By Tamar Arenson
The tragic death of college student Mackenzie Lueck exemplifies the ever-increasing dangers of the sugar dating world. Mackenzie, a student at the University of Utah, was involved in the sugar dating world and had written in posts online that she had profiles on Tinder and SeekingArrangement in which she had explicitly stated she was interested in Sugar-Baby/Sugar Daddy relationships. It was also discovered that her murderer had profiles on the same sugar dating sites.
This cannot be ignored.
The murder of Mackenzie Lueck is a prime example of the harmful repercussions of sugar dating, and the dangers facing college students.
One of the most disturbing discoveries of SeekingArrangement is the focus on recruiting college students suffering from crippling college debt.
SeekingArrangement goes so far as to offer free upgrades to premium accounts for sugar babies who sign up with an “.edu” email. Premium membership allows for unlimited free messaging between sugar babies and sugar daddies, gives access to VIP sugar daddies and includes a stamp on the sugar baby profile indicating that she is a college student. Brandon Wade, founder of SeekingArrangement has taken advantage of financially strapped students by placing pop up ads for SeekingArrangement when someone searches “tuition help” or “financial aid” online. It is strategic advertising such as this that lures vulnerable students to the world of sugar dating.
According to financial aid websites such as Fastweb.com and Finaid.org, in 2011, the average college student graduated with approximately $27,200 in debt, while many others had far more than this. After the economic recession, the number of sugar babies increased exponentially, according to Brandon Wade himself. The Huffington Post reported that in the past five years, there has been a 350% increase in college sugar baby membership. According to updated statistics provided by SeekingArrangement, some schools have reached over 1000 sugar babies in their student bodies. New York University ranks at the top with 1676 sugar babies listed on SeekingArrangement. Also in New York City, Columbia University was not too far behind with 1008 members cited. Other notable members include Georgia State University with 1304 sugar babies and the University of Alabama with 1068 sugar babies total. All of these numbers jumped over 100 users from the previous year.
The prevalence of sugar dating on college campuses is not going away, it is increasing at an astronomical rate; putting so many at risk.
The narrative surrounding sugar dating creates a false sense of agency and safety in the sugar world. To struggling college students, a seemingly harm-free way to make money is exceedingly enticing as debts continue to rise. The false advertising of SeekingArrangement shapes the narrative surrounding sugar dating, leading many to misunderstand the true nature of this work. Barb Brents, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor of sociology told the Huffington Post that assumptions of the characteristics of women in prostitution skews the narrative when in fact, women of all backgrounds are vulnerable.
Brents explains, “When people think about sex work, they think of a poor, drug-addicted woman living in the street with a pimp, down on their luck… In reality, the culture is exceedingly diverse and college students using these sites are but another example of this kind of diversity.” Brents continues, “These college women didn’t see themselves as sex workers, but women doing straight-up prostitution often don’t see themselves that way either.” It is this misperception that leads so many women to fall down the trap of sugar dating.
Students at universities around the country are beginning to explore the world of sugar dating. Some school newspapers are promoting the industry, suggesting to students an innovative and safe way to make money. Other sources are referring to SeekingArrangement as a “dating site” which is how the company has managed to avoid allegations of prostitution. However, the conversation isn’t all bad. There is an increasing awareness amongst students that sugar dating and prostitution are not so different. One Yale student explained in the Yale Daily News “It’s hard to think that college is so cost prohibitive that it forces young people into prostitution.”
The world of sugar dating has capitalized on the financial struggles of young students.
Combatting sugar dating starts with having real, honest conversations about the risks of this masked prostitution. The biggest danger in sugar dating is the false assumption that it is not prostitution.
The death of Mackenzie Lueck is a wake up call to us all to protect students from the coercive practices of the sugar dating world. This begins with partnering with universities to create a dialogue on the issue and continues with calling out the facilitators of this online exploitation.