The fantasy of sugar dating: ‘They don’t want you to be a sex worker – they just want to pay you for sex’
When Lotte Latham was working as a window dresser at a major department store in London’s Knightsbridge area, she received an email from management. “It has come to our attention that prostitutes may be operating around the building at various restaurants or bars including the ground floor champagne and oyster bar,” it read. “Please report suspicious behaviour to your line manager if you witness anything unusual.”
Latham bunked off the rest of the day in favour of a “slut safari”. The email had triggered two things in her: intrigue in these “unusual” ladies, and anger at her employer, both of which led to her new memoir, Dear Mr Andrews.
“There was so much hypocrisy,” she says, of her time at the department store. “They assumed we would aspire to their luxury retail, but no one would ever be able to afford anything on their salaries unless they were doing sex work on the side.”
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As well as plush stores with bars being obvious environments for sex workers, Latham also suspects there is an overlap with sugar dating – the term for arrangements between younger women (sugar babies) and older men (sugar daddies) bearing gifts and allowances – because of the sheer number of men she saw there, flexing their credit cards for their younger dates. Sugar dating is something Latham had tried herself for a few years, before realising she’d prefer to work as an escort and be paid fair and square.
Sugar apps exist in this grey zone, saying they don’t endorse money transactions … while saying you can earn $2,000 a month off it
Dear Mr Andrews charts that journey in experimental form. Latham’s Tracey Emin-like drawings are scattered throughout, but Latham herself is a blank canvas, parachuting us into different engagements across Europe without the tethers of backstory. I can provide a few snippets though: Latham is a London-based artist whose arthouse videos are shown around European festivals. In her personal life, she always falls for “penniless Marxists”.
Since Australian author Holly Hill published her bestselling memoir Sugarbabe in 2008, about placing an ad to find an older benefactor offering a “generous weekly allowance”, sugar babes and daddies have infiltrated mainstream parlance. There’s a thriving erotic fiction subgenre and podcasts such as the Sugar Daddy Formula and the Sugar Baby Confessionals. Websites such as Let’s Talk Sugar and Sugar Daddy Sites that offer advice and coaching, while tabloid s regularly run stories gawking over glamorous babies with five-star lifestyles. And terms like “high-value dating” and “hypergamy” have had hundreds of millions of views on TikTok, detailing tactics for women to meet “high-value” men – meaning, those with money.
Related: ‘Sales funnels’ and high-value men: the rise of strategic dating
The surge of interest since Latham first tried sugar dating in 2015 means the scene has reached saturation point. “I’ve heard of there being 25 women to every man,” she says. “When there are more providers, there’s higher competition and people trying to barter you down on prices, saying, ‘My last girl did this,’ which you can’t verify. My last appointment was with a guy trying to do a try-before-you-buy blowjob in the back of his car.”
Latham finds the language of sugar dating – “pampering”, “sponsor”, “mutually beneficial relationships” – deeply disingenuous.
“There are all these codified things like ‘I don’t want a professional’, which means they don’t want you to be a sex worker, they just want to pay you for sex,” she says. “The stigma of being a John doesn’t get talked about as much as the stigma of being a sex worker, but the idea of being a John is seen as desperate and they like to think of themselves as people that can access young hot pussy because of their wealth and status. It’s an ego-affirming thing. The fantasy is that it’s old-fashioned chivalry.”
With escorting, I can check other people’s profiles and see what people are charging … I can see if a punter’s had a bad review
Latham makes it clear she’s not looking down on women who want to be sugar babies. “I’ve just got a bee in my bonnet that society celebrates women getting a rich boyfriend, but talks down at prostitutes for being grotesque,” she says. “Sugar apps exist in this grey zone, saying they don’t endorse money transactions, it’s just a dating site for people who want to find a successful man or a bright young thing. They don’t want to be associated with the adult industry. At the same time as saying you can earn $2,000 a month off it.”
She points me towards a 2018 advertisement for the dating website Seeking – or SeekingArrangement as it was then known – called Sugar Baby University. Students who signed up to the dating website with .edu email addresses were offered free premium membership, with the enticement of receiving “an average of $2,400 per month in allowances and gifts. Go from broke to bespoke and hack the student debt cycle!” The UK’s 2022 National Student Money survey, meanwhile, found that 3% of students had done sex work and 8% would consider it in a cash emergency.
Escorting is a safer and simpler option, Latham has decided. “I just don’t like the idea of not being able to operate as a business,” she says. “Back in ancient Greece, prostitutes had guilds. They were business women in their own right. With escorting, I can check other people’s profiles and see what people are charging. There’s a two-way reviewing system, so I can see if a punter’s had a bad review from someone, and I can ask for a deposit.”
Latham hopes people won’t go in expecting Dear Mr Andrews to be a glamorous Secret Diary of a Call Girl-style beach read. Actually, it’s more in the realism vein of a recent spate of Australian titles written by sex workers: Come by Rita Therese; Nothing But My Body by Tilly Lawless; Money for Something by Mia Walsch and Happy Endings by Bella Green. Similarly to many of those, Latham’s book is a call to arms to decriminalise sex work, which she considers increasingly urgent as the cost-of-living crisis sees more women signing up as escorts, to fewer clients. “Therefore the prices go down and people can push things like not wearing condoms,” she says. “The exploitation level goes up when there’s the need.”
She quotes a slogan she once saw, on a sex work strike that marched through London “Fuck the patriarchy, but not for free.”
Dear Mr Andrews by Lotte Latham is published by Guts Publishing and is out now