The Secret Lives of Black Sugar Babies

When conjuring up an image of what the quintessential companion of a wealthy Sugar Daddy looks like, as dictated by popular culture, perhaps visions of a young, thin but buxom blond woman dance in your head. Or maybe an 'exotic,' racially ambiguous variation with an aesthetic that still passes muster when it comes to rigid beauty standards. Do you think of the late Anna Nicole-Smith, the most noted poster child for the May-December romance (for finance)? Do you recall how the, then struggling 26-year-old, blond bombshell and single mother made folks clutch their pearls when she married billionaire oil tycoon, J. Howard Marshall, a man who was 62 years her senior? If you're about that Black pop-culture life and don't think in absolutes, perhaps Marlo Hampton of Real Housewives of Atlanta fame, comes to mind. Atlanta is, reportedly, the Sugar Daddy Capital of America, after all.

The allure of these pampered women, otherwise known as sugar babies (or kept woman, if you're fancy), never ceases to pique people’s curiosity or, depending on your personal moral fiber, raise eyebrows. Over the past few years, articles about young women using sugaring as the ultimate way to pay their way through college, acquire luxury items, travel, pay down debt, supplement their paltry 'day job' income, get real estate, and/or to start businesses, have become popular. Mutually beneficial arrangements with well-heeled older men, often present a way out of the economic doldrums for them; and in turn, older men enjoy the luxury of squiring an attractive young woman around and, eventually, great sex, an ear to bend, and emotional availability, which can be taxing for some women if they’re dealing with a mercurial and demanding benefactor.|

While I've generally dated men significantly older than myself (for no reason other than personal preference) and have had funny exchanges with friends who often lamented the need for a sugar daddy to help ease their financial burden, I've never had the patience to entertain such an agreement, myself. The lifestyle has always intrigued me though. Specifically, I've always wondered about the number of millennial Black women using this route to gain accelerated social mobility and how successful they are at snagging and cultivating a lavish lifestyle with a wealthy and powerful sponsor. I’d find my answers in spades via online communities, sometimes referred to as the ‘sugar bowl.' The sugar bowl offers a (sometimes) safe space for young women to anonymously detail their lives as companions to wealthy older men and exchange useful information and personal narratives with one another. Within the sugar bowl is a subculture of nubile Black women who offer one another support, advice, and encouragement; because like most other social hierarchies, the world of sugaring is not immune to racial paradigms.

At 22+ (and as young as 18), some of these women have already positioned themselves to be, what can only be described as, modern-day Azealia Banks quoting, Lana Del Rey admiring, lower-to mid-tier modern courtesans. In my mind, they've probably used Leidra Lawson's Sugar Daddy 101: What You Need to Know If You Want to be A Sugar Baby or Baje Fletcher's A Go(a)l/d Diggers Guide, as blueprints to transform themselves into well-manicured and coiffed vixens. They've taught themselves the basic art of gentle coaxing and negotiating, speak the lingo of the sugar bowl, and have figured out how to stand out in a dating pool where Black women aren't always chosen.
Some have learned (after extended periods of trial and error) how to get the money and perks they want without ‘getting got’ by their older paramours; many of whom are mercurial and prone to quickly becoming cold and  detached as easily as they become enamored of their sugar babies- (without warning or explanation), and have outlined a painstaking list of rules to help sustain their lifestyles for as long as they can – most of which revolve around careful grooming habits and affecting certain social graces.

Veteran babies are emphatic about novice sugar babies adhering to the advice they offer in the bowl, for safety reasons and to maintain the reputation of the sugar subculture. And the golden rule of thumb seems to be: to never sell themselves short or entertain the advances of what’s known as a Salt Daddy or Spenda Daddy– men who don’t have the resources, charm, or influence to spoil the objects of their affection, but will play their hand anyway to no avail; because a well-versed sugar baby has learned how to spot a Salt or Spenda Daddy a mile away.

Marlo Hampton and friend
Most interesting, is that some of these women get their financial rewards without ever having to meet their POT (potential) sugar daddies in-person or sleep with them. Many of these men are happy to oblige and welcome the opportunity to simply interact with an attractive young woman and see her flourish in her chosen endeavors or college. Perhaps a large part of that must do with ego; the self-satisfaction of knowing they helped a young woman finish her degree or start a business. In addition to financial tributes, these sugar daddies purportedly serve as mentors and offer guidance, money management, career, and business advice, affording them the opportunity to lord over a young woman's life, like a silent investor of sorts.

One popular young Black baby in the sugar bowl wrote of how one of her sugar daddies hipped her to proper corporate protocol and helped her brush up on her relational skills: “[Name redacted] has been helping me correct my southern language and perfecting my conversational skills. He is always quick to correct my speech. It does get annoying at times. And when we’re talking, he makes sure I give him eye contact. We go over how to properly shake a hand a few times too.”

While these women plaster snapshots of their bounty on their anonymous blogs as proof of their shopping sprees and cash allowances, some espouse certain tenets of third-wave feminism, a bit precariously at times, when it suits their agenda. One constant, however, is the emphasis on the importance of consent and maintaining full autonomy over their bodies, to wit: making the ultimate decision as to whether sex transpires between them and their benefactors and not being coerced into relations; although holding out for too long could result in a sugar daddy losing interest and moving on to someone more willing to accommodate his needs.

