SeekingArrangement.com describes itself as “the world’s largest online-dating website,” whose services are to “match wealthy benefactors seeking mutually beneficial relationships with attractive members.”
It reports “some 1.4 million students are logging on … in search of a Sugar Daddy,” wealthy men who provide them with a monthly allowance, in some cases, thousands of dollars, including to pay university fees.
The founder and CEO, Brandon Wade, a Singaporean with engineering and graduate business degrees from MIT, has founded other dating websites, MissTravel.com, SeekingMillionaire.com and WhatsYourPrice.com. SeekingArrangement is the best-known and operates in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia.
In Canada, the average student monthly allowance is C$2,615, but in Toronto, it’s $4,898. It’s reported 55 students from the University of Calgary and 38 from the University of Alberta have “sugar daddies,” while the University of Toronto and McGill top the list with 195 and 161, respectively.
According to an article in the Huffington Post a couple of years ago, the top 20 American universities attended by the site’s “sugar babies” included New York University, UCLA and Harvard. SeekingArrangement says it’s a growing trend.
We could say, “So what? These arrangements are not illegal and are none of a university’s business or concern.” But that’s not the approach taken to male students’ sexually related conduct, which is not illegal, such as Dalhousie’s dentistry students’ Facebook page demeaning fellow female students.
The perceived rape culture in universities is taken very seriously, because of the power differential and danger of coercion. The same is true of sugar daddies/sugar babies arrangements. Why be appalled by one and not the other? Dating websites are commonplace, so why is using one in this way so concerning?
Is SeekingArrangement’s specific targeting of university students ethically relevant? Is there at least some aspirational ideal that universities should be a sacred space and this overtly contravenes that ideal? Or is targeting universities worrying because many future leaders are formed there, and we’re concerned about the values this practice instantiates in participating students and other students?
Is the focus on graduating without debt exploitation or manipulation of students? Might there be a harmful impact on the ethical tone of the university as a whole?
Do these arrangements denigrate the philanthropic and altruistic values that traditionally inform donors’ support of students? Are they unethical because, as Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel argues in his book, What Money Can’t Buy, they corrupt important values, such as altruism, and involve unfairness?
Sandel argues paying for organs for transplantation devalues altruistic organ donations. Do sugar daddy/sugar baby arrangements do likewise regarding altruistic student support? Are they unfair because there are many more sugar daddies than sugar mommas, so men are disadvantaged, and only attractive women are chosen?
Are those left out discriminated against? Or is SeekingArrangements just a 21st century version of women going to university to get a “Mrs. Degree,” that is, with a primary goal of finding a man who will financially support them, even if temporarily?
Is part of the ethical problem that SeekingArrangement is a commercial undertaking operating in a taxpayer-funded milieu? Does this differentiate it from an escort service or prostitution? Or is it the payment for an intimate relationship?
Canadian law prohibits paid surrogate motherhood and selling human gametes (sperm and ova). Should sugar daddy/sugar baby arrangements be treated in the same way? In contrast, American students, who need money to pay for tuition, are often a specific target as paid gamete donors.
Does the terminology of daddies and babies denigrate the intimate relationship of parent and child? Is the social good created by the fact that many parents do help their offspring with university fees, often at great sacrifice to themselves, harmed?
Or, even if such arrangements were ethically acceptable at the individual level, as being an agreement between two consenting adults, does tolerating them in universities set an ethically unacceptable precedent at institutional and societal levels? Because values upheld or contravened in universities matter to societal values formation, respect for individual autonomy and consent, while necessary ethical requirements, do not alone ensure ethical acceptability of this conduct.
Does SeekingArrangement face us with what philosopher Roger Scruton calls “the contest between the individual and society” with respect to the values which should prevail in regard to the “sexual climate,” in this case, within universities?
Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, and the Samuel Gale Chair in Law at McGill University.