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Students turn to sugar dating to fund university education

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Editor's note: The name Brittany Howard used in this story is a pseudonym and not her real name. The Daily decided to allow the use of a pseudonym for Howard due to possible harassment from peers about her lifestyle choice.

Months after breaking up with her fiancé of over a year, OU senior Brittany Howard, 21, is seeing someone new. They met a few weeks ago at a Louie’s Bar & Grill in Moore.

“He’s a very open guy, very outgoing,” Howard said. “He likes to have fun. He’s nice and he treats me well.”

He also happens to be a 50-year-old millionaire.

Before Howard met her sugar daddy in person, they exchanged information online. Basic stuff — hobbies, favorite authors and how much he would pay her to go on dates. Upon meeting, they hit it off.

“We got along well when we met for the first time,” Howard said. “There was some sort of unspoken bond. I was attracted to him as a man, as well. I’m not just there for monetary purposes.”

Howard talks about her new relationship with a nonchalance that masked its subversive nature. Sugar dating may come naturally to her, but it challenges deeply held beliefs about how romantic relationships are supposed to work.

A Sweet Deal

Howard’s sugar daddy lives in North Texas, but his business often brings him to Oklahoma City and Edmond, Oklahoma. When he’s nearby, which is two or three times a week, he’ll take Howard out to a restaurant or the theater.

Howard described these outings as traditional dates, the only difference being her payment. Every time they see each other, her sugar daddy will slip her between two and three hundred dollars, usually in cash.

When Howard joined the sugar dating website Seeking Arrangement in October of this year, the promise of income was the big draw.

“I’m in my senior year, and I’m going to have loans,” Howard said. “Because of my major, I don’t have time to look for a job where I have steady hours.”

Howard pays out-of-state tuition. The OU admissions office estimates the tuition and fees for non-residents during the 2014-2015 year to amount to $22,049. For in-state residents, the amount is estimated to be $9,275. And that’s not counting textbooks or room and board.

Given the rising cost of college, it’s perhaps unsurprising college women account for over 42 percent of all sugar babies with Seeking Arrangement, according to a 2013 press release.

Brook Urick, a public relations manager for the company, said college women stand to gain a lot from courting sugar daddies, the majority of whom are wealthy entrepreneurs in their mid-40s.

“[Sugar daddies] have the qualities of someone who’s successful as an entrepreneur, someone who can help them advance their career, a mature man, someone who is ambitious,” Urick said. “Sugar babies are also ambitious. The largest demographic is college students. Some of these girls are looking for mentors and sponsors to help them finance their school.”

Howard says being a sugar baby is also about being pampered and feeling valued. This is a common desire, Urick said.

“Women want a man who can take care of them and want to be spoiled," Urick said. "And there’s nothing wrong with wanting your day in the sun, wanting to be a princess. A lot of girls want it, but they’re just afraid to express that.”

In return, sugar daddies want “companionship and youthfulness” without any firm expectations of long-term commitment, Urick said.

Right now, Howard and her sugar daddy are just seeing each other casually. They go out. Sometimes he takes her shopping. There’s an expectation of many sugar relationships that sex will enter the equation at some point, but Howard said that hasn’t happened yet.

“I don’t know what will happen in the future,” Howard said. “We’re good friends who like to have fun together sometimes … I’m not against [sex]. Like any relationship, when things start moving forward, that’s how things end up happening.”  

Prostitution or honest dating?

Howard borrows a phrase from the Seeking Arrangement website to describe her arrangement. She calls it a “mutually beneficial relationship.”

However, because sugar dating can involve a transaction of money for romantic companionship, critics have used another term: prostitution.

“People think that I’m just like selling myself,” Howard said. “Which I’m not.”

According to Andreana Prichard, a professor of African history at OU, sugar dating differs from sex work in that it’s a relationship sustained over time, whereas prostitution is characterized by “one-off” encounters.

