The psychology of sugar dating: New research dives deep into the realities of sugar arrangements

By Eric W. Dolan


Have you ever wondered about the dynamics behind sugar dating? A recent study published in The Journal of Sex Research sheds light on this form of dating, revealing fresh insights into the motivations, benefits, perceived disadvantages, and the nuanced power dynamics at play.

Sugar dating is a type of relationship where a wealthier individual, often referred to as a “sugar daddy” or “sugar mommy,” provides financial support, gifts, or other material benefits to a partner, commonly called a “sugar baby,” in exchange for companionship, intimacy, or both.

Prior research on sugar dating has predominantly focused on its differentiation from traditional sex work or on public perceptions of entering into such arrangements. However, there has been a noticeable gap in understanding the experiences and perspectives of the individuals involved in these relationships, as well as the dynamics of power and negotiation within these relationships.

“There seems to be an increase in attention surrounding sugar daddies, sugar babies, and the arrangements they form in the media and in conversations,” explained study author Kate Metcalfe, a clinical psychology PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The widely-promoted view that having a sugar daddy provides a solution to financial difficulties or a type of protection from the perils of dating these days was something I frequently heard from my peers, but there is so little research that actually examined sugar dating. It made researchers in our lab (Sex Meets Relationships) wonder what sugar arrangements really entail, how they work, and whether there are risks associated with engaging in age-disparate relationships that involve transactions for intimacy and sex.”

How the Study Was Conducted

For their study, the researchers recruited a broad demographic spectrum of participants across the United States and Canada, totaling 77 individuals. This group included 45 women, 31 men, and one non-binary individual, all of whom had recent or ongoing experience with sugar dating. The recruitment process leveraged various platforms, such as sugar dating sites, forums, and social media channels, to reach potential respondents.

The researchers utilized several specific measures to examine various factors related to sugar dating relationships. A demographic questionnaire gathered detailed information about participants’ backgrounds, including their age, gender, race, education, and employment status.

To assess the power dynamics within these relationships, the Relationship Power Inventory was used. This tool measures the perceived power held by each partner in a relationship, offering insights into how decisions are made and how influence is exerted within sugar dating contexts. The Hypergender Ideology Scale–Short Form was employed to evaluate participants’ endorsement of traditional gender roles, while an adapted version of the Sex Worker Stigma Index was used to assess perceived stigma associated with participation in sugar arrangements.

Participants also provided self-reports on their history of sugar dating, including the number of partners, the nature of their arrangements, and their experiences of emotional intimacy and pressure within these relationships. This information was complemented by open-ended questions that allowed participants to express, in their own words, their motivations for entering into sugar dating, the benefits and disadvantages they perceived, and their experiences regarding power, trust, and compensation within these arrangements.

The researchers conducted a content analysis of the qualitative responses to identify key themes and patterns. This analysis aimed to uncover the underlying motivations for sugar dating, the perceived benefits and drawbacks of these arrangements, and the dynamics of power and agency as experienced by participants.

Sugar Dating Histories and Related Activities
The study highlighted a significant age difference between sugar babies and their benefactors, with participants’ ages spanning from 18 to 74 years old. On average, sugar babies were significantly younger, with an average age of 28.76 years, compared to sugar benefactors, who had an average age of 48.15 years.

Sugar babies, on average, reported engaging in approximately four sugar dating arrangements throughout their lifetime, with a range that spanned from one to fifty arrangements. This indicates a significant variance in the extent of participation in sugar dating, with some individuals treating it as a one-time or occasional endeavor, while others engage in it more frequently or as a substantial part of their dating life.

Over one-third of sugar babies indicated a history of engaging in other transactional sex work, such as stripping, selling content on online webcam services, or traditional sex work (e.g., escorting).

Sugar benefactors, on the other hand, reported a slightly higher average number of arrangements, with an average of over six arrangements, highlighting a potentially greater propensity among benefactors to engage in multiple or sequential sugar dating relationships.

The majority of sugar benefactors reported histories of paying for sexual activities, whether in nightclubs, through online webcam services, or with traditional sex workers. This highlights a wider pattern of transactional sexual relationships among benefactors, suggesting that sugar dating might be one avenue among several that they pursue for companionship and sexual interaction.

Motivations for Sugar Dating
A primary motivation for sugar babies entering into these arrangements was financial compensation, aligning with expectations about the transactional nature of sugar dating. However, beyond the monetary incentives, sugar babies also sought emotional connection, companionship, and the opportunity to experience a lifestyle beyond their means.

Sugar benefactors, on the other hand, were driven by the desire for companionship and intimacy with partners perceived as more attractive or otherwise out of their league in conventional dating scenarios. This desire was often coupled with a sense of adventure and the appeal of mentoring younger partners.

Both sugar babies and benefactors reported that companionship and the dating aspect of their arrangements were important, with many emphasizing that their relationships involved activities typical of traditional dating. This finding highlights the significance of emotional and social interactions in these relationships.

