It wasn’t that difficult for my trafficker to groom me for exploitation. I was a young, single mother of two who had recently escaped an abusive marriage. I was also hiding a big secret: I was now making ends meet by meeting strangers – “sugar daddies” – online and having sex with them for money.
“Sugaring,” as it is often called, had started innocently enough through a conversation with my best friend about a website she’d seen on the news. “Think about it,” she said, as though she held a personal stake in my acceptance of this idea. “You’ll meet some businessman who likes to take you out on dates to nice restaurants and on business trips. He’s probably busy with his work and doesn’t have time for a relationship. You just got divorced, it’s not like you’re looking for anything serious.” She shrugged, “It seems like a win-win.”
When I first met my soon-to-be trafficker he asked me what I did for work. “Where do you work? One of the strip clubs downtown?” I remember thinking that it was a somewhat odd first assumption for employment, but I was also secretly flattered by the fact that he thought I was beautiful enough that men would be willing to pay me. Also, it was not that far off the mark, and because he had started a whirlwind romance, I felt compelled – and comfortable, to tell him my secret about sugaring.
As our relationship intensified, he began suggesting I pursue adult entertainment as a way to bring in more income. He again brought up the strip clubs, saying I could make a lot of money working even just the weekends so I wouldn’t have to quit my job at the school. Another time he told a story about his ex-girlfriend and slipped in that she had worked as an escort. These suggestions were never forceful but brought up conveniently in the course of conversation. He was merely planting the seed. I began to reason: dancing for men seemed a lot less violating than the sugar daddies that I’d met. But escorting seemed like full blown prostitution, and sugar daddies didn’t seem as bad because they were “mutually beneficial relationships” and therefore technically not against the law. This type of reasoning became a slippery slope that I couldn’t get off of once I stepped on.
I’ll never forget the first sugar date I went on after meeting my trafficker. Walking into the sugar daddy’s living room, he flipped on the lights to reveal custom, backlit bookshelves that held pornography DVDs, autographed by various porn stars. That night when I left his house, I felt like I was losing a piece of myself. I knew what was waiting for me at home – a man who expected me to give him the money that I had just made since I was using “his” body for “our” dreams. I remember fighting with myself, my arms shook as I fought to keep myself from driving my car straight into the wall along the highway. I couldn’t do that to my children. They were at home asleep in their beds with no idea that I had even left the house. I had never felt so lost and trapped. I had to go home. What I didn’t know at the time was that this night would lead me into five years of exploitation and violence in the commercial sex industry.
Every so often I see an article or a news story on the issue of sugar daddy and sugar baby “relationships.” My heart hurts so deeply for those young women out there that read or watch these pieces and believe that this will be a solution to their financial problems. They believe that it can help them get through college or support their children and that it will be a liberating experience. It hurts to know that in some twisted reality we find sugaring socially acceptable and deny seeing it for what it really is.
Many “sugar daddies” are johns. Over my years of being trafficked, I met johns who I recognized by their photos on sugar daddy sites. I also learned that many of these johns prowl sugar daddy sites for “fresh meat” – the women who are just dabbling on the edges of the sex industry. They share back channel information with one another on new sugar babies who are easily bullied into lowering their physical boundaries or negotiating for less money.
Many “sugar babies” are trafficked women. A majority of the women I’ve met over the past decade, and a majority of the women I walk alongside today, have/had profiles on the various sugar sites. Sugar sites are merely another place to solicit potential buyers to make their required daily quota for their trafficker.
“Sugaring” is not “the gateway to prostitution.” It is prostitution. These sites have thinly veiled statement that attempt to state otherwise, but these are buyers looking to purchase young women with the intent of using them for their sexual gratification.
It has taken years to get to a place in my healing that I can understand how exploitative and oppressive the commercial sex industry is, and the damage it did to my soul. I was preyed upon in a time of extreme vulnerability and my desperation for love and stability were abused by both those who intentionally sought to exploit me, as well as those who truly wanted to believe that they were in a “mutually beneficial relationship.” There were so many lies that I was made to believe about myself and the world, and they began in the seemingly harmless world of sugaring.
Founder and director of national non-profit, Free Our Girls, Megan Lundstrom brings her experiences, education, and personal exposure to the issue of domestic sex trafficking to the forefront of the movement using groundbreaking research and practices to service those in the process of finding their freedom. A survivor consultant for the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign, and Case Coordinator for Larimer County’s CSEC High-Risk Intervention Team, Megan has dedicated her life’s work to preventing and responding to commercial sexual exploitation and challenging the culture that fuels it.