For some people, it's the transparently transactional nature of sugar dating that really bothers them. But, according to Prichard, there has always been an expectation of material exchange in romantic relationships.

“When women are asked out on dates, the first question that their friends say when they get back is, ‘Did he pay?’” Prichard said. “So from the very first contact that people have, a material exchange or an economic exchange is factored into that. All the way down to wedding rings.”

Prichard teaches the Honors course Sex and Love in Africa, which explores sexual and relational customs in African countries, including sugar dating.

Sugar dating is more common and less stigmatized in that part of the world than in the United States, said Prichard. Africans view sugar dating as distinct from prostitution. Prichard said this is because there’s a greater consciousness in African countries of the transactional nature of all relationships, from church marriage to sugar dating.

“There is the transaction involved in romantic relationships,” Prichard said. “And we, as Americans, I think, tend to believe or want to believe in this romantic notion that it’s just feelings. But that has never been true.”

Prichard believes society unfairly shames sugar babies for not engaging in more traditional relationships. When the topic of sugar dating at OU surfaces in her class, she notices students are very often quick to shame the girl and ask why she would want to do that.

"But for her to be a first-generation college student who’s coming to OU and facing a large amount of student loan debt, not wanting to put in 40 hours a week in a student job and wanting to be able to perform well at OU,"  Prichard said. "These are all circumstances that inform her decision.”

Howard’s roommates know about her arrangement, as do some of her friends. They’ve been supportive and even intrigued by it. But to avoid predictable awkwardness, Howard has not told her family.

“They’re my parents,” Howard said. “They obviously wouldn’t want their little girl doing something like this. Online dating, you know? It’s silly when you think about it.”

A new kind of relationship

Howard understands traditional relationships. Until recently, she was engaged to be married this summer. Being a sugar baby is a departure from what she’s used to, but she said the experience has, in some respects, been liberating.

“I don’t have to worry about texting someone every day or calling them every night or having to see them all the time,” Howard said. “Because that could get very stressful — feeling like you need to please the other person and their family. Traditional relationships can be very un-genuine sometimes, I feel.”

Sugar relationships are more open than traditional relationships, Howard said, because the suitor knows ahead of time the terms of the relationship. The nature of the transaction is totally transparent.

This understanding doesn’t suck the fun out of a relationship or make it feel artificial, Howard said. In fact, Howard wishes more traditional relationships were as transparent. Howard thinks it relieves some of the anxiety of dating, and it ensures everyone’s needs are met without prodding.

“Personally, I’ve never been one to ask for help,” Howard said. “So it’s very nice to be able to sit back and have someone help me without asking for it.”

Seeking Arrangement encourages this attitude. Urick said the growing popularity of sugar dating is the result of people feeling more free to choose the sorts of relationships they want.

“It’s not so wrong to come to the table with open and honest expectations and finding someone who can meet those,” Urick said.

However, the empowering aspects of sugar dating don’t negate the potentially harmful ones, Prichard said. Prichard views the popularity of sugar dating in Africa as indicative of gender inequality, and that may also be true in the west, where men still control much of the wealth and are seen as providers.

Furthermore, Prichard said there’s the possibility of power being shared unequally in relationships between a young, financially dependent person and an older, financially independent one.

“That’s one of the reasons we don’t allow dating between students and teachers or coaches and athletes,” Prichard said. “Because over the years, we’ve realized that these don’t make for the healthiest relationships because there’s not an equal power exchange.”

Prichard stopped short of calling this problem unavoidable, however. She noted this is a difficulty that can arise in many different relationships.

“Not every woman is naïve,” Prichard said. “And some know very well what they’re getting into and can handle these [relationships].”

Howard has only been a sugar baby for a month but she believes she has things under control. She said she might have become a sugar baby even if she was on solid financial footing. She’s that happy with her sugar daddy.

“I hit it good,” Howard said with a laugh. “I got lucky.”  

Steven Zoeller is a journalism senior and a reporter for the Daily. Formerly he has served as an opinion writer and a copy editor.

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