#NoFilter: Seeking Innocence in an Online Dating Culture

In the #NoFilter series, private sector engagement interns Ashley Solle and Nicole Phocas discuss youth, social media, and society in the context of the recent Jeffrey Epstein case.

Jeffrey Epstein was rich. The day he died, he had a net worth of over $577 million. He was also a serial rapist and trafficker who preyed on teenage girls. While we obviously can’t speak for the survivors on the details of each individual case of child sex trafficking, statutory rape, or child sexual exploitation that took place, we couldn’t help but think about why he got away with it for so long. That’s when we realized: “sugar daddy” relationships which feature a wealthy older adult are so normalized in today’s dating culture that they can lead to acceptance of child sexual exploitation. A “sugar daddy” or “sugar mama” is a well-to-do older person who lavishes a younger person with gifts and financial benefits in exchange for their company and/or sex. These “mutually beneficial relationships” are pretty popular among college-aged women looking to pay off student loan debt, but -- as recent events have highlighted -- sugar relationships can and do exploit children and teenagers.

Today’s Meet-Up Culture

In a world where the easiest way to meet new people is online, curiosity among youth about dating and hookup apps like Tinder or Bumble is growing. They’re seeing cousins, neighbors, and even their favorites on TV talk about it. Some sites, like Seeking Arrangement, are created with the sole intention of giving users a way to meet someone interested in a sugar relationship. Unfortunately, the lack of age verification and easy access to these platforms opens the door for children and teenagers to sign up without anyone noticing. And when portrayals of sugar relationships almost always feature a young, beautiful woman tied to an attractive and successful older man, it’s hard not to be drawn into the glamorous appeal. Of course, the reality is very different when a child is involved; it’s easy to see how an abusive power imbalance can develop behind the scenes.

Does Mainstream Sugar Daddy Culture Ignore Certain Relationships?

The homepage of SeekingArrangement

The homepage of SeekingArrangement

A quick Google Images search for “sugar daddy” brings up mostly the same type of photo: a young woman in a cocktail dress sitting on the lap of a significantly older man. Looking at the homepage of Seeking Arrangement, a dating site for sugar daddy relationships, the imagery is similar but with one major difference: the men in their marketing look to be the same age or just a few short years older than the women they are with. We did notice that neither result had many photos of same-sex or interracial relationships; the examples we did find erased the dynamic of a relationship for the sake of highlighting the “sex factor.” LGBTQ+ dating app Grindr, for example, is unavoidably full of often explicit sugar daddy offers, whether someone is looking for such a relationship or not. Sites like Seeking Arrangement include an option to specifically say that you are “Seeking Transgender,” thereby fetishizing members of the transgender community as sexual objects. This Huffington Post op-ed sums up this dynamic quite well, stating “when someone says they prefer men, they say they are straight, not that they have a ‘fetish’ for men.” Members of the broader LGBTQ+ community have consistently been oversexualized and objectified in sexual relationships, creating a dangerously exploitative and abusive environment for the younger partner. Glorifying straight, cisgender relationships places the LGBTQ+ community in the shadows and only intensifies the existing risks LGBTQ+ youth populations face for exploitation and abuse.  

Does Marketing Foster Grooming?

The marketing of the lifestyle as just a fun experience for a straight female college student ignores the older partner’s potentially dangerous expectations on ideals of sexuality and youth. A recurring theme from sugar blogs and anecdotes from “sugar daddies” is that most look for someone younger because they are more “innocent”, or, as one former “sugar daddy” put it, “not tainted by life.” This glorification of youth and innocence creates an environment where relationships with minors are normalized and accessible. 

As we also established in our last blog, there is a market among older adults for young partners. Teens are aware of this, and see the glorification of the “sugar daddy” lifestyle. This encourages teens to take steps to achieve this sort of idealized relationship. But how easy is it for a child to get access to dating sites that foster these pairings? To further explore this idea, we went through the process of creating an account on Seeking Arrangement. We put in an email and a fake birthdate, and in seconds we were browsing “successful men” available to us. Of course, to message anyone, a username and password are required, but there was no further background check. Apps like Tinder at least require that you link to your Facebook account, making it slightly harder (albeit still possible) to lie about age. Such easy and unmonitored accessibility for underage youth on a site catering to finding relationships with older men and women over 40 who are looking for someone young and with “innocence” is extremely concerning. A sugar relationship which involves a minor is not a relationship. It is child sexual exploitation and it should not be glamourized. 

READ MORE:

#NoFilter: Media Coverage of the Epstein Case 

#NoFilter: Social Media, Sex, and the Untouchable

ECPAT-USA Statement on Jeffrey Epstein’s Death

As Child Sex Abuse Cases Fill the News, Don’t Be A Bystander

Investing in AI to Protect Children Online

ECPAT-USA Report on Child Sexual Abuse Material