Maren Scull, Ph.D.
Maren Scull, Ph.D.

In 2016, Maren Scull, Ph.D., ran into a problem with her research study. Scull had interviewed 35 people, but with each subject she spoke to, she discovered more diversity and variety than expected. For a complete picture of the relationships she was researching, Scull needed more participants for her study.

The biggest challenge in finding participants was that Scull was examining a type of interaction that frequently flies under the radar: “sugar” relationships, also known as mutually beneficial relationships.

According to Scull, an assistant professor in the clinical teaching track in CU Denver’s Sociology department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), mutually beneficial relationships can be described broadly as a relationship between two or more individuals that includes a financial or material incentive.

“Sometimes, but not always, there is a sexual component,” she said. “Because sugar relationships are often stigmatized and may even be lumped into the category of prostitution or sex work, many participants are reluctant to identify themselves.”

To find more subjects, Scull needed additional time and funds, so she applied for a Non-Tenure Track Faculty Development Grant from CLAS. She was awarded the grant in spring 2017.

“The grant allowed me to locate and interview additional subjects,” Scull said. “Including these additional participants gave me a more well-rounded picture of ‘sugaring.’”

The nature of ‘sugar’ interactions

A “well-rounded picture” of mutually beneficial relationships is needed since little sociological data exist on the diverse types of these connections. “Most of the research that’s been done focuses on countries other than the United States,” Scull said, “in particular, places where girls as young as 13 and 14 years old have sugar relationships with much older men.”

Scull noticed that the existing research focused on health concerns, power dynamics and that a teenage girl in a sugar relationship with a much older man may not have decision-making power over her own body, such as when and if a condom is used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

“That research is important, but it doesn’t tell us about the many other types of sugar relationships that exist,” Scull said. “It also neglects to examine the nature of the connections.”

Scull suspected that lumping mutually beneficial relationships under the category of sex work is an oversimplification, so she designed her study to better understand the nuances and diversity of sugar relationships.

Finding ‘sugaring’ participants

The Non-Tenure Track Faculty Development Grant, which assists “faculty to stay current in their fields,” gave Scull the resources to add 13 participants to the original 35 interviewees. All the participants were women who have or had a mutually beneficial relationship with a man.

To find her subjects, Scull posted flyers on college campuses, contacted sugar blogs and attended the annual Sugar Baby Summit in Los Angeles in 2016 and London in 2017. An ad on Craigslist.org, word of mouth from her contacts and snowball sampling (one subject recommending another woman she knew) also brought in additional participants. Scull conducted one-time interviews face-to-face, over the phone, or on Skype with each subject.

To fully explore the range of people and relationships, the study included questions about sexual orientation, the age of the couple, the length of the relationship, as well as abstract concepts like power dynamics, the impact on the self-concept of the women—positive or negative—and their views about sugar relationships being labelled prostitution.

‘Sugar daddy’ or ‘benefactor’?

Scull completed data collection in July, and she hopes to publish her initial findings by end of 2017 and conduct further analysis in 2018. Although her research is not complete, data are emerging that gives shape to a picture of mutually beneficial relationships in the United States.

While her focus was on interviewing women in relationships with men, Scull discovered that only 31 of the women identified as heterosexual. The other 17 identify as bisexual, queer, heteroflexible or a combination of those terms.

Scull was also surprised by the similarity in age of the participants. “Society often thinks of sugar relationships involving an older man and a younger woman,” she said. “This was often the case, but there were several instances when men were the same age (or only a few years older) than the women.”

Other findings relate to the nature of the relationships. Although the terms “sugar baby” and “sugar daddy” are common, not everyone in Scull’s study likes those labels. Some prefer terms such as “donor” or “benefactor” to describe their arrangements.

Significant diversity was also apparent in what was exchanged in the relationships. Beyond money, gifts, vacations and shopping sprees, many of the women mentioned the mentorship, companionship and sexual interactions they received. In addition to (or in some cases, instead of) sex, the men were described as receiving “arm candy,” dates to public events, help with housework and friendship.

“So far, what I’m seeing from the data is that many of these relationships are distinct and different from sex work,” Scull said. “When this study is complete, I hope to add to the sociological literature by delineating the various forms of these relationships.”

For questions or more information about this research, contact Professor Maren T. Scull, Ph.D. at [email protected] or 303-315-2138.

If you have questions about the Non-Tenure Track Faculty Development Grant or the grant process, please contact Sam Walker, UCDALI Executive Committee member, [email protected], 303-556-3240.

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