Sugar dating, also called sugaring, is a transactional dating practice typically characterized by an older wealthier person and a younger person in need of financial assistance in a mutually beneficial relationship. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2017), the term "sugar" is slang, but is often used as a modifier to "sweeten" something and as a euphemism for money. Payment can be received by way of money, gifts, support or other material benefits in exchange for companionship or a dating-like relationship. The person who receives the gifts is called a sugar baby, while their paying partner is called a sugar daddy or sugar momma.
Sugar dating is especially popular in the online dating community because of the easy access to specific niches and desires.
With the rising costs in tuition, cuts to bursaries and the increasing pressure of student debt, sugar dating is especially prevalent among students. Research suggests that there is a growing phenomenon of female university students working in the sex industry to pay for their post-secondary education. Due to the nature and stigmatization of sex work in the marginalized and hidden population, there is limited information for the percentage of students participating in these types of relationships.
The websites used to negotiate sugar arrangements are technically dating sites and what happens after the initial date, whether involving sexual or other activities, is between the parties. Membership on one site in 2016 was $70 per month for sugar daddies, but free for sugar babies.
Though students make up a large proportion of sugar babies, the practice is not exclusive to students, as it also exists in older age ranges. Described in 2015 as an expanding trend, sugar dating is most prevalent in the United States, followed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Colombia.
There is debate about whether this practice can be considered sex work, i.e., purchase of intimate attention, sexual or otherwise. In an article from Deutsche Welle, the CEO of SeekingArrangement denied that the site played host to prostitutes and their customers, saying that "escorts and their clients are never welcome on our sites". One woman who used the site made it clear that she did not want to sell sex and that she did not see herself as an escort. Another user, a man, admitted that the "economic power relationship is very noticeable" between him and his sugar daddy and that he sometimes had to have sex with his sugar daddy when he did not want to.
Sugaring has been called the modern-day counterpart of the 17th-century courtesan, "a prostitute, especially one with wealthy or upper-class clients."
Sugar dating sites were affected by the 2018 Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act passed by the U.S. Senate, which prompted the closure of many sugar dating sites operating in the U.S. This included Established Men, a sugar dating site owned by the parent company of Ashley Madison, Ruby Corp, and the personals section of Craigslist.
Local law enforcement agencies say that because the site was set up like a dating website and advertised as facilitating consensual connections, it is not illegal.