MANILA (UPDATE) — For “Zarina,” it was an answer to her school tuition woes. Two years on, she’s living the life. She said she receives more than P80,000 in monthly allowances — a manager’s wage — from her sugar daddy.
For “Alexandra” who recently signed up, it’s not so much about the money, but good conversations and business mentoring from the mature men she meets.
Sugarbook, the controversial dating website that provides a platform for sugar babies and sugar daddies to meet and make “arrangements,” is quietly rising in the Philippines, recording a staggering increase in signups— mostly from young women— during the hard times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The business, which styles itself as advancing female empowerment, sees this as a boon. But women’s rights advocates and legal experts are concerned that, despite the argument for freedom of choice, it could perpetuate gender disparity and female objectification, and even lead to abuse.
The dating app, in a statement sent to ABS-CBN News, said there has been a 63% surge in signups from March to August of this year— rising incidentally along with COVID-19 cases that prompted quarantine restrictions.
In the backdrop of a battered economy and lost livelihood, more Filipinos, 79% percent of them sugar babies, signed up on the niche website that prides in its purpose: “Where romance meets finance.”
Even more telling: of the total 28,310 sugar babies (ages 18 to 34), 46% are students. Other top signups are from women in the entertainment industry (15%) and the hospitality industry (10%).
Of its Philippine membership, the site has nearly 4 times more women than men: that is to say more sugar babies than there are sugar daddies, as the current number of male users on the site in the Philippines is at 7,526, according to Sugarbook data.
Most users are in Metro Manila, accounting for half of the total membership in the country, while Calabarzon, Central Visayas, Central Luzon and the Davao Region are among the top 5 areas for signups.
For Malaysia-based Sugarbook, which sees the Philippines as a growth area, the pandemic signups are “shocking”— a development it saw worth promoting.
In its press release, Darren Chan, who founded Sugarbook in 2017, touted how much sugar babies reportedly receive on average from their sugar daddies through the platform: P49,700 monthly, indeed an amount not just chanced upon in a crisis situation.
“Driven by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, more users are signing up to Sugarbook due to unemployment and gender pay gaps. On average, a sugar baby in the Philippines receives up to
₱49,700 monthly,” Chan said in a statement.
Despite the emphasis on the money, Chan pointed out that sugar babies should not be thought of as sex workers, though many may disagree.
“Unlike sexual workers, sugar babies are not forced into labor. Sugar babies have the freedom of choice and they do not sell their bodies. They are single mothers, divorcees, housewives or students who are driven, successful and goal-empowered to date financially secured people,” said Chan.
The recent notable growth in signups in the Philippines aligns with Sugarbook’s plans to expand business in the country.
“…[W]ith a population of over 110 million in the Philippines, we see a huge opportunity here and that means channeling our marketing or media initiatives into the Philippines for the coming years,” he told ABS-CBN News in a separate email interview.
Chan, 33, founded the website in 2017, citing his experience with failed romance and how he learned from a “set of data” showing money as the top criteria people look at in getting into relationships.
At the time, many other dating sites were already far along— there’s Tinder and OK Cupid, among others, with already millions of subscribers from all over the world.
But Chan, who has a masters in business administration, saw an untapped niche market in the dating world: there has yet to be a platform “that connects members based on financials.”
“That’s the genesis of Sugarbook,” he told ABS-CBN News.
Three years and several controversies later, the dating website now has 800,000 subscribers worldwide.
Only those 18 years old and above are allowed to sign up, and members are required to submit a copy of their passport, an ID, and credit card and utility billing statements. Signup is free, but members must pay a premium to send unlimited messages, and see who viewed and liked their profile for easier and faster matching.
Fees differ per country depending on cost of living and GDP. For Singapore and the US, fees are at $79.95 per month, $69.95 for a 3-month package, or $59.95 per month for a 6-month deal.
In the Philippines, a monthly premium subscription is at $19.99 per month, $15.95 per month for a 3-month bundle, and $11.59 per month for a 6-month term.
Members are the ones who negotiate the terms of their arrangement, but “there are no legal documents involved,” Sugarbook said.
Sugarbook did not release the company’s total value and revenues when asked: “We do not disclose revenue or any sensitive numbers at Sugarbook.”
'DATING ON YOUR TERMS'
Zarina (not her real name), 24, was watching random videos on YouTube around two years ago when it recommended a Sugarbook promo reel that showed a sugar baby’s lavish lifestyle.
