An advertising campaign that targets female students by exhorting them to “Improve your lifestyle – go out with a sugar daddy” has triggered a fierce debate in Belgium this week. A photo of one of the huge adverts for ‘sugar daddy’ website RichMeetBeautiful began to circulate on Facebook on Monday, September 25. Our Observer is a former ‘sugar baby’, who explained why the ‘sugaring’ lifestyle might appeal to students.

"No, this isn't a (bad) joke. This poster is indeed on display outside the university," wrote François Dubuisson as he posted the photo of the controversial advert, which was towed around university campuses in the Belgian capital, Brussels, this week. "Not only does it reach the heights of crass sexism, but it champions student prostitution," he added. The billboard advertises RichMeetBeautiful, a website launched in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland in August 2017 that bills itself as a dating website for ‘sugar daddy dating’.

The caption reads: "No, this is not a (bad) joke. This poster is indeed on display outside the university. Not only does it reach the heights of crass sexism, but it clearly champions student prostitution (of women, of course). Photo taken this morning, advertising panel towed by a car, on the Avenue FD Roosevelt (opposite [the square] Janson).

‘Sugaring’ sites, as they are sometimes known, are dating sites with a difference. Sugar daddies are typically older, wealthy men, possibly married and with children, who pay to go out with a younger woman – a sugar baby. The relationships are often sexual in nature. RichMeetBeautiful says that the perks for a sugar baby include exotic travel, shopping sprees, and finding a mentor, while sugar daddies are told that they will get “respect and admiration” from an “eager protégée” who will make them “feel ten years younger and alive again”.

The sites have often come under fire for enabling prostitution. However, SeekingArrangement, the largest sugaring site with over 10 million members across the world, says that sex in sugar daddy-sugar baby relationships is “never a requirement, only an aspiration”.

The Norwegian CEO of RichMeetBeautiful Sigurd Vedal announced on Thursday, September 28, in Het Laatste Nieuws, a Belgian newspaper, that the advertising campaign would be withdrawn after Belgium's advertising watchdog, the Advertising Ethics Jury (Jury d’éthique publicitaire), received a flood of complaints. A number of boroughs in the city of Brussels had already banned the adverts.

A screenshot from the RichMeetsBeautiful website.

Sugar Baby University

RichMeetBeautiful’s stunt is not the first time that a sugaring site has targeted students directly. SeekingArrangement, for example, has the ‘Sugar Baby University’: a ranking that lists which universities have the most sugar babies signed up to the site. The company offers free premium memberships to those who sign up with a student email address, and directly positions itself as an alternative to traditional student grants and academic funding.


“It was a money-making scheme”

Our Observer is 27 years old and was active on the site SeekingArrangement when she was studying a higher education degree. She requested to remain anonymous for this article, so we have given her a pseudonym.

I signed up primarily because I didn’t have much money. That wasn’t the whole reason – I kind of found the concept exciting, but mostly I was just desperate for money. On SeekingArrangement, I could get two weeks’ wages in two hours. I was studying, and doing this gives you the luxury of time. I was also applying for part-time jobs and just couldn’t get one. When I was rejected after a trial shift at some coffee shop, I thought, “F*** this”. And I talked myself into it.

“Most of the men are completely normal”

It was easy to sign up. I made sure not to put any photos on my profile where you could see my face. I received a lot of messages – I remember a 70-year-old guy messaged me once. But the age range was mostly 35 to 55. I was actually quite shocked at how many normal people are on there. You think that they’re either going to be these rich, awful men who are used to getting what they want, or weird losers who can’t get sex. But the people I met were normal, attractive guys who were married mostly.

A screenshot from the SeekingArrangement website.

I made my profile quite direct. For me, it was a moneymaking scheme. I was already judging them for being on that site before I even met them, even though I was on the site too. The last thing I wanted was for them to take me shopping, and for me to have to hang out with them being all sweet and polite. I didn’t want gifts, I wanted money. I didn’t want to waste my time.

Most of them were completely normal, successful, with families and money. One of the guys I met was just really sad – he was married but clearly really lonely. This guy gave me a monthly allowance that paid my rent. It lasted for about five or six months. We actually hardly had sex. We would go out a lot, and there were some months when I didn’t even see him.

"I took advantage of them"

I felt that while men do take advantage of women, I was also taking advantage of them most of the time. I would think, ‘What an idiot, you’re paying me that much for just 10 minutes? More fool you.’

A screenshot from the RichMeetBeautiful website.

I wouldn’t want people to know I’ve done it. Most of my friends don’t know. I would often think, ‘What if my dad ever found out?’, and that would really upset me. Primarily, as well, because of the safety issue. It was so irresponsible. I kept picturing myself going missing and then police going through my computer and realising I’d been meeting loads of men.

“I was lucky – but I wouldn’t do it again”

I was lucky and I had no bad experiences. But I wouldn’t do it again. Partly because of safety, and because I regret doing it. I don’t think it does anything for your self-esteem. At the core, it’s selling sex. Even if the sex was good, I still couldn’t forget that they were paying me. The whole experience made me dislike men more.
 
A screenshot from the RichMeetBeautiful website.

I’m not against it at all, and women have the right to do it. But a lot of the time women do it because they don’t have any other option. For the 1% of situations when the woman chooses to do it, there are 99% of prostitutes who don’t have the choice. What I didn’t like is that the men were getting what they wanted simply because they could pay for it. Of course this old guy can get a 25 year old because he can throw a couple of hundred euros at her. I didn’t like the dynamic. They control you or you need them in some way.


Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist