An online dating website Seeking Arrangements (Credit: Seeking Arrangements)

Interviewees’ names have been changed

Melisa, a 25 year-old fine arts graduate, first started out as a ‘sugar baby’ – someone who dates a wealthier person in return for money and gifts – after receiving an offer on the dating app Tinder in 2019. 

Melisa, who identifies as non-binary, now makes their living as a sugar baby and told Inside Turkey that while this is technically a type of sex work, it’s not exactly the same as the more common forms. 

“While sugar babying has parallels with sex work, it also has differences. In sugar dating, daddies also have an emotional expectation from you. It’s much more than just ‘have sex and get paid’, it’s more romantic.” 

Sugar dating can be described as a commodified form of intimacy, where couples willingly enter into mutually beneficial relationships. With the development of technology, sugar dating and related activities are now finding more space on social media and dating apps. The fact that there is little censorship of sexual content on platforms such as Twitter has also increased the visibility of sugar dating. 

Some sugar dating applications, like Seeking Arrangement, even give students a free membership if they register with their university email address. According to the New York Times, Seeking Arrangement advertises itself via Google searches for “tuition help” and “college support”. 

In Turkey, these activities take place in something of a legal grey area. Sex work by women is regulated and permitted in brothels, but is otherwise illegal. Support groups estimate that only a minority of sex workers are based in brothels, with many more – including trans people, men and those from immigrant backgrounds – working in the streets or offering services independently.

“Normally, there is a one-sided sexuality in Turkey for women,” Melisa said. “In such a situation, sexual experiences for which they receive a financial reward may be … a liberating and feel-good experience.”

While Melisa finds this encouraging, online sex work also carries risks, notably because workers are more isolated. They are at risk of violence from clients, including murder, and are less likely to have the support that comes from working with others. 

On dating apps such as Tinder, Okcupid and Bumble, messages that mention money are blocked. Instead, Melisa has invented specific techniques for contacting potential sugar daddies and staying safe at the same time.

“If I am going to use Tinder for sugar babying that day, I make the age range over 40,” said Melisa. “I choose profiles that look rich and have a university degree, which look more reassuring. After talking to daddies on these apps for a while, I send my secret Instagram account to people who want to see my photos. I send them 30-second photos from there so they cannot save my images.”

Establishing a relationship of trust is important not only for babies, but also for daddies. 

“When my baby expects financial support from me, I feel responsible for her,” said 45 year-old Murat, a Turkish man who lived in the US for years and who dates sugar babies. “I want to be there for her if she needs me. Sugar babying is more than a trade. I am happy that I can help my baby. I don’t want that person to go through difficulties.”

45 year-old Murat used to be a sugar daddy (Credit: His personal archive)

According to Murat, sugar babying is different from escorting and other forms of sex work, because the agreement between sugar baby and daddy is a long-term emotional relationship rather than a one-time meeting. Although he said that he first contacted sugar babies in search of sex, this changed over time. 

“My relationship with my baby turned to friendship after a while,” said Murat. “The new generation is much more open-minded and breaks boundaries. They know better about their sexual rights. My baby is very active in campaigning for women’s rights.” 

Cihangir, a 26 year-old economics graduate, also made money as a sugar baby. For Cihangir, it was a welcome alternative to his current day job as a salesperson with a global corporation’s Turkish division. He conducted business entirely online. 

Cihangir, a 26 year-old economics graduate, made money as a sugar baby (Credit: His personal archive)

“I didn’t want to work in a nine-to-five job after graduating,” said Cihangir. “I was thinking that I couldn’t do sugar dating physically due to my mental state at the time, so I opened a Twitter account and started posting sexually explicit videos there. I gathered an audience of 2,000 to 3,000 people, and I started tweeting there in both English and Turkish saying I was looking for financial support. People came to me themselves.”

Cihangir told Inside Turkey that he turned to sugar babying for a challenge – he said that even his secular, left-leaning family would be uncomfortable with it – rather than out of financial need. “Sugar babying was provocative to me and taking money from someone from the upper class gave me a feeling of equality. I also liked that the social roles of femininity and masculinity were shaken up.”

According to Evrim Demirtaş, general coordinator of the Red Umbrella Association, a human rights NGO that works on issues including sexual health, people from the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s are doing this work primarily out of financial need. Demirtaş said that violence was still a risk, and that even if physical violence was less likely than in other forms of sex work, there might be a greater chance of online abuse. Some of the people that Red Umbrella helps are worried about having their personal information and images shared online.

Evrim Demirtaş, general coordinator of the Red Umbrella Association (Credit: Evrim’s personal archive)

“All this work needs to be regulated by inclusive laws prepared by listening to the expectations of sex workers.” Demirtaş said. “Stigmatisation, criminalisation and discrimination against sex workers still continues today. Our association still receives a minimum of 200 reports a month of rights violations. Violence against women is at such a high level that we cannot even talk about the technological transformation of sex work.”

A logo of the Red Umbrella Association (Credit: the Red Umbrella Association) 

For Melisa, sugar dating is a way to solve their financial issues: they told Inside Turkey that they intend to carry on doing it, with the aim of moving abroad in a few years’ time. Cihangir no longer asks for money via his Twitter account, and is concentrating on his white-collar job, but said he may return to sugar dating one day. Murat, meanwhile, said he no longer sees his sugar baby and is looking for a new relationship.