*image from cbc.ca
We’ve all thought it: life would be easier with a sugar daddy (or mommy, as the case may be). Don’t get me wrong, I work hard for my money, that’s always been a point of pride. But after a long day of working, when all I want is to lay down and sleep for a week, preferably on a beach, my mind wanders to the possibilities of a supposedly simpler path. I’ve known men and women who have their entire lives funded by people with deep pockets,whether through a relationship, a marriage, or just a lucrative arrangement, and all I can think when I see them is WOW, they seem so well rested. But in the end, my feminist soul smacks me upside the head and I get back to my hustle. But the temptation is there, and may always be there for me, as it is for many people. Some go beyond temptation and dive right into the world Sugar Dating. One such woman decided to document that world, and so the film Sugar Sisters came about.
Sugar Sisters tells the tale of sisters Hannah, Caroline and Amalia Donegan, a trio of twenty something gals living in downtown Toronto. Struggling to make ends meet, working multiple jobs and never getting ahead, Hannah decided to dive into the world of sugar dating. Being an aspiring filmmaker, she documented her experience, with her sisters joining in to find sugardaddies of their own. Directed by Ann Shin and Hannah herself, and airing on Canada’s point-of-view documentary series , CBC Firsthand, Sugar Sisters brings together sugar babies and daddies, sex workers, and the friends and family around them, showcasing the wildly different opinions and experiences of being a modern day “kept woman”.
I got the chance to chat with Hannah about the film and her experience with sugar dating. Can you be a feminist and a sugar baby at the same time? Are the terms “Sugar baby” and “Sex worker” actually interchangeable? Are sugar dating situations actually more real and honest than romantic relationships? All these questions and more are answered in Sugar Sisters, and by Hannah herself.
What is Sugar dating? What made you and your sisters decide to pursue it?
Sugar dating is, essentially, a relationship based on a financial transaction. The sugar daddies are older, wealthy men, who go on dates with younger women and men in exchange for money and gifts. The transaction comes in the form of cash, rent payments, tuition payments, and/or lavish gifts.a
I was enamored by the idea of having a sugar daddy – a wealthy man desiring to pay me for my time with them. Women are commoditized, so the idea of cashing in on it felt like turning patriarchy on its head. Women often put in extra emotional labor into relationships and I don’t think there’s anything wrong in charging for that, especially when there’s a market for it. Many women in their twenties who carry debt and work unpaid internships, or who work in the service industry despite expensive university degrees, see sugar dating as a potential solution. When I told my sisters I was going to explore the sugar dating world and make a film about that process, they insisted on finding ones with me. It didn’t seem much different than waiting tables or any other service industry job, catering to clients within the framework of a transactional relationship. To be a sugar baby you have to put in a lot of emotional labor and for some, sexual labor. For those who want to do it, it’s empowering to know the worth of that service and to charge for it.
What was the experience like, going on these dates with these men? Especially with no romantic intentions?
The first date I went on gave me the sinking feeling that finding a sugar daddy wasn’t going to be nearly as fun as I had imagined. My date fancied himself a pick-up artist, bragged about taking advantage of a woman’s low self-esteem, and I had a miserable time. Thinking I could sit pretty, smile, and bite my tongue was naïve – it is a relationship so you have to build something genuine in order to make it work. Essentially, it is just like “regular” dating. Once I started to go out with men whose company I enjoyed, the dates felt worth my time and energy, and the experience was pretty positive.
Your and your sisters’ attitude is quite, for lack of a better word, mercenary in the film. Can you tell me about how you got to that point, and what it was like to operate that way?
Originally, getting a sugar daddy seemed like a fun way of getting additional income, which quickly proved to be more challenging than I had thought. If this was something I was going to get paid to do, I had to treat it like a job. I had to expect money for my time. None of the men in the situation are ignorant to that fact – they are knowingly paying for the “girlfriend experience” because they don’t want a traditional relationship. They want the freedom of paying for someone to date, without having to put forth any commitment or emotional energy. They are looking for your attention but they don’t want to earn it, they want to pay for it.
From my experience, I think sugar dating is on the spectrum of sex work and requires a lot of emotional labor in exchange for money.
