Stepping into a world shrouded in aesthetics built out of Hollywood films and Lana Del Rey lyrics, presented as a way to make a quick buck from scamming gullible old men, it’s easy to be blinded to reality. “You can feel a false sense of power when you’re getting money, but so often the daddies think they own you. They see you as a product they’ve bought and can do anything they want with,” Eve said. Sharing experiences of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of sugar daddies that have led to her being diagnosed with PTSD, she stated, “You feel like your consent no longer means anything because they’ve paid you. It’s a kind of coercion.”
“Once I was in it, I felt really helpless. I had no understanding of the legalities, so I didn’t feel like I could report any of the times I was hurt or assaulted, I had no idea how to keep myself safe. I think it was only in hindsight that I realised how dangerous it was,” noted Eve. Sharing her concerns over TikTok’s obsession with sugar dating, she fears the rose-tinted view of the experience in videos posted by users is leading more and more girls down an unclear path into unsafe situations.
Our understanding of sugar babies and their arrangements, crafted by films and the dating language that’s used, doesn’t do justice to the dynamics. Even if intimacy isn’t involved, sugar babies provide a service, placing them in a position that’s easily manipulated without education or support. Being separated from sex workers and all of the resources that come with the community, new sugar babies coming in droves from TikTok are stepping into these disguised roles without being prompted to consider if they are okay entering this world, left feeling exploited once the sugar sours. “Before I even realised what was happening, my boundaries had been pushed,” Eve admitted. “I was doing sex work long before I realised I was a sex worker.”
Reaching out to TikTok for a comment on the content under #sugarbaby, they stated the videos didn’t violate any community guidelines around sex work or solicitation, but that’s exactly the issue. Presented as wholly separate and superior, with sugar babies being heralded as ‘iconic’ on social media while sex workers are still stigmatised, new users of sites like Seeking run the risk of being ill-informed about what they’re getting themselves into. A concern mirrored on the r/sugarlifestyle Reddit forum, long-term sugar babies and sex workers worry that TikTokers’ claims that intimacy isn’t involved “gives a false sense of expectations” that creates a danger of “grooming a bunch of teenagers into sex work.”
Even Summer Saito, who has amassed over 51k followers on TikTok by posting sugar baby content, has started to have worries about the app community’s obsession with the lifestyle. “My main concern is that no matter how many safety tip videos we put out there, people still aren’t fully understanding or taking the advice. There aren’t enough safety tips in the world to make someone realize what you can get yourself into until you’re actually in a dangerous situation,” she shared, “it’s easy to look away from red flags and lose common sense with money tied into the picture.”
Although some safety tip videos are popping up here and there, and some ex-sugar babies are taking to the app to share their negative experiences, the overwhelmingly sugar-coated view presented by many users on TikTok still isn’t showing the full story. While Summer’s content shares her life as a sugar baby that’s adamant there’s no intimacy involved, she admits to still having “felt pressured into being intimate” and being put in situations where she felt “uncomfortable.”
With the app’s view, there is a difference between sugar dating and sex work, allowing content on one but not the other, TikTok’s tolerance of sugar baby life content risks selling young women a dangerous lie. Being left without support or education, separated from a community that could offer valuable guidance, and sold an image by other creators that don’t seem to be the reality, Eve worries the promotion of the glamorised lifestyle “does nothing but lead more lambs to slaughter.” Differentiated only by a thin line of pop culture references, “sugar babies need to listen to and learn from sex workers rather than upholding a façade of superiority or innocence that’s only making women unsafe,” Eve concluded.
When contacted about this article, a TikTok spokesperson said: “At TikTok, keeping our community safe is a top priority. It’s why we implement safety-by design principles when developing our policies and features. Our Community Guidelines make it clear that we do not allow content that commits, promotes, or glorifies sexual solicitation – and we take action when issues are brought to our attention. We are constantly enhancing our safety policies and features to ensure that TikTok can continue to be a safe and fun home for creative expression.”