Sex traffickers have found a new way to recruit vulnerable young people: public advertisements for “sugar dating.” According to anti-sex trafficking advocates, these advertisements promise money in exchange for platonic companionship between an older person, a “sugar daddy” or “sugar mama,” and a young person, a “sugar baby.” In reality, “sugar dating” is a sex trade that often targets foster youth and formerly incarcerated youth. Young people lack awareness about the true intentions behind sugaring — what the term actually means — and can easily be tricked or manipulated into being exploited by these sex traffickers’ schemes.
StolenYouth is a nonprofit based in Seattle, Wash., that works to eliminate child sex trafficking and support survivors ages 24 and younger in their recovery. The organization has been combating sugar dating by publishing counteractive ads online, building a platform to re-educate youth on what sugaring actually means and informing children and families about the signs sex traffickers may use to lure unsuspecting victims.
Director of StolenYouth Marnie Backer worked with Youth Voice to compile the perspectives of employees as well as a young woman who has been directly impacted by sex trafficking.
Marnie Becker (she/her), Executive Director
About 60% of the trafficked youth that are picked up are foster youth.
The attraction for the young person in sex trafficking is that it is fast money, and it’s easier to get than going to school or getting a job in the service industry. But it’s demoralizing in what it does to your soul, spirit and psychological health — that can have long-term damage. That trauma is horrific, and there are a lot of factors that come into play when you successfully exit that life, so it can take years for someone to really successfully do it.
The sad thing is that trafficking is a symptom of something else. The biggest predictor of a youth in trafficking is poverty. I think that educating people on how to protect their friends and family members is what’s going to stem the tide, and sadly, these foster youth are the ones to slip through the cracks.
What’s becoming more and more prevalent is sugaring. Sugaring is when an older person, usually a male, offers payment to a younger person in return for companionship. Really, it’s being veiled as prostitution, because it’s rarely just for companionship — usually there is the expectation [of] sex. It’s becoming more common and normalized. It’s all over the internet, social media — you see the hashtag “#sugardaddy” or “#sugarbaby,” and it’s become very normalized among teens who look for a sugar daddy to pay for things or get them a nice handbag or take them to a nice dinner.
Shanessy Jones (she/her), Director of Development
Foster youth are one of the most vulnerable populations to engage in sex trafficking or to be groomed and exploited.
There’s not a lot of homes for the age range of the most vulnerable, 13 and up, particularly in Washington. Become a foster parent. That’s the number one need right now. I think that if there were more stable homes for our youth that are in transition, it wouldn’t be as easy for [traffickers].
Because [youth] didn’t have any safety net, especially when they would run away or if they never graduated high school, the job opportunities for them are much more limited. This is the same as with the juvenile justice system — we just cycle them around. There’s a foster-care-to-prison pipeline the same as when you get any interaction with the legal system — it can kinda stick with you. That’s why organizations like Choose 180 and other places that are doing restorative justice with youth, to me, are the next iteration of how we can help.
The problem is people don’t want to talk about sex trafficking. We live in a culture of shaming about sex … We have to talk about children being raped and exploited.
Deborah Tillman (she/her), Ginny Fund Manager
As recently as 2020, in some parts of Washington state there were trafficked kids because of the lack of foster care homes. [Their] safest place to be is in juvenile detention, which is where they would probably be placed. When I used to work directly with trafficked youth in a group home, youth were picked up on the streets by law enforcement and actually were just taken to juvie.
I was the statistics person where I worked, and over 75% of the trafficked youth that were brought to where I worked were foster youth. And for the most part, at least 80% of them were females, and most of them had multiple placements and were being run through a circuit of group homes because they had time limits.
Educating is the easiest and best way to start a change, because the youth would know what to look for when they’re vulnerable and have counselors that they can speak to at school. They’re not going to be as tempted to fall for some of the grooming that happens with the pimps.
The more people know, the harder time sex traffickers will have.
Kaylee Donahue (she/her), Community Outreach and Events Manager
At StolenYouth, we do several different things that help trafficked youth. We fund organizations that do direct services, prevention at schools, housing, youth care, and additionally, we have funds that help trafficking survivors with direct personal grants.
We are also working on revamping our prevention and education for schools, students, teachers and educators on [the] risks of trafficking and ways to intervene.
We have to make sure that the youth who are approached by the sugaring language understand that while it appears to be free money it’s actually not. There’s power in play that the wealthy man has over the youth and so it’s not a mutual relationship, it’s trafficking — really, in and of itself, prostitution.
LeAnna (she/her), Survivor of Sex Trafficking
I was going to community college at the time I used the sugar baby app to find someone to support me strictly financially. I mean, that’s what I thought at that time, that it’s just older men looking for a sort of friendship, or as a date to parties, and they’d pay for things.
But that was definitely wrong. In the beginning, it was easy, just talking and getting small things paid for, like my phone bill, so I would stay in contact with the guy I connected with. He had asked me a week into talking to meet up, and I did that in a public place. He was nice and even brought me a gift. He got me to feel comfortable, like he would care for me and be my protector. He asked me to drop out of school and to stay with him. … I felt like he understood me, made me think that I had to stay with him because of how much he “invested in us” to the point I became fully dependent on him. I had no family to talk to for help.
After a while, things got bad. He became aggressive and abusive. Told me repeatedly that I was now his property and that no one would look for me, and I believed him.
I was able to escape only because I made him believe I was his and that I didn’t want to leave at all. I don’t know what gave me the courage to leave, but I did.
I grew up in foster care. I moved around a lot and didn’t feel like I had a place to call home. I was searching for safety, security and stability from someone that listened to me.
I was too trusting and naive when it came to sugar dating. I really thought he was nice, but now I realize I missed major red flags, all because he bought or paid for things for me just to distract from his actions.
It’s been nine years. I’ve moved to a different state and was connected to a service that helped get me situated with a job and a safe place to stay. [To other survivors], just know you’re not alone and your life matters.