Candy, escort services, and college financing

Courtesy Wikipedia

Earlier this year, I wrote about the student at Duke University who reported she was paying for college by acting in pornographic movies. Her story received a lot of publicity, including much that decried the need for this woman to resort to a career in pornography to pay her tuition bills. As I asked at the time,

A telling story of the state of college affordability in the nation? Not at all. It is simply the story of the choices made by one young woman, and we should not attach any importance to what she has done.

This school year, a similar story is making the rounds, most prominently in an article in The Atlantic last fall, “How Sugar Daddies Are Financing College Education.” According to the story, a website called reports it has over 2 million women members (“Sugar Babies”) who join the site “where beautiful, successful people fuel mutually beneficial relationships” in order to meet “Sugar Daddies.” This might sound like any other dating website, albeit one for people who have a self-inflated image of themselves. But The Atlantic article alleges that this site differs from others in that the women there are looking to get paid for their relationship with the men on the site, or to put it more directly, they are offering escort or prostitution services. A follow-up article in The Atlantic this month highlights colleges and universities across the country that have a proportionally large number of women registered on the site. Other media have covered the phenomenon of sugar babies and sugar daddies as well.

The Atlantic
reports that 44 percent, or over 1 million of the women who have joined, are college students, implying these women have turned to the site as a mechanism for paying their tuition bills. But before we react with revulsion that these women—like the young actress at Duke—have turned to SeekingArrangement and searching for “sugar daddies” as their only way to pay for college, there are a number of issues that the articles don’t address:

  • SeekingArrangement purports to have 3.6 million active members, 2.6 million of whom are Sugar Babies and 1 million of whom are Sugar Daddies (or “Sugar Mommas”). But these figures are apparently unaudited, and subject to nothing other than the company’s claim.
  • Even if you accept the company’s word on these numbers (and what proportion of the Sugar Babies are college students), there is no way to tell how many of these women are truly active on the site, and have engaged in any relationships with Sugar Daddies. It is unknown how many of them have joined just out of idle curiosity; you can’t enter the site and look at profiles without joining first, and women with .edu email addresses can join with “premium” status for free.
  • It is also impossible to know how many of these relationships—and in particular, those involving college students—result in cash payments between the men and women, and for what kinds of services. The cynic would assume that women would not be on the site if that is not what they were looking for, but absent any real data on exactly how many relationships are transactional ones in this sense, it is impossible to know for sure. Without these data, it is impossible to know just how widespread this alleged practice of women prostituting themselves in order to pay their tuition bills truly is. It may be that there are tens of thousands of women around the country financing their educations at least in part through this mechanism, or it may be nothing more than the handful of anecdotal stories captured in these articles.

The quality of the journalism in the most recent article in The Atlantic should be questioned as well. It stated:

What might have been little more than a nuisance in the past has turned into an outright hindrance to many students’ financial security: It takes about 14 years on average to pay off the debt. As a result, young women across the country are turning to sugar daddies in droves.

First, the author makes a causal leap from students suffering from student loan debt to there being “droves” of women who are turning to sugar daddies. “Droves” is subject to numeric interpretation, but in a quick search on this topic in preparation for writing this blog post, I was not able to turn up any solid, empirical research that was able to quantify how many women across the country are actually doing this.

Second, the article that this quote linked to—about the 14 years required to pay off debt—is actually referencing student loans in Canada, not the United States. This kind of fundamental error by a journalist, and not caught by editors, calls into the question the veracity and quality of the entire article.

We should be concerned about the high price of college, as I have written about in many other posts. But as I said in my earlier post about the Duke student, we should all be cautious before jumping up and down screaming that we need to do something about the high price of college because there are “droves” of women who have no choice but to resort to prostitution (or pornography) to pay for it. The reality is that we do not know how many women are doing this, and more importantly, exactly what their motivation is.

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