Coming from a poor family in northern Philippines, she was struggling to stay at school at the time because of limited funds.
Without telling her parents, she stopped going to school and went to a different city to work. Her plan was to earn enough money so she could go back to university and finish her degree.
And then the video came. Enticed by the lifestyle it sold, Zarina signed up. She was 22 at the time.
“So I joined it and then I met someone. He’s able to help me with my financial [difficulties],” she said of her first sugar daddy, a foreigner who at the time was 35.
In the 6 months they were in an “arrangement,” he came to the Philippines once a month on a weekend to meet her, visit the casino and spend time.
What she liked about the site, she said, was that she and her sugar daddy were able to set the terms of their relationship: no strings attached, no plan on getting into a real relationship, just companionship.
“It’s your choice and see how your relationship goes,” she told ABS-CBN News in a Zoom interview.
“It’s really cool, and at the same time, oh my God, this is gonna be the answer to my prayers,” said Zarina, whose fluency in English showed she got to practice often.
“There’s the boundaries. Both of us make discussions on our expectations and our boundaries,” she said.
After half a year, her first sugar daddy just went poof. “I just didn’t hear back from him.”
But the cash he gave helped her go back to school. She just finished business management last year.
Zarina is currently on her second sugar beau, a 45-year-old man from Europe who would regularly come to the Philippines on business trips. He planned to visit in February and March, but the pandemic got in the way.
Still, he never failed to send her monthly allowance— around P85,000 per month, Zarina said, which she uses to fund her current lifestyle. She has been able to maintain her own apartment in Manila and help her younger sister despite getting laid off from her marketing analyst job in March, just two months after she started, because of the COVID-19 crisis.
“He’s been really helping me a lot. I’ve really fallen for him. From the very first [conversation], he told me I should not expect anything from him, he could not reciprocate, I shouldn’t expect any marriage,” said Zarina of her sugar daddy, who is supposedly separated from his wife.
She knows, though, there’s no possibility to take their arrangement to a relationship.
Zarina said she has tried dating younger men, but it has become difficult. She sees herself continuing sugar dating for up to “6 to 7 years” more. She has always wanted to live a lavish life, she said, and being with a sugar daddy has made that come true, easy.
“I tried to go dating other guys. It’s just difficult for me because I’m just used to being pampered with my current sugar daddy,” she said.
When asked if her sugar daddies have given her expensive gifts, she said just her laptop and phone. As to luxury goods, she said she’s not much into those.
“Just give it to me in cash, I would prefer cash than that,” she said unabashed with a chuckle.
But how about working to build a life of her own? Zarina defended her choice.
“It’s not a bad thing. When I was a child, I also dreamt of having a very luxurious lifestyle. But on the other side, I would want myself to be very productive, not just depend on my partner,” she said.
But, she continued: “If let’s say I would think about settling down, if I see that I’m financially independent, I would still prefer [someone] who’s affluent and wealthy.”
Single mom “Alexandra,” 23, signed up two months ago, just as she was ripe to give birth to her first child. She said her reason for signing up is beyond the financials; she and her friends are more into mature men, as they find it hard to talk to guys their age.
Like Zarina, Alexandra also found out about Sugarbook through YouTube. She did not sign up immediately, but a friend who has tried prodded her to join.
“Me and my friends usually don’t talk to guys around our age because they can’t keep up,” she said.
“Younger men talk about shoes,” she said, dismissive. The older ones, who she prefers, talk about life goals and business.
“The curiosity was just killing me. My friend said ‘try it first and tell me what happens.’ So I tried it out,” she said.
She admitted her background must have something to do with such choice: an only child in a middle class family, she was raised by her mom. Her dad left when she was young and now resides overseas.
“I used to be close to my father. I guess that’s maybe one of the things why I like older mature men, I grew up being close to both my parents,” Alexandra said.
But she has “completely cut him off," she said. She just “got tired of chasing him.”
On Sugarbook, Alexandra did not have to chase men.
Shortly after signup, she met three who were “actually all nice,” not the stereotypical “dirty old men” preying on young, innocent girls.
“It’s not like that at all. I can’t believe these successful guys actually would spare their time to teach, have the time to mentor people who are actually interested to get to know them and not because they’re rich,” said Alexandra, who finished college two years ago and works gigs in television and film production.
She has only been talking to the sugar daddies she connected with on the phone; no personal meetings yet.
The first one she met was a Filipino man in his late 50s who owns a chain of restaurants. She was pregnant at the time and they would have regular phone calls where her sugar daddy would talk about how to do business.
Alexandra said she did not ask for anything. Still, she said he sent her P10,000 to P20,000 per week for two months— money she used for her birth expenses, with some savings to boot.
“It’s a bonus,” she said of the monetary support she received.
“This is just one of the best ways to actually get a good mentor about business. I don’t wanna like be dependent on being a sugar baby all of my life,” she said.
She is currently talking to two new men — a Filipino in the US, 39, and a 60-year-old Filipino-Chinese man in Manila — and they are “still trying to figure out a good arrangement” as she can’t go out, what with the pandemic and a baby to look after.
Since starting out on the site, Alexandra said sugar dating has taught her that “it’s not scary to try new things.”
“Sugar dating is a big help for me meeting new people, since I can’t go out. Talking to mature older guys that will and can mentor me and actually teach me about life… I really like the friendship that I’ve been building these past few months, learning about life, learning about business, I’m getting financial help, and they’re not creeps,” she said.
“I would actually want to know men like that. I’m not gonna quit anytime soon. This is really fun. This is way better. I get to learn from them, they get to help me, I get to be their friend, sharing about anything in life,” she said.
Unlike what many people might think about sugar dating, Alexandra said “it’s not all about the sugar” — as in the intimacy.
“Right now I’m only offering friendship and companionship. I’m still not ready to be committed. If ever I do want and be ready for a relationship, I’m definitely gonna be using Sugarbook as a way,” she said.
Alexandra scoffs at the judgment that sugar babies get.
“I have friends who I don’t know if they are sugar babies, they post a lot of luxury stuff, get to travel, [and people say] ‘maybe she’s a sugar baby,’ and people just started judging her. I hate people talk about something they know little about. People judging other people,” she said.
Because for Alexandra, sugar dating has been a “great experience.”
“It’s not just about sex and money and older guys preying on [younger women] and being creepy. It’s actually dating and just an advantage to it that these guys are rich,” she said.
No sugar daddy agreed to be interviewed for this story.
Since its launch in 2017, Sugarbook has figured in controversies, most infamously at its home base in Malaysia where a billboard promoting the site — featuring a young woman cozying up to a white-haired, much older man in a bow tie — was taken down after public uproar in December 2019.
Over a year earlier, in February 2018, Singapore’s Minister for Social and Family Development at the time, Desmond Lee, said police would “keep a close eye” on Sugarbook, mainly to watch out for its potential use for sex-for-money services, according to media reports.
Such is a real danger that women’s rights advocates and lawyers ABS-CBN News interviewed also see in Sugarbook, as they shared the concern that the platform could promote illegal activities in the Philippines, among them prostitution and trafficking in persons.
“The mere existence of this site shocks me. It shows that the worldwide web has led to new ways of exploiting the vulnerabilities of women, particularly young women,” said Evalyn Ursua, a lawyer who has prosecuted cases of gender-based violence against women.
She likened Sugarbook’s business model to “the concept of prostitution,” which she pointed out is illegal in the Philippines, under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.
“Prostitution is a business where there is a buyer and a person bought. While the site says this is about ‘romance,’ the fact that money is exchanged for this so-called ‘romance’ means that it involves a commercial transaction. The site admits this as in fact it touts how much women earn from the transactions,” she said in an email exchange.
“While the ‘sugar daddy’ and the ‘sugar baby’ directly transact with each other on the terms of the transaction, the site facilitates that transaction and earns profit from it. I do not think that what the men buy is a conversation, given the money involved,” she added.
Sharing the shock is women’s group Gabriela’s Secretary General Joms Salvador, who was surprised that a sugar dating website was openly advertising and promoting its business and has been running unsanctioned by governments in territories where it operates.
That Sugarbook signups in the Philippines have grown during the COVID-19 crisis reflects “how the business of commodifying women thrives in times of crises,” she said.
For Ursua, this shows how some Filipino women were becoming desperate to get help in the middle of a pandemic, resorting to sugar dating for relief. This, she said, reflected the unequal power dynamic that ensues in a sugar baby-sugar daddy arrangement.
“While the site claims that the transaction is consensual and that the women are ‘empowered’ since they define the terms of the relating, there is an assumption that the negotiation is by persons who are equal in power and agency. This is simply not true. What is evident here is that men with money buy women’s services or ‘romance’,” she said.
