The Sugar Babies of Stanford University
from overnight social media fame to sugar-baby side hustles, america's elite young women are changing the rules of sex and class
The promise of sexual liberation was the freedom to love as we choose, and who could possibly stand opposed to so noble a position? But decades after the unwinding of America’s traditional sexual mores, no new morality has clearly emerged, and young people increasingly find themselves navigating a culture of sexual anarchy, in which — provided an act is consensual — there is no “right” or “wrong.” Such thinking has brought us inevitably to the rise of OnlyFans, the normalization of sex work, and the curious story of Stanford University’s sugar babies.
Nicola Buskirk is the founder of publishing house Elessar Books, and is the filmmaker/director of upcoming documentary The Marriage Pact. She’s also a recent graduate of Stanford, and she guests today with an investigation into the strange phenomenon of wealthy, extraordinarily well-connected young women on her campus turning to the world of sexts for cash.
It was fall at Stanford University, and Cassie was going about a normal day of classes and clubs when, on a whim, her friend pulled out her phone and started filming. She danced for the camera and pulled some jokingly sexual moves. A few mutual friends might see it on a private story, Cassie thought. They’d laugh along, and that would be the end of it. But instead, Cassie’s friend shared the video publicly, and it went viral on social media. Within a few days the video had been seen by millions of people.
The reaction was overwhelming. The reaction was insane! The reaction presented an interesting opportunity. Cassie decided to embrace the virality, and make more suggestive videos. Sometimes she danced in their bikinis, sometimes she responded to indecent comments, and it wasn’t long before men started asking Cassie if they could send her money. So why not?, she thought, and Cassie included a link to her CashApp with her videos. (Note: The videos have since been taken down.)
As the money started flowing in, so did messages from men interested in more than just a public video. From here, the business — which it had accidentally become — naturally expanded. Cassie started sexting with various men in exchange for money, and eventually gifts: cash, flowers, lingerie, a television, a tennis bracelet, a diamond ring. Her main sugar daddy, Pat, sent around $600 just to get her attention. When men asked for feet pics, Cassie declined, and brought in a new friend, Lainey, to take her “overflow customers”.
When one thinks of sugar daddies and sugar babies, the image of a wealthy older man and a young guileless girl comes to mind. Maybe we think of a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a gold Rolex. Maybe he has an ex-wife with a yacht somewhere, or grandkids who summer with him in the Hamptons. And maybe the girl in this scenario comes from more humble circumstances. She is a college student with, perhaps, a nice family who can’t afford her tuition (or phone bill or car payments or whatever). Maybe she’s an aspiring actress whose sugar daddy funds her LA lifestyle when waitressing doesn’t cut it. You get the picture. It’s a scene from Pretty Woman and the woman is somehow innocent, if not quite the hooker with the heart of gold. But while this image still sometimes maps to reality, the norm is changing.
We never think of girls at elite universities with high-paying career prospects “sugar-babying” for a taxi driver or night-shift factory worker from a flyover state. Yet at Stanford, this was exactly the case. It also reflects a broader change in the sexual dynamics of American culture.
Sites like OnlyFans, popular among the “pay to see me naked” subset of gig workers, have entered the mainstream in recent years as millions of young women and men turn to it for supplemental income, or to chase full careers. Over 170 million others subscribe as “customers.” Celebrities like Bella Thorne and YouTube’s Corinna Kopf, the most well-known and highly-paid OnlyFans creators, overshadow the reality for the vast majority for whom getting nude for strangers nets an average of only about $151 a month and 21 subscribers. But focusing on OnlyFans alone ignores the vaster, far more commonplace, and socially acceptable enterprise of TikTok thirst traps.
There is precious little data on the sheer volume of thirst traps posted by young women and, often, men — some of whom are clearly underage — on TikTok every day, let alone every month or year, save a few surprised forum posts. Every new TikTok-viral song poses a new opportunity (four billion to be exact) to be suggestive without being explicitly sexual, which is often not the case with much OnlyFans content. But both OnlyFans and TikTok thirst traps have something in common: a personal touch that draws in viewers — and money.
Though neither Cassie nor Lainey set out to be sugar babies (their word for what they did), they had the foresight to set strict boundaries. Their sugar-babying consisted of sexting, sexual voice recordings, and some suggestive but clothed Snapchats. They say there were no nudes, no phone calls, no meetups. They didn’t publicize where they attended school, but people found out anyway and sent the above-mentioned gifts.
When I asked them why they set these boundaries, Lainey replied, “It’s not worth it to me to send someone nudes for a small amount of money when we literally go to Stanford and are going to be making money off our intelligence. I would rather not send anything that could jeopardize my entire life in order to get like $20 or whatever it is.”
Her reasoning has a certain internal consistency. It also indicated the curious situation of my two classmates. They did not actually need the money they were making from sugar-babying. Their parents paid their tuition and healthcare. Cassie paid for her own phone bill, and both Cassie and Lainey, like most twenty-one-year-olds, funded their own social lives. But prior to her social media fame Cassie afforded these expenses by tutoring a few hours a week. As school and social life demanded more of her time, she cut down her tutoring hours, and as her sugar-babying brought in more money she cut tutoring down more.
Lainey put it simply: “Less work, more money. Passive income stream.”
