“Sugar dating” – a phrase for a masculinity in which power means everything
Youths are tempted with the promises of a luxurious life with a “sugar daddy”, and older men are promised respect and admiration from a “keen sugar baby”. Such an advertising campaign is currently ongoing for a sugar dating website which aims to enlist college and university students across Sweden.
– It is capitalism and a demonstration of women being depicted as inferior to men to the highest degree, says gender and masculinities researcher Jesper Fundberg.
Recently, students of Chalmers University in Gothenburg have been greeted with a large advertisement on campus featuring a photo of a woman in her underwear, accompanied with text encouraging students to “date a sugar daddy” to avoid debt amounting from student loans. The advertisement has aroused strong reactions amongst both individual students and the student union.
– The advertisement is extremely sexist and we speculate as to whether the marketed business idea is done on legal grounds, says Carl Toller, Chairperson of Chalmers University Student Union. It is especially problematic that this type of sexist campaign clearly targets students, taking advantage of the fact that we are young and have poor financial conditions, he continues.
The Student Union initially reported the advertisement to the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman, who then referred the case to the police. Carl Toller says that the union has reported the dating site to the police and it has consequently been registered as a procurement.
– We have had contact with prosecutors and received knowledge that an enquiry has begun. We also hope that the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman further examine the case. These types of sexist advertising which specifically take advantage of students’ vulnerable economic situation should not be allowed.
The student campaign, which has been seen around Chalmers and other universities and colleges in various Swedish cities, has not been classified as sexist because the majority of reports received relate to the business idea and not to the advertisement itself, claims the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman.
Jesper Fundberg, an ethnologist researching masculinities and gender at Malmö University, believes that the advertisement is a crystal clear example of sexism. He means that both the language conveyed in the text and the image used clearly objectify women as a commodity in which to serve others’ pleasure.
– The message suggests that a young woman’s body is her largest resource. It’s simply sexism – it does not get any clearer than this, he says.
A masculinity ideal in which men’s power is everything
Jesper Fundberg is very critical to sugar dating as a phenomenon and sees it is a combined expression of neoliberal currents and a return to a traditional, stereotypical image of masculinity that we are increasingly witnessing.
– Around the world, we see ideals of masculinity in which “the big, strong man” can achieve anything with the help of either money or violence. This is a statement of a masculinity in which it is important that men recognise their power in every aspect, in matters from economic to sexual. We are further seeing political forces that represent and advocate a very traditional understanding of masculinity – including across far-right extremist groups – in which subordination and domination, also between the sexes, is central. It is not necessarily the case that men from a particular political party are drawn to these ideals of masculinity, but many are affected by the existence of prevailing masculinity ideals around the world which present women as subordinates, ranging from sexist jokes to men’s assumed right over the autonomy of women’s bodies.
This is a statement of a masculinity in which it is important that men recognise their power in every aspect, in matters from economic to sexual.
However, this does not address anything particularly new, states Jesper Fundberg. Masculinity, sex and money are often linked together and reproduce the idea that a certain group of men can and should be associated with money and consumption, not only in relation to goods but also relationships, as expressed through the website’s marketing.
– Men’s sexuality is seen to be unstoppable and something that must always be given priority. Such a reproduction of a relationship between an older man and a younger woman as the perfect relationship is a clear representation of men’s dominance and women’s subordination. The economic advantage of a significantly younger partner, on which the relationship is built in these cases, often makes men feel powerful and thus see themselves as more attractive.
Neoliberal zeitgeist affects men’s perception of masculinity
What is new, however, is the fact that we are seeing this phenomena, built of stereotypical beliefs regarding gender roles, being promoted across a broad front.
– We have become very accustomed to the fact that we are all products in a market. There are certainly current counterforces, but I believe that we would have seen even stronger reactions if it had been 20 years ago. We are living in a neoliberal era ruled by capitalism and economics, and this is something that many got used to. Even those who see the issues with these sort of campaigns have become accustomed to the fact that everything can be bought and capitalised on the market.
Sugar dating sites aim to allure young women with the idea that a “sugar daddy” is an affluent and experienced man who “knows how he must treat a woman”. Jesper Fundberg believes that this is a type of masculinity which many men would happily identify themselves with, whereas there are also many men who are not at all appealed by the messages of these sites.
– There are surely men who pretend to be the attractive and rich men online, not necessarily because they identify themselves with the website’s target group, but because they view these identities as attractive and the “right” forms of masculinity. This is problematic as it consolidates and reproduces particular ideals of masculinities and an image of how to distinguish an ‘attractive’ man amongst men, which is a further expression for the prevailing economic power structure.
An effective rhetoric to evade one’s own morals
Jesper Fundberg adds that power structures exist in all relationships and operate at different levels, but this has been consolidated by such platforms and is appropriated for capitalisation.
– The sites act as third parties and earn money to cement the concept of men as superior and women as inferior in every respect.
Simon Häggström, a criminal inspector working in the human trafficking group within the police, says to SVT, Sweden’s Television, that the sugar dating websites are indirect prostitution, something which the founder of the website claims to be firmly opposed to. Jesper Fundberg views the defence of these sites, in which they evade the possibility of any existing similarities to prostitution, as an effective way to go around their own morals, both for themselves and for the “sugar daddies” who use the site.
– They have established an effective rhetoric which allows these men to feel that they are doing something particularly good by helping young women, and thus illustrate a win-win situation. This is a rhetoric which is often used and many can hide behind. It is easy to choose to believe such a justification in order to thereby legitimise certain actions, says Jesper Fundberg.