As intriguing as these contrived relationships seem, I must note how a few of the young women seem to find validation solely in being desired by much older, connected white men; and sometimes conflate, or will flat-out lie about their racial identity to endear themselves to white POTs, and, at times, don't always appear to live up to the confident posturing they convey in their online personas, despite claims to the contrary. But I suppose I should chalk that up to the politics of sugaring and the emotional toll some have admitted it takes on them, particularly when they're competing with other women to be the most spoiled.

Actress Tika Sumpter in a scene from The Haves and the Have Nots
Being looked after by a wealthy man isn't as simple as erroneously labeling a woman a ho', sugaring does straddle the line between sponsorship and being the spoiled young paramour of an older, wealthy man and escorting; and can, in some ways, technically be considered sex work, so some sugar babies will supplement their sugaring income with becoming a cam-girl, or will make the transition to becoming a full-fledged escort – as many find the cut-and-dried transaction of escorting minus the stress of needing to cultivate trust and jump through proverbial hoops with a sugar daddy for a monthly allowance, much easier. And still, being an escort or cam-girl certainly doesn't negate the experiences of those black sex workers navigating the intersections of race, gender, trust, financial smarts, and safety.

Reading the personal narratives shared by these young Black women have revealed the sugaring lifestyle to be a bit more … involved and exasperating than I initially believed it to be. At the risk of being outed and targeted on popular online forums, especially if they gain an online following, Black sugar babies chart the trials and tribulations of finding wealthy and willing older benefactors in this ever-evolving tech and social networking age; wading their way through profiles on sites like Seeking Arrangement, Sugar Daddy for Me, WhatsYourPrice, and even Craigslist; some of the more confident seekers freestyle offline. They also grapple with having to decide whether to divulge information about their relationship(s) to close friends and family, who may take a morally superior stance against their lifestyles.

And what of the generous Sugar Daddy who’ll gladly fork over cash, but will make racist jokes and say racially insensitive things in the company of his young Black paramour? One sugar baby expressed disdain for a man, who, right off the cuff, solicited her for sex via an inbox message (on one of the sites), without any discussion of an arrangement. Then proceeded to assail her with racial epithets when she rebuffed him: “I wish I had the patience to post half of the dumb ass messages I get on [SA]. One guy called me a nigger yesterday after I called him out on wanting a just sex arrangement," she lamented on her blog.

As glamorous and lucrative as the sugaring lifestyle appears to be (I think many of the women in the sugar bowl distort their lifestyles and personal success stories), these are the sorts of issues black sugar babies contend with and it presents somewhat of a conundrum for young black women, who would rather brush off the indignity of being disrespected and abused and go along, to get along, just to maintain their newly acquired standard of living. Admittedly, I find that kind of denial, naiveté and willingness to let racism and abuse slide, disturbing and disappointing.
For some, getting chose finding a sponsor at all can prove to be an exercise in futility because of racial barriers. Sometimes being Black doesn't fall under the list of preferences for some potential sugar daddies, and for many young women looking for a leg-up, a Black benefactor won’t suffice, as there seems to be a stigma attached to Black sugar daddies. Some of the reasons I read were: Black men are too cheap and turn out to be Salt or Splenda daddies, they remind some of the women of their fathers or male relatives, affluent Black men usually only want young white or Latina women as arm-candy, or Black POTs over-inflate their income. But let’s be real; when Black women and non-black women (or even men) of color think of gaining access to money, institutional power, influence, connections, and respect, the default key to navigating those spaces always tends to be via a white man. So, it's safe to surmise that those attributes play a role in making rich, white men the likeliest choice for young women looking for sugar daddies.

Despite the racial hurdles, sexism, and excess foolery, seasoned Black sugar babies will downplay the anti-black sentiments they navigate and remain steadfast about stressing the importance of being undaunted by rejection; which seems easier said than done for novice players who're struggling to find 'sugar' in small towns that aren't as metropolitan and open as New York, Boston, or Atlanta; and who find zero luck with the sugar daddy hustle because they're constantly expected to overextend themselves and debunk erroneous tropes about black women, in order to endear themselves to rich white men who may just be looking for a free one-off with a black, female body.

Being a sugar baby isn’t for everyone, and there are people who find the lifestyle cringe-worthy… most of the ire is usually (unfairly) directed solely at the women as opposed to much older men who peruse sites for women not even a third of their age.

It’s a complicated and carefully orchestrated Adagio dance many of us won’t fully understand unless we're immersed in the culture ourselves. And quite honestly, the social mores of those of us observing from the outside, don’t trump what two consenting adults choose to do with their social and sex lives. Granted, this is a different era complete with 21st-century tricks, this concept of well-established men looking after younger women isn't new a one.

As for my exploration outside the perimeter of the sugar bowl, I observe judgment-free, as a curious onlooker who’s always wondered how the Black women who ride this wave, fare. But I imagine, for many, being a sugar baby or a kept girlfriend won't always be a sustainable lifestyle, and will eventually wear thin. My hope is that, however long they choose to use this as a way to stay afloat, they stay safe, don’t sacrifice who or what they are to pacify abuse – (the price of riches at someone else's expense can be too high), and when it's all said and done they've invested and saved wisely and have something substantive to show for it besides feelings of dejection, Christian Louboutin heels, and CĂ©line handbags.

*This post has been updated with a more recent video.