For them, sugar-babying is a bit of entertainment and easy money that for now has virtually no consequences. Neither of the girls would like their families or employers to find out, but any social stigma that once existed around this kind of thing is long gone. Their friends just laugh about it, and often participate. The sexting, Cassie said, “could escalate to being really sexual and that’s when I’d pass it off to a friend. [My friend] thought it was so funny so I’d just give him the phone for him to talk to [the sugar daddy] for a bit and hundreds of dollars would flow in. He can say whatever weird stuff he wants because it’s not about him.”
When I spoke to other students at Stanford about the sugar baby phenomenon, a few raised eyebrows at potential “safety concerns.” This is, of course, the only objection to sex work you are allowed to have as a good progressive feminist on a college campus. What if these men show up to the house where Cassie and Lainey — and dozens of other students — live? What if they want more than online transactions, and come to stalk, kill, kidnap, or rape the girls? Fortunately, nothing like this ever occurred, and the men, like Pat, were respectful of Cassie’s refusing their offer for a visit. But this brings us to the collateral damage not often named in these stories. While the girls come out more or less unscathed, what about the men?
In truth, Cassie and Lainey don’t know much about their clients. Some are older with grandkids. Some are in their 20s. One is an attorney. But most of the men they told me about were working class, a taxi driver from Kentucky or a factory worker.
Pat, the taxi driver from Kentucky, sent Cassie money for sexts, and bought her drinks when she was out with friends. Then he started sending gifts. He never asked for pictures, sexual or otherwise. Their conversations started out normal before getting more intimate. A few times he asked to fly out to Stanford and visit her, so she cut off her relationship. Even though he worked multiple jobs at his older age (Cassie guessed he was 60 or 70), Pat at least seemed to have the means to make the trip. He paid her nearly $600 before their first conversation and more throughout their interactions after.
But David worked the night shift at a car manufacturing plant, and he was always broke. He could only pay the girls on Fridays when he got his paycheck. Despite this, he consistently spent quite a bit of money for Lainey to send feet pics (only the bottom of the feet!), and — crucially — to tell him he was a loser, his dick was small, and “send me money.” The mismatch between his income and his spending worried the girls enough that they considered intervening, but ultimately decided there was not much they could do to help.
There were many others along the same lines, and their situations, including their relationships with the girls, told the same rather sad story. The men were searching for a personal, intimate relationship with a woman. The best they could do, however, was this strange online transaction. Porn or even OnlyFans would probably be easier than finding random pretty girls on social media to sext, if the sexual aspect were the only thing that mattered. But it’s clearly not. It’s the personalization that makes Cassie and Lainey worth the money. In this way, the men in this story seem to use them as a self-medication for the dire situation many working class American men find themselves in today.
While college-educated and upper-class Americans still enjoy relatively stable marriages, poor and, increasingly, working class Americans “face rising rates of family instability, single parenthood, and life-long singleness.” Since the 1970s, as off-shoring moved countless American jobs overseas with little to replace them, less-educated American men have suffered greater rates of unemployment while college-educated men do not. The link between education and stable employment means less-educated men are now less marriageable. Women marry up, not down, so bachelorhood and divorce is prevalent for these men. Such circumstances lead men to a life of unemployment, dysfunction, and loneliness. More and more, this leads to other mental health and substance abuse issues. But they’re still men. This makes them invisible.
Women, meanwhile, have had a century of success, if doing a lot more work outside the home, marrying later and less frequently, and having fewer children is counted as success. The feminist movements of the twentieth century thrust upper and upper-middle class women from their traditional role as wives and mothers, economically dependent on men, into the political sphere of men, then into the corporate sphere (again, of men) for the sake of political and then economic dependence from men.
Along with entrance into the workforce, women slowly dominated the universities. As of 2021, women made up about 60% of all U.S. college students. Men, meanwhile, made up 71% of the overall enrollment decline over the past five years. It’s simple supply and demand. When you have increasingly more women than men taking spots in elite circles, institutions, and companies, you have a significant mismatch of viable partners for both women and men — men similar to the ones paying Cassie and Lainey.
As a young woman myself, part of me had the same reaction as a lot of my friends when I first heard this story through the Stanford grapevine. I questioned the girls’ safety, and I was disgusted with the gross, old, lecherous men getting what they wanted from young pretty girls. But the more I talked to Cassie and Lainey, the more I learned about the men who were paying them. This was not the simplistic story I had been fed time and time again of privilege and power. In fact, it was much closer to the opposite. Our men are not okay.
Only this complete upheaval of traditional gender dynamics could allow high-achieving women to “sugar baby” for working class men, and without any tangible consequence to the women. Cassie and Lainey’s experience is a microcosm of the broader cultural changes in America over the past few decades. American men, especially working class men, have been left behind with little hope for the “American dream” of a good family and stable job, income, and community. Rather, they self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, porn, and the pseudo-personal relationships offered by girls like Cassie and Lainey. Although the girls seem to be doing well while the men suffer, the girls describe the constant objectification with some queasiness. But both sides, the girls and the men paying them, benefit from the objectification of the other, at least on the surface — the girls, by profiting from the man’s isolation and dire circumstances, and the men, by sexualizing the girls. