a male’s perspective, there’s a genuine feeling that you’re helping someone’s future,” Richard Doe*, a 42-year-old management consultant from Adelaide, Australia, who’s been a sugar daddy for four years, told VICE. “A lot of the girls I’ve been with have been brought up by single moms, and need the financial support. As a sugar daddy, we feel like their providers and that makes me feel like the money I’m putting into it isn’t wasted because someone’s using it to put food on their table, while genuinely wanting to be with me.”
Doe got into sugar dating to find an arrangement that suited his hectic schedule of managing two children after he split from his wife in 2016. For him, the attraction of being a benefactor is rooted in feeling good about helping someone. “I’d probably be lying if I said this was altruistic, but the way I see it, I’d much rather my money go to somebody who appreciates me as opposed to blowing it all at a strip club, where the women are usually trying to hustle you instead of building a connection.”
He isn’t the only one.
For 52-year old Sanjay Desai*, an investment banker who shuttles between India, Singapore and Hong Kong, the feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping someone with less experience or opportunity is the main attraction of being a sugar daddy.
“My sugar baby was struggling in her career,” he told VICE. “She joined a tech firm as a graduate but didn’t like her job. She needed a lot of guidance, which I was able to give her due to my technological background.” Desai, who joined sugar dating website Seeking Arrangement three years ago, spoke about how his financial position and connections not only helped fast-track his sugar baby’s career, but also became a saving grace in the initial months of India’s harsh lockdown period last year. “Her [his sugar baby’s] father passed away suddenly while the whole country was in lockdown and it was a miserable time for her. I was able to help her out by providing transportation and money while she faced a major financial crunch, as well as offer emotional support.”
Considering a major part of being a sugar daddy is about feeling good by helping others, the motivations can be linked to the saviour complex—the psychological need to help others in order for someone to feel good about themselves.
A feeling of overpowering control
While the saviour complex is one way to explain the attraction of being a sugar daddy, many also enjoy having the upperhand when it comes to transactional relationships.
“Sugar daddies feel good when they can help others achieve something their families may not have been able to do otherwise. While this can be the saviour complex, it can also be a power thing,” Seema Hingorrany, a Mumbai-based psychologist who has also counselled several sugar daddies, told VICE. While in a conventional relationship, the balance of power can perilously tilt if a powerful, older man is constantly the giver and a naive, young woman always the receiver, the boundaries and expectations seem more set, even if sometimes unspoken, when it comes to sugar dating.
In fact, Hingorrany points out, the financial agency that men tend to enjoy in our society is also partly responsible for sugar daddies getting more social acceptance than their female counterparts.
“I feel like I have control of the situation without feeling like I’ve hired a prostitute or escort,” Jack Manning*, a 60-year-old sugar daddy from Singapore, told VICE. For Manning, the financial nature of sugar dating helps him feel more secure about his relationship.
“Initially, I used to be concerned that my sugar babies only wanted me because of my money,” admitted Desai, saying that while he was initially insecure about the upper hand that being a sugar daddy awarded him, he gradually began to accept that these arrangements come with such expectations.
For some, the money angle allows them to establish their boundaries in a clearer way. “When you use a traditional dating app, people expect the relationship to end in marriage or kids. But as a sugar daddy, you get to set expectations right from the start,” Michael Swan*, an engineer who divides his time between London and Paris, told VICE. Though Swan is now engaged to his sugar baby, the flexibility of his arrangement has allowed him to explore an open relationship with his to-be wife.
Transference of emotions
While some sugar daddies prefer younger women for the power trip, a large section do so due to hidden trauma or complexes their brain has not yet processed. “I was doing therapy with a sugar daddy who didn’t have a great relationship with his daughter, and lost her to cancer,” said Hingorrany. “He told me that while he didn’t think of his young sugar baby as his daughter, since he was sexually attracted to her, there was some transference of emotions in terms of being her provider.”
Transference is a psychological phenomenon of redirecting repressed emotions onto another person in one’s present situation.
“I always wanted a daughter, but my wife and I could only have a son. I think one of the reasons I enjoy providing for my sugar baby is because I never had a daughter to do that for,” admitted financier Desai.
Making up for lost time
“I didn’t date much before I got married, and my marriage didn’t work out,” explains Desai.“I feel having a younger sugar baby helped me believe I had a second chance.” In many situations, sugar daddies feel they are regaining or reclaiming their past when in the company of a younger woman who looks up to them.
“The desire to become a sugar daddy can stem from deep complexes or hidden trauma that pushes these men to feel desired by younger women to seek validation,” pointed out Hingorrany. The psychologist added that in many cases, dating a younger woman becomes a substitute for therapy or can emerge as a feeling of getting a new lease on life. “One of my clients who was a sugar daddy told me that he not only felt more desirable after entering this arrangement, it also gave him more longevity.”
Financial domination fetish
While some may say that being a sugar daddy is in itself a sexual fetish, for some, the physical pleasure that comes with an exchange of money becomes the prime reason to get into sugar dating.
“It’s like an enhanced, more turning on version of role-playing without the prostitution and the pimp,” said Manning, who confessed that the sexual pleasure of paying someone to dominate him can lead to intense orgasms.
While dominance emerges as a common pattern in the motivations that drive the sugar daddies we spoke to, some said that being a submissive can make things all the more sensual for the sugar baby as well.
“I’ve had sugar babies who come from financially well-off backgrounds, but they have the kink of the money being exchanged,” admitted Doe. “Ultimately, it’s a safer, more consensual arrangement that lets both parties benefit, whereas prostitution usually only serves to benefit or pleasure one person.”
*Names changed on request.