KOLKATA: In the age of a desire to monetise everything, sugar dating is becoming increasingly popular and acceptable in India.

Sugar dating or sugaring is a transactional arrangement where one party (generally older and wealthier) pays the other (who may be in need of financial assistance) for their company. It is considered a mutually beneficial relationship, and is often even seen as a part time job.

While sugaring may seem to blur the lines between personal life and business, for many sugar babies the differences are clear as day.

Ananya* is 25 and has been sugar baby to three men in the last two years. All of them were in their late thirties.

"The idea came to me from a friend actually. A male friend," she laughs. She was complaining about how difficult it was to manage finances at the end of every month, and her friend casually, without really thinking said, "Get a sugar daddy na!"

"And sugar daddies is something that had always been a joke to me and my friends. You see memes about them all the time! But that day was probably the first time - maybe because I really was feeling desperate about money - I considered it as something that could actually be a source of income."

At 23, Ananya found her first sugar daddy by word of mouth. "Now this isn't common at all, from what I hear. But somehow the fact that this guy was not someone I found randomly on the internet made me feel safer… At least for my first time."

In that relationship she earned 60,000 Rs in three weeks, nearly three times her salary those days. The relationship involved phone dates, outings like fancy dinners, a weekend getaway, and a few long drives over the three weeks they were together.

Now a host of Indian and foreign platforms provide online space for sugar dating.

Ananya was still learning to set her boundaries the first time around. "I think my inexperience was pretty evident. And I always thought that since I was the one in need of money, it automatically put my sugar daddy in a position of higher power. That thought can be very dangerous."

This is because sometimes, sugar daddies think of their sugar babies like toys.

Like her second experience, which lasted all of two days. "You know the toys with the chaabi (key) at the back? It's like they think offering more money is like turning that chaabi, and by doing that I will suddenly be okay with something I was not okay with five minutes ago."

She added: "The truth is that some girls will give in when offered more money, and it is sad that it becomes an option for the sugar daddy in the first place. Because if you think about it, wouldn't anybody work more hours or take on extra work if they were adequately compensated for it?"

This is the reason that in any sugar relationship, like in any office job, the boundaries one sets for oneself have got to be clear and unwavering.

"The boundaries obviously need to be quite different, but they really do need to be there. For instance, I never spend a night in the same room with a sugar daddy, I draw a line there. I always take a separate room," says Ananya.

"My last relationship ended about five months ago. Lots of lonely people after the covid restrictions lifted!" she laughs. "We've kept in touch as actual friends, and he told me about this girl he likes and he's going to go out on a date with her, it's all very cute."

With three sugar relationships in a span of two years, Ananya fully supports and understands any young person's need to gain a higher income or better lifestyle.

Samit, a 42 year old executive based in Mumbai, has played sugar daddy to many women in the past seven years. He agrees about the skewed understanding of power dynamics in sugar relationships.

"It's true. In any setting people with more money feel they have more power and behave a certain way. So you can imagine that in a transactional relationship like these, where it is meant to feel personal and intimate by design, there will be men and women who will think of their money as an advantage over the sugar baby."

"I got into my first sugar relationship because I was just super lonely," he recalls. "I had very low confidence and I thought I did not know how to talk to people, let alone girls. And moving to a city like Mumbai is not easy for an introvert I think."

Samit wasn't necessarily looking for a dating experience, rather "just more experience interacting with other people in an informal setting."

"It sort of became like therapy," he laughs. "In my head, since I was paying for their time, like with a therapist, they had to be kind to me and couldn't leave if they got bored."

"Luckily, all the sugar babies I have met and been with have been very nice girls and I never felt judged for my insecurities."

He estimates that over the years he has probably spent over 5 to 6 lakhs on sugar dating. "The girls usually all have different rates for their time. Most of them actually need the money, of course there are others who do it for fun. But most young girls, at least in my experience, are doing this to make ends meet or save up for something big. It has become a viable source of income for many people. Also it has become something people are happy to spend their money on!"

For Sanya*, 22, who recently graduated college and is in her second sugar relationship, it is not uncommon for people of her generation to aspire to a better quality of life.

"Initially it was difficult to admit, but now I've started owning it," she shares. "Many of us do not get paid enough to sustain ourselves with the way the world is going. My earning does not match with the life I need to live."

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy in a report this year finds that most working people in India are from middle income families. This middle class also accounts for half of all unemployed people.

Sanya stresses that while many think of sugar relationships as an easy source of income for youngsters, it in fact is not as simple as it seems.

"Of course there are other options like taking up part time jobs, but that again means you have to compromise on your life and lifestyle. At the same time, my outings, phone calls and dates with my sugar daddies haven't exactly been a cakewalk."

She says that providing emotional comfort and a safe space for an older person is often mentally exhausting. "We are not just having a good time and playing dress up. I have to make an effort to be emotionally available for the sugar daddy, I can't just zone out on him and enjoy the ambience right?"

"On top of that, you have to think of the safety factor also," she points out. Even with more and more people in India, and specifically in the big cities, opting for sugar relationships, the subject is still fairly hush hush.

"So it's not something you advertise. But you have to realise that any sugar baby, or sugar daddy or mommy, is entering into a situation that could suddenly turn uncomfortable or dangerous. Like with any stranger."

And so it falls on both parties to do their due diligence on each other quietly, before forming a sugar equation with anyone.

Ananya agrees that being sugar baby to an older man or woman does tend to feel like a job. "You have to be on your toes and on your best behaviour. I remember on my first few dates I was so paranoid that the guy will put something in my drink and I will not realise. But I couldn't let my nervousness show on my face, because for him it was supposed to feel like a legit date. And that was like my job there."

According to Statista, a market research firm based in Germany, India in 2020 had around 18 million users across all dating sites. Data released by a sugar app called SeekingArrangement.com suggests there are over 6,000 sugar babies and a corresponding 21,000 sugar daddies in Mumbai alone. Bombay is followed by Delhi and Hyderabad, where the ratio of babies to daddies is similarly jarring.

"To the best of my knowledge, the money part of it is always subject to discussion and differs from person to person - not only in the sense of how much the sugar baby is charging, but also different sugar daddies, and mommies, have different expectations and standards, if I can use that word," says Samit.

He goes on to explain that people quote different amounts to prospective sugar babies based on their physical appearance, and how they fare in the daddies' or mommies' estimation. "It's quite messed up in some cases. Many cases," he says.

"I have been offered Rs 12,000 over how much I asked because one guy liked curvy girls," says Ananya. "Then there was another guy that did not want to pay as much as I was asking because my complexion was not 'his type'. Bargaining like this feels odd for sure, but I also know that this small side hustle has turned out to be useful when I was having financial crisis."

While sugar dating is no hobby for her, she has become grateful for how lucrative it can be.

"I was able to afford a trip with friends during college because of my first sugar relationship," says Sanya. "I mostly treat it like a job that has good perks, and the extra income makes me feel more secure in my own life."

"Sugaring gets a bad rap because people think of it like prostitution, and there's already a taboo there," says Ananya. "But sugar dating typically involves quite a lot of respect and consent when it is done right and safely."

*Names changed