“On the other side are women who are usually desperate to earn money. The rise in women’s participation in the site during the pandemic is an indication of desperation. This relating is not at all equal. The men have the power to say no or to walk away where they think the transaction would not be beneficial for them. On the other hand, the women would be desperate to have a transaction that would bring them money for survival or for their needs,” she said.
“We must also consider that young women would be attracted to this site given the monetary consideration. Young women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.”
GLAMORIZED PROSTITUTION OR FREEDOM OF CHOICE?
Like Ursua, Salvador finds that, by the nature of the business, Sugarbook promotes prostitution, despite the supposed freedom of choice that members have in going into sugar dating arrangements.
“Stripped of its glamor and tech [savvy] and any allusion to these transactional relationships being consensual, it is really not much different from the usual run of the mill prostitution dens or clubs. So for all intents and purposes, Sugarbook is a prostitution site,” said Salvador.
“This business capitalizes on women who need money, whether as a means for a living, to finish school, or sometimes to finance a specific lifestyle. The axis lies on women who are trading their services as sugar babies, their own bodies and their own being, in exchange for money or allowances from sugar daddies who can afford their price,” she added.
Under the law, said Ursua, prostitution is defined as “any act, transaction, scheme or design involving the use of a person by another, for sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct in exchange for money, profit or any other consideration.” The law penalizes those who “recruit, provide, or offer any person by any means for the purpose of prostitution or sexual exploitation,” she said.
“This is considered a crime of trafficking in persons. The consent of the person recruited is immaterial in the commission of the crime. The operation of the site could fall under these provisions. The law also penalizes customers, or those who buy or engage the services of trafficked persons for prostitution,” she explained.
The same law also penalizes “any attempt to engage in trafficking in persons.”
“Thus, even if the site owners would claim that they simply introduce the sugar daddy and the sugar baby who after the introduction directly transact with each other, the fact that they advertise that this exchange involves money for ‘romance’ could be interpreted as an attempt to engage in trafficking in persons,” she said.
The business could also be liable for “promoting trafficking in persons,” she said, as the law also penalizes “advertising, publishing, printing, broadcasting or distributing, or causing the advertisement, publication, printing, broadcasting or distribution by any means, including the use of information technology and the internet, of any brochure, flyer, or any propaganda material that promotes trafficking in persons.”
Family law expert Katrina Legarda said the site could also be used as a platform for pedophilia, with potential signups from underage girls.
The website may have safety guidelines and requirements to confirm identity, but she pointed out, “We live in the Philippines where everything can be faked.”
NOT A PROSTITUTION SITE
But Chan, the CEO, asserted that sugarbabies “DO NOT sell their bodies and they are not obligated to have sex.”
“They come from all walks of life such as students, single mothers, divorcees, widows or working adults striving for a better life. Just like any of us, sugar babies have equal rights and they can choose their life partners freely without being forced or deceived into any form of human trafficking and sexual exploitation,” he said.
He recalled a testimonial that he said “resonates with our brand completely.”
“We did an interview with a 33-year-old sugar baby who once said and I quote ‘Why can men date women for their youth and beauty, but not women dating men for their success and finance’?”
Chan also asserted how Sugarbook honors its members’ power of choice.
“Women empowerment is about providing women from all over the world, from every walk of life, the ability to enjoy their rights and the confidence to choose for themselves. The keyword here is choice. And Sugarbook, although marketed as a Sugar Daddy Dating platform, is about providing that precise choice,” he said.
In fresh comments sent Friday, Sugarbook asserted it is not a site that promotes prostitution.
"Prostitution is indeed illegal in the Philippines and we are well aware of that. We are not a prostitution app. We are merely a social networking platform that connects members. Sugar babies DO NOT sell their bodies. It is unjust to label our members as prostitutes just because we call them Sugar Babies," said the platform.
It said sugar babies, both male and female, "are not prostitutes and Sugar Daddies/Mommies DO NOT buy their services."
"There are no services to be bought. It is merely a negotiation amongst members to understand their respective unique needs and wants, before getting into any relationship," it said.
Sugarbook added: "We strictly do not earn nor profit from any transactions from our members."
It also cited that members, both men and women, go to the platform not strictly for the money but because they are "sick and tired of the dating scene in the Philippines and being cheated [on] by foreigners."
"They are on Sugarbook to find security and a more mature or financially stable man/woman," the site said.
Sugarbook and its members argue that sugar dating is a matter of respecting women’s right to free rein on what to do with their lives. For Chan, this is essentially empowerment.
