The Benefits And Drawbacks Of Being A 'Sugar Baby'
Psychological research shows that the benefits of 'sugar relationships' don't end at money, but they're not without their pitfalls.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 09, 2024
"Sugar relationships" refer to mutually beneficial arrangements between two individuals where one person (often older and financially established, colloquially referred to as the "sugar daddy" or "sugar mommy") provides financial support, gifts, mentorship or experiences to another person (often younger, referred to as the "sugar baby") in exchange for companionship, intimacy or various levels of relationship involvement.
Research shows that sugar relationships vary based on the preferences and agreements made by the individuals involved, ranging from platonic companionship to sexual and/or romantic involvement and lay down clear expectations, boundaries and negotiated terms regarding the benefits exchanged.
Here are three reasons why an individual is likely to approve of or engage in sugar relationships, according to a 2020 study.
1. Self-Fulfillment In The Guise Of A Shared Partnership
Researchers found that approval for sugar relationships is linked to higher levels of sociosexuality, which refers to an individual's willingness to engage in casual or uncommitted sexual encounters. Moreover, men displayed greater acceptance towards sugar relationships than women in the study.
Researchers posit that sugar dating may be a "short-term mating strategy." Evolutionary theories suggest that men, driven by maximizing their chances for reproductive success, tend to exhibit a greater willingness to engage in casual sex than women and sugar relationships provide short-term intimacy without the commitment of traditional relationships.
Additionally, a 2021 study found that "sugar daddies" tend to desire both sexual and relational reciprocity from "sugar babies." However, this desire for genuine connection and authentic, mutual enjoyment of the relationship often clashes with the use of economic incentives to access companionship, as the provider cannot really know if the receiver is faking how she feels about him.
The researchers write, "although the men in our study wanted the women to be with them because they appreciated it, the function of the compensation is ultimately to make the encounter centered on the "sugar daddy's" rather than the "sugar baby's" sexual-relational desires and her ability to have him experience that the encounter is equally based in her desires is, paradoxically, part and parcel of this very focus on his desires."
While sexual self-interest is prominent for the benefactor and sometimes for the recipient in sugar relationships, research shows that both clearly distinguish this dynamic from being associated with the sex industry and emphasize the role of companionship in the relationship.
2. Self-Love As The Primary Love Language
Researchers found that individuals drawn to sugar relationships often harbor a more self-centered approach to sexuality and love styles, which manifests as distinct attitudes, priorities and behaviors in romantic relationships, showcasing the diverse ways individuals approach and experience love.
According to John Alan Lee's 1973 "Colors of Love" theory, love styles primarily include: "Eros," characterized by passionate and idealistic love, "Ludus," marked by playful, non-committal attitudes in love akin to a game and "Storge" or friendship-based love. Ludus, notably, is linked to higher sociosexuality, lower commitment and greater acceptance of sugaring.
Individuals more accepting of sugar relationships were also less likely to display the "Eros" love style or have passionate, romantic relationships compared to those less approving of transactional sugar arrangements.
3. A Sugar-Coated Covering With A Dark Center
Researchers found that approval for sugar dating is linked to a set of personality traits known as the Dark Triad, which comprises machiavellianism, subclinical psychopathy and traits of borderline personality disorder.
Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and strategic behavior, subclinical psychopathy is marked by exploitation and a lack of empathy and borderline personality traits include emotional instability and impulsive behavior.
Research consistently shows that individuals with higher levels of dark personality traits tend to be more accepting of short-term relationships and are more likely to exploit interpersonal connections for personal gain.
Moreover, dark triad traits have been associated with the luduslove style, lower emotional stability within intimate relationships, diminished self-control, an inability to delay gratification and lower standards for choosing partners.
Researchers suggest that these traits can make transactional relationships more appealing to such individuals. For instance, research shows that dark triad traits are linked to making "foodie calls," referring to offering companionship in return for a free dinner, without wanting to take a relationship any further.
Another 2017 study found that university students who offer sexual services for material compensation display higher levels of impulsivity, irresponsibility and sensation-seeking compared to those who do not, further highlighting the role of psychological factors in sugar dynamics.
Sugar arrangements invite us to reflect on the diverse paths individuals take to fulfill their needs and desires. These arrangements provide them multifaceted benefits, ranging from immediate pleasure to broader opportunities, companionship and essential resources. The variability within these dynamics mirrors the multitude of motivations that drive individuals towards these arrangements. Amidst the complexity inherent in sugar relationships, it's crucial to ensure safety, consent and well-being within these dynamics, especially for the recipient.
If you are curious about your sensation-seeking tendencies, take this test: Sensation Seeking Scale
A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.