The findings indicate that “sugar arrangements are not as simple as they seem or as they are depicted frequently online. What’s most interesting about them is that they clearly involve aspects of both transactional sex and traditional romantic relationships,” Metcalfe told PsyPost.

“There is a misconception that you can receive gifts (or money) just to text someone without any sort of sexual activity, but this just does not hold true. Most, if not all, sugar arrangements involve some level of sexual exchange, which typically coincides with a level of intimacy or emotional connection, as well as a ‘dating’ component where sugar partners spend time together outside of the bedroom.”

Concerns, Challenges, Gender Roles, and Stigma
Despite the benefits, participants voiced significant concerns, particularly regarding safety and the authenticity of their relationships. Sugar babies expressed worries about physical safety and coercion, taking precautions especially in the early stages of an arrangement. Benefactors, meanwhile, were concerned about exploitation and the potential impact on their reputation, indicating the social stigma still attached to sugar dating.

Sugar benefactors felt a stronger emotional connection than sugar babies, who more frequently reported feeling pressured within these arrangements. But the transactional nature of these arrangements also led to doubts among benefactors about the genuineness of the emotional connections formed, underscoring the inherent tension between financial transactions and authentic intimacy in sugar dating.

Contrary to what might be expected in arrangements that could be perceived as reinforcing traditional gender dynamics—where men provide financial support to women in exchange for companionship or sexual intimacy—the participants reported only moderate endorsement of traditional gender roles.

Furthermore, the study revealed moderately low levels of perceived stigma associated with participation in sugar dating, suggesting that participants might not feel as socially marginalized as might be expected.

The Surprising Power Dynamics of Sugar Dating
Interestingly, the study also uncovered that power dynamics in sugar dating are more nuanced than typically portrayed. While financial transactions are inherent to these arrangements, a substantial number of participants, including benefactors, perceived sugar babies as having significant power within the relationship. This power was often attributed to the sugar babies’ ability to negotiate terms and their desirability.

“We had initially hypothesized that the older partner (the sugar daddy, mommy, or benefactor) would report having more power in the relationship by nature of their age, financial position, and their gender (typically older, cis-gender men),” Metcalfe noted. “Although we acknowledge the contribution of finances in determining power, our findings reveal that physical appearance and compensation also uniquely shape perceived power and agency in the context of sugar dating.”

“That is, sugar babies (typically young, cis-gender women) often derive a strong sense of empowerment from feeling desired – valuable and sexy – and receiving compensation for that. At the same time, some benefactors express a surprising degree of vulnerability – especially uncertainty around whether their sugar partner’s attraction was authentic or performative.”

These power dynamics could have important implications. In a previous study, researchers found evidence suggesting that perceptions of power played an important role in condom usage. In particular, sugar babies who felt they had more power in their relationship reported more consistent condom use compared to those who felt their sugar daddy had more power.

Caveats: The Potential for Selection Bias
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. Notably, the research relied on self-reported data, which is subject to recall bias. Additionally, the sample might not fully represent the diversity of the sugar dating world, and might overrepresent those with positive sugar dating experiences.

“We have to keep in mind that there is what psychologists refer to as a ‘selection bias’ at play here,” Metcalfe explained. “This means that our results do not represent the larger population, or in this case, all sugar dating experiences. There is a broad spectrum of experiences, some good, some bad, and we have to assume that those willing to talk about their experiences for research are probably more likely to have had good sugar experiences. Therefore, our results are likely skewed a tad positively; even so, our participants acknowledged and understood the risks of sugar dating arrangements, including risks to physical safety, scamming, or reputational harm.”

Looking Forward
As sugar dating continues to evolve and gain visibility, understanding the motivations and experiences of those involved becomes crucial in navigating the ethical, emotional, and societal consequences of these relationships. Future research could help to deepen the understanding of sugar dating and its implications for individuals and society.

“We really hope that our findings on sugar arrangements encourage other researchers to examine the dynamics of these relationships more closely,” Metcalfe said. “Investigations across research labs, especially if our findings are replicated, is the best way to feel confident about what we uncovered here — getting the bigger picture about sugar dating. And more specifically, we definitely need to hear more from the people who pay for the company of young people in these relationships — that is certainly something fresh from our work. What was surprising in part was how practical the young people’s voices were and how emotional and connection-driven the benefactors’ voices appeared to be. It would be great if some researchers explored that further — perhaps we will!

“The hardest part about investigating this topic is the stigma associated with it, largely due to the transactional nature of these relationships,” Metcalfe added. “Social media certainly has helped bring these issues to light and to create a certain level of openness about it, but we are concerned that by doing so many who stand to benefit financially (i.e., the companies promoting these relationships) continue to exploit young people, especially those in financial need, by suggesting that these relationships are common, typical, or normative. It’s hard to get around that point.”

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