Following strong condemnation of TheSugarBook (TSB) in Parliament, the sugar dating website has defended itself against accusations of exploitation of young women, stressing that its female users are empowered with “choice” to maintain or cease contact with their partners.
TSB, which provides an avenue for sugar babies – usually young women – to connect with sugar daddies – usually middle aged men – who are willing to pay them for their upkeep, likened itself to other social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. The website maintained that it was a “niche” platform “where like-minded consenting adults can meet, connect and develop mutually beneficial relationships”.
“(TSB) aims to allow females to have the choice of (forming) long term partnerships with eligible males in the market,” a TSB spokesman told Yahoo News Singapore.
“We understand the concerns our platform triggers in different countries we operate in due to its controversial nature. We will work with the authorities to address any questions and concerns raised as the community’s understanding of our platform is of utmost importance to us.”
The reply comes after several MPs raised concerns in Parliament on Monday (5 February) that the Malaysia-based platform, which is available in Singapore both online and through an app, would expose young women to potential emotional and sexual exploitation from much older men.
Psychologist and psychiatrists that Yahoo News Singapore spoke with echoed the MPs’ concerns, with some drawing a parallel between sugar dating and prostitution.
Launched in December 2016, TSB has a total of 90,000 users, of which some 30 per cent are from Singapore. The number of users it has in Singapore is second only to Malaysia. Other users hail from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Europe and Thailand.
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said on Monday (5 February) that the ministry “collectively objects” to websites such as TSB, which it said “undermine families and societies”.
MPs also aired their concerns in Parliament, asking the ministry what steps it would take to address the possible harm and exploitation that sugar babies might face. When news about the increasing number of users turning to TSB first broke earlier this year, MPs condemned the platform, with some labelling it as “harmful” and “dangerous”.
Women are empowered with “choice”: TSB
The MPs’ strong reactions, however, failed to faze TSB’s founder Darren Chan, who told Yahoo News Singapore that detractors ought to “look at the bigger picture” and “understand what TheSugarBook is essentially about”.
Chan, a 30-year-old Malaysian, said that TSB empowered women by giving them the power to choose for themselves.
“Women empowerment is about providing women from all over the world and from every walk of life the ability to enjoy their rights and confidence to choose for themselves. Choice is the key word. And TheSugarBook, although marketed as a Sugar Daddy Dating app/platform is about providing that precise choice.”
He denied that his tech startup was “immoral”, saying that the user’s intent was the more pressing issue.
“The question of morality lies in the intention of individuals which we have no control over. Although we do take measurements and steps on ensuring that unscrupulous reported users on our platform are banned, we cannot enforce morality onto people.
“We hope that our users will be as honest and upfront as they can be which is more than what we can say about any other social networking site. With that said, judgment without justification is morally wrong in my opinion,” Chan said.
When asked how TSB can protect its users from possible exploitation, Chan pointed to the safety tips and dating guidelines set out in its website. He added that users who felt uncomfortable or suspicious of others could report them through a button on the platform.
A TSB spokesman added that it currently had 12 moderators who approve all profiles when they are registered and that users are required to complete their profile pages with verified emails and photos. Users are also urged to clarify their marital status through a section on the website.
“The marital status is of utmost importance to note here as we encourage our users on our platform to be honest and transparent about who they are, and what they are looking for,” she said.
The website also strives to moderate and exclude users below a certain age, according to the spokesman.
“We have implemented Facebook login and Facebook’s policy is for users 13 years old and above, and we try our best to filter the under-18 users by having our moderators request for proof of age verification when needed,” she added.
“A transaction not unlike prostitution”
Psychologists and psychiatrists were quick to point out that young women who sugar date much older men via websites like TSB are vulnerable to those whose money they accept in exchange for their companionship.
While TSB said the ages of its sugar babies ranged between 20 and 40, others pointed out that sugar babies are usually much younger than sugar daddies, hence the term “daddies” and “babies”.
It is precisely because of this reason that psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng from Dr Bl Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness thinks sugar daddies hold more power and authority over the sugar babies, which exposes the latter to possible sexual and emotional abuse.
He added that it was unlikely for a sugar relationship to be “meaningful” as both parties are at “different phases of life”.
Sugar babies may end up being haunted by a sense of regret, guilt and low self-esteem due to the taboo nature of a sugar relationship too, Dr Lim said.
“The social stigma is there… sometimes you may even feel ‘I’ve done something wrong’ and you feel dirty about it. It may affect your relationship with your future spouse or partners.
“Chastity is still quite a valuable characteristic, especially in an Asian society, the fact that you go into these sort of acts which are in a way semi-prostitution, it goes against the moral grain of the individual most of the time,” Dr Lim added.
Dr Carol Balhetchet, a clinical psychologist in Dr Carol and Associates, said that the term “sugar babies” seem to refer to “innocent naive (youngsters) or even teenagers” and that while it was natural for this group to experiment and take risks, it was “worrying” that they would resort to sugar relationships for the sake of “fast cash”.
She said that sugar dating might give the impression of prostitution as the two involved parties “are strangers meeting up with an intimate exchange of favours from one party and a material monetary gain to the other.”
Dr Balhetchet also said that sugar dating could expose young and impressionable women to exploitation.
She said, “As much as people (teenagers and youths) just say ‘Oh I am in control of what’s going on’, there is no such thing, you are not in control of what’s going on… the men are a lot older, a lot wiser, a lot more experienced.”
Dr Brian Yeo, a consultant psychiatrist at Brian Yeo Clinic Psychiatric Consultancy, said that while some sugar babies might be “young and immature”, many are above a certain age to know what they are doing.
“People are concerned that some girls might be drawn to this site where… the girls (might) be going through things that they are not ready for,” he said.
“The question is do we allow a situation where the older individual entices a younger person to be involved in a relationship where there is a promise of material reward?”
Given the nature of the relationships formed through TSB, the women’s expectations of future relationships, whether platonic or romantic, could become “reward-centric”, Dr Yeo said.
Ultimately, the website does not act in the best interest of the women it purports to help, said Dr Lim.
“It’s victimising women,” he added.