The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is thrilled to honor StolenYouth and DNA with the 2021 Innovation Award for Project SugarFree, a creative artificial intelligence response to combatting the phenomenon of “sugaring.”
“Sugaring” or “sugar dating” is an exploitative practice involving typically older, wealthy, powerful men (“sugar daddies”) promising money, gifts, travel, and other items of value to young, attractive women (“sugar babies”) in exchange for their time and attention. Yet survivor testimony, research, law enforcement—and even those who are currently in or support the commercial sex industry—make clear that “sugaring” is merely a candy-coated term for prostitution. Though popular sugaring sites, like SeekingArrangement, exalt these “arrangements” as empowerment and fast cash for the women, the bitter reality is that the power and control rests solely with the “daddies”—while the “babies” suffer all the same risks and harms inherent in the commercial sex industry.
When Seattle-based marketing firm, DNA, was monitoring online chatter about a financial client, they were shocked that their “social listening exercise” yielded tens of thousands of posts seeking “sugaring” arrangements mentioning their client’s company alone. Their shock turned to outrage—and DNA was inspired to use their tech expertise to confront would-be sex buyers and protect potential victims.
Coincidentally, DNA co-founder and CEO, Alan Brown, also sat on the board of StolenYouth, a non-profit focused on dismantling marketplaces that fuel child sex trafficking and supporting young survivors in Washington State. StolenYouth jumped on the idea, as they too were noticing an increase in “sugaring” among their youth—finding it was yet another means for predators to exploit vulnerable children and adults alike behind a veneer of legitimacy.
StolenYouth and DNA consulted with their close partner: King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Benjamin Gauen, who leads his office’s anti-trafficking initiatives. He noted that law enforcement was also witnessing greater numbers of sex trafficking and sexual assault cases arising from sugaring relationships. He found it deeply disturbing that sugaring was being marketed to high school and college students in particular—especially those with tuition debt. SeekingArrangement even hosts what it calls Sugar Baby University and gives “babies’ with .edu email addresses free memberships.
What was born of this partnership was Project SugarFree.
Project SugarFree is an automated artificial intelligence platform that hosts an army of Twitter “bots” to identify potential sugaring “moments.” Posts using sugaring language trigger an appropriate response mined from a database of hundreds of pre-crafted messages and graphics with data and language meant to dissuade people from the sugaring lifestyle. The creators identified four main audiences: potential victims, potential predators, curious individuals, and society at-large.
For potential victims, the bots provide warnings of the realities of “sugaring,” together with resources to seek help.
Predatory messages warn posters of potential legal consequences and are then reported to Twitter.
At the moment, Project SugarFree operates only in Washington State and specifically on Twitter. However, the creators hope it’s a tool other organization will use and tailor to their localities and expand to other social media platforms. Alan Brown shared with NCOSE that as a parent of two teenagers, he understands the vulnerability to trafficking—wish sugaring as a likely onramp—and wants to do everything he can to prevent this from happening to any vulnerable teen or young adult: including helping others use this tool. He feels strongly that geographically-tailored messaging is powerful, especially to dissuade potential or current “daddies” from engaging in exploitation by sharing the specific legal consequences and providing current or future victims with local resources.
Since it went “live” in December 2020, Project SugarFree has identified roughly 9, 287 posts and replied to 2,944, reported 4,028 posts of which 1, 201 have been removed, 90 exploiters identified, and 17 predators deplatformed.
NCOSE applauds StolenYouth and DNA for using creative technology-based responses to combat technology-enabled exploitation. Project SugarFree also exemplifies the power in partnerships—especially collaboration between nonprofits doing the relentless, round-the-clock work of fighting exploitation with principled corporations with leadership and staff who care about promoting a world of dignity—and are willing to use their resources to do just that.
Congratulations StolenYouth and DNA. You are an inspiration to the entire movement to combat sexual abuse and exploitation.
- Learn more about StolenYouth, DNA and Project SugarFree. The creators hope others will use their innovative technology across the country and have generously offered to provide guidance on how you can adapt this tool for use in your own city or state. If you’re interested, please contact Alan Brown at a.brown(at)dnaseattle.com.
- Individuals and society at-large must be warned of the dangers of sugaring. But it is also essential that sugar dating platforms are held accountable for perpetuating and profiting from sexual exploitation and abuse. Please tell major credit cards to stop processing payments for sugar dating. Learn more and take action here.
- Watch the Summit presentation “Bitter Truth About Sugaring and OnlyFans” with Angie Henderson and Megan Lundstrom, available on demand Saturday, July 24.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s Innovation Award honors individuals and institutions that have developed innovative approaches to tackling sexual abuse and exploitation. Creative ideas lead to groundbreaking solutions for seemingly intractable problems, often inspiring yet more innovation and accelerating positive change.