Mariam turns on location tracking when she’s en route to a date. Coordinating with her roommate, she sets a time by which she will send them a check-in text. Her purse contains one bottle of water-based lubricant, a strip of latex condoms, her wallet and keys, and a small pocket knife. She’s alone.
Standing outside a Nuns’ Island condo complex, she refreshes her SeekingArrangement messages. Her client is 10 minutes late. She sits on the edge of a concrete planter, examining his profile. It ends with a familiar note: “no escorts, please.”
American legislation such as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA/ SESTA) has led to the demise of classified advertising sites popular among American and Canadian sex workers, like Backpage and Craigslist Personals. Shuttering these sites has made sex workers even more vulnerable to violence – they are unable to screen clients and are often forced into working on the street. But SeekingArrangement is alive and well.
Seeking – as it’s known to its users – is a website that facilitates sugaring, a type of sex work where “sugar babies” participate in typically long-term romantic and sexual relationships with “sugar daddies” (or occasionally “sugar mommies”) in exchange for money and gifts.
As Mariam’s client made clear, many sugar daddies balk at the notion that sugaring is sex work. The same is true of many sugar babies (a term I use with some hesitation, as many who fall into this category aren’t fond of its infantilizing overtones). Seeking is marketed as a dating site, prohibiting “any commercial endeavors” and mandating that members “will only use the Service in a manner consistent with […] local, state, national and international laws.”
But in reality, sugaring is subject to the same legal restrictions as other forms of sex work in Canada – it’s criminalized. That means it’s legal to be a sex worker, but illegal to be a client – purchasing sex, communicating to purchase sex, or receiving money from another person’s sex work is a criminal offence. According to Sandra Wesley, executive director at Montreal-based sex worker advocacy organization Stella, “we understand that police are not targeting these types of workers as often – but under Canadian law, it is a criminal offence to advertise [the sale of someone else’s] sexual services,” which is what Seeking does for many sugar babies.
Sugaring is precarious work – there are no benefits programs, unions, job security, employment insurance (EI), or guarantees of fair payment. The “end demand” approach to criminalizing sex work means that sex work has been pushed into the shadows, where sex workers are liable to face even more violence. Total decriminalization of sex work would certainly solve many of the problems that sugar babies face. But as we push toward decriminalization – a fight that has been long and frustratingly slow – sugar babies are also trying to develop institutional and community-based mechanisms to keep each other safe and ensure they’re being paid fairly. But, as with other app-based work in the gig economy, sites like Seeking aren’t making that easy.
SUGARING, GIG WORK, AND PRECARITY
Nadia* began sugaring in October of 2017, as a part-time student with a low-paying side job at a local non-profit. “I am relatively financially secure. In a complete emergency, my parents could theoretically support me. It’s not a question of survival,” she tells me. “Until eight or nine months ago, this money was very much supplemental.”
Seeking emphasizes the fact that many of its users are students – according to the site, the past year saw a 44 percent increase in sugar babies using the website who were registered as students. Three Montreal universities – McGill, Université du Québec à Montréal, and Laval University – have a combined 1,643 students who are signed up to the site as sugar babies. Working through personal networks and social media, I recruited interviewees from Montreal schools.
For most students, working as a sugar baby is an outcome of increasing costs of living – in Montreal, this is a result of the city’s gentrification-fuelled increases to the price of housing. According to Seeking, almost 80 percent of a sugar baby’s payment goes toward rent, textbooks, and tuition. The site even began marketing itself as a form of student debt relief. It illuminated the general nature of many sugaring relationships: older men with generational wealth, paired with young, educated women with enough class privilege to attend university. “Initially, when sugaring [became] my only source of income, I did it in a hand-to-mouth way to cover immediate expenses […] like for rent,” Nadia explains. “I saw like, four people in less than a week and so I made that money very quickly.” She worked like this for a while until she eventually developed a small pool of “regulars” with whom she meets consistently. “There are people who come to town for work regularly or hit me up to spend time every couple of weeks.”
If sex were factored out of the equation, sugaring might look an awful lot like a gig job: where sugar babies are temporary, short-term independent contractors, the structure of their work similar to Uber drivers or bike couriers. Just as 60 percent of Uber drivers work less than 10 hours weekly while maintaining other employment, many sugar babies see a small handful of clients each month to make ends meet.
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