From Student to Sugar Baby: Portsmouth Students Seek Arrangements

The University of Portsmouth has more students than any other university in Britain signed up to a controversial “Sugar Daddy” dating website. Andrea Smikle investigates.

Online dating has evolved a lot since 1995 when was founded. There are now sites that connect people who share the same religious beliefs or belong to the same ethnic group. Advances in tech have brought faster, more user-friendly dating apps for smartphones allowing members to “like” a potential partner’s picture. Tinder was the first such “swipe app” on which users could also cross-check their matches with Facebook profiles. The app went viral, partly because of its worst first-date stories and hook-up anecdotes. Tinder has also been part of a trend moving away from promising “serious” relationships to encouraging more casual interactions.

Founded in 2006, Seeking Arrangement has caused controversy for helping young women – known as “Sugar Babies” –  find older, financially secure partners or “Sugar Daddies”. How does it work? First you sign up with a picture of yourself and then search for eligible Sugar Babies or Daddies, stating what you want from – and what you have to give – to a potential partner. Gifts, dinner dates, nights out clubbing and other incentives can be exchanged.

I asked Maura Welp, a spokesperson for Seeking Arrangement, whether her site promotes prostitution. ‘Members are not looking for something transactional, they seek meaningful relationships, mentorships, and friendships,’ she said. ‘Many traditional relationships fail because there is not enough give, and too much take. Things would be much easier if goals and starting points were already set forth before entering said relationship. Using our service everyone gets what they want, when they want it.’

Given the recent rise in crimes linked to online dating, I wanted to know what Seeking Arrangement was doing to protect its members from abuse or exploitation. ‘We go to measures both internally and externally,’ said Welp, but refused to elaborate on what those measures are.

How does all this relate to Portsmouth? Last February, the BBC website reported on the popularity of Seeking Arrangement amongst female students struggling with debt and poverty. The University of Portsmouth had the most new student sign-ups (216) of all British HE institutions, with the Universities of Kent (212), South Wales (208) and Cambridge (207) close behind.

I asked Welp why students – from Portsmouth and elsewhere – are drawn to Seeking Arrangement. Her carefully worded response swapped the term “Sugar Daddy” in favour of “mentors” and “sponsors” that students get the opportunity to meet when they sign up to the site. She also said, ‘It’s a great place to set up a business network upon graduation.’ My misgiving here is that, in the real working world, it would be unprofessional or rather awkward working for somebody you had previously dated – or made a “sugar” arrangement with.

While she admitted to a large age gap between the Sugar Babies and their Sugar Daddies, Wep said that genuine loving relationships can and do start on the site. ‘Chemistry is a key factor for a romantic connection. If two members find that they have chemistry, then a romantic relationship is absolutely possible.’

But Welp couldn’t tell me how many such relationships have begun on Seeking Arrangement as opposed to encounters of a more sex-and money-driven kind.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.