To consider the time I gave toward building a relationship as a job was a challenge for me. Women are socially conditioned to give, and to give in overwhelming proportions. To come around to the idea that this money is earned and not taken was an internal struggle. At first I felt like I was taking advantage of my dates. But other times I felt men were trying to take advantage of me. The times when the relationships worked, it was because I genuinely liked the person. But the presence of money was a reminder that the connection existed at a distance. Since stopping sugar dating, I have been able to build more genuine friendships with some of the men I dated during the filming of the documentary.
Tell me about your family’s reaction, both to the dating and Hannah making the film around it?
I am very lucky that I have a supportive family, and my parents gave me and my sisters the room to make decisions they didn’t approve of. Truth be told, they are pretty mortified. Making and releasing this film has stirred up controversy and discussion in the public. It is hard to imagine any parent being okay with this, really. They were worried for our safety, our boundaries, and how making this film might impact us in the long term. I think most of the discomfort stems from society’s condemnation and shaming of the sex work industry, so there are a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the film. As opinions shift, and people become more and more comfortable talking about sex and sex work, there will be less and less stigma around it.
You mentioned that “feminist principles and cold reality clash in interesting, and highly unexpected ways”. Tell me more about that?
Sex work, paid emotional labor, and charging for your time are all concepts that have space in my definition of feminism. What I found to be the hardest part about dating sugar daddies was the idea I was stroking someone’s ego – that they were getting away with thinking they held all of the power. I still feel very conflicted about this. Women are often reduced to being a commodity and a product, so reaping the benefits of that on a macro level felt empowering. But on a micro level, sitting face to face with someone, it was harder to do. Allowing men buy into the fantasy of having control within the sugar relationship, even if I was financially benefiting from this fantasy, meant I was reinforcing traditional gender roles that were at odds with my feminist values.
What is the perspective of the men (Sugar daddies)? What are they looking to get out of the “relationship”?
Many of the men I dated were looking for someone to talk to. I was a pseudo therapist. They wanted to tell me about your day, have me cheer them up, and help them take their mind off of the real world. They were often just looking to enjoy someone else’s company, meet people outside of their business worlds, but not have to put forth the work that a genuine relationship takes, meaning: they don’t want to hear about your problems, they can cancel on you an hour before your date, they can always ask that you meet them at a location convenient to them, and they don’t even have to find out your name. They want the dating experience without actually putting in the effort of dating anyone.
There were also a lot of divorced men who hadn’t gone on a date in over 20 years. The world of online dating can be very intimidating, to have someone judge you by the way you look and chat online is an anxiety-inducing experience no matter what your age. Being able to pay someone to go on a date, meet you in real life, and get to know each other can be very appealing. Every time I found myself on one of these dates I ended being a dating coach; giving the men advice on different websites to use and places to meet women they would be interested in.
The jackpot is finding a sugar daddy who enjoys financial domination. It’s considered a kink. These men are often not interested in meeting you in real life, but desire you to spend their money. They will send you cash or a gift, and ask that you buy something with it and send them the photo, or FaceTime them as you shop. They feel satisfied – in the way they desire – and you get a reward for helping them out. A real win-win! (Note: I was not successful in this area, but my sugar-mentor Sandy does this domination work often and it works for her very well.)
Did any of you have men push your boundaries?
My boundaries were often pushed. Never in a large way, but in slow, small ways. Most of the men I was seeing started needing more and more of my time and attention. They wanted to be the first person I talked to in the morning and the last person I spoke to at night (all of this after just one date). I had to constantly reinforce my boundaries, but it always ended up being a compromise. With any intimate relationship, sex is often eventually expected. The fact that the sugar daddies wanted to feel like the most important person in my life before we considered sleeping with one another is what made me uncomfortable. They didn’t want to pay for just sex, they wanted the whole relationship, and that’s what I couldn’t provide. It is far too taxing to be someone’s girlfriend when there is no effort made on the other person’s behalf, and sugar dating for cash stopped feeling worthwhile.
Would you recommend sugar dating, after your experience?
The experience can be positive. I know a lot of women, whom I respect highly, who have successful sugar relationships. You need to have a good understanding of your own boundaries, as well as be comfortable constantly asserting them. You need to be prepared to navigate the sugar relationship like you would any dating relationship. In my experience, it is much more than a job. It will require a lot of you – more than just sex, more than just dates – so proceed with caution. Don’t go on a date with anyone who makes you uneasy for any reason. There are some kind men on the site, but there are also a lot of jerks. Trust your instincts.
Watch Sugar Sisters on Sunday, October 30th, on the CBC News Network at 6pm EST or online on CBC Firsthand .