“We believe in women empowerment by uplifting women and increasing the capacity for women to be able to define their needs, and to choose freely without being judged. We believe that women are entitled to the freedom of choice. And this is why women should try Sugarbook,” said Chan.
He cited how the website, where 70% of employees are women, seeks to protect its members through various features. There are always risks that come with joining any social media platform, Chan said, and it boils down to the vigilance of the members.
“I think both women and men have to always be vigilant when it comes to meeting people from the internet. The question of danger lies in the intention of individuals. And just like Facebook, Instagram and every other social networking platform, we have no control over user’s intentions. Nevertheless, we constantly educate our members,” he said.
The website has a page on “safe sugaring,” which encourages members to protect personal and financial information, report suspicious behavior and, before meeting in person, know as much as they could about their potential sugar date, to meet in a public place, be responsible for their own transport, and avoid consuming alcohol or drugs that may impair judgment.
Asked if there have been complaints about bad behavior and unsavory experience from members, Sugarbook said in separate responses that, as in “any sort of social networking platform, there will always be bad apples with fraudulent behaviors.”
It is also currently developing better background check systems to vet subscribers.
“We’re in the midst of working with a 3rd party organization to further enhance our background checks,” it said.
‘SITE SHOULD BE SHUT DOWN’
Still, the nature of sugar dating and how Sugarbook facilitates this leaves women vulnerable, said Ursua.
“There is no protection for women at all. They could be raped or sexually violated in the process. They could be recruited for further trafficking. They could be prostituted further. No amount of warning could prevent that,” said Ursua, who has handled rape and sexual exploitation cases.
“The global data on gender-based violence speaks of the vulnerabilities of young women to sexual exploitation. I would dare say that the site offers a haven for human traffickers, even pedophiles. The site could not possibly prevent minors from joining by faking their age,” she said.
She pointed out that a man’s financial capacity— proof of which is requisite for Sugarbook membership— “does not mean he is incapable of abuse.”
“Would the site owners prosecute violators of women? Would they be able to follow through a transaction and ensure that a woman does not get raped? I do not think that is even possible. In effect, the site expands the global space for the exploitation of women,” she said.
Sugarbook, meanwhile, said shutting the site down would "undermine the freedom and liberty of Filipino women," asserting it is "merely a social networking platform."
It stood by the legality of its operations.
"There is no law against a couple of matching or dating services in the Philippines. Unless it is for prostitution or other illegal purposes, Sugarbook is legal to run," Sugarbook said.
It said other social networking apps "constantly have users who met on the app engaging in illegal activities outside of it."
"Many of these platforms do not enable users to report other users or have such strict regulations as Sugarbook does," the platform said.
Gabriela’s Salvador, meanwhile, raised the specter of physical, emotional and sexual abuse being normalized in what she described to be a patently unequal sugar baby-sugar daddy relationship.
“There also lies a particular problem in entering into a seemingly consensual transactional relationship: boundaries can become blurred and it may not be that easy to recognize abuse at its onset, because either way the sugar daddy or the sugar baby may think or convince herself/himself that it’s all part of the bargain. So abuse can go on and on and become normalized,” she said.
She said sugar dating may stifle the growth of young women: “Young women entering into a sugar dating relationship may also be facing a much deeper repercussion on their sense of self or their self worth, and may risk compromising a future where they could truly exercise their independence or chart their lives as they truly wish.”
Asked if she saw a need to regulate the website, Ursua was clear in what should be done.
“The site should be shut down. It violates Philippine law and policy. Even if it could be argued that there is no crime of prostitution or human trafficking involved here, the site’s operation violates our State policies related to women’s rights,” she said, citing the anti-trafficking in persons law.
She asserted the state’s responsibility to protect its people from human rights violations, violence and exploitation.
“The operation of this site and its recruitment of Filipino women for its business violate these State policies. It is a ground for shutting down the business in the Philippines. Shutting it down is part of the government’s duty to prevent violations of women’s human rights,” she said.
Salvador gave a similar view, saying “government must do its duty to uphold women’s rights and welfare.”
“It should make necessary actions to sanction the website according to its legal obligations under laws related to prostitution, sex trafficking and cybercrimes.”
On the argument of choice, Legarda said: “Go ahead – but the women should enter with eyes wide open, knowing the risks involved.”
How about regulation?
“If a person persists on his/her intention to be a 'sugar baby' or a 'sugar daddy' why should you regulate them? Regulating stupidity has never been successful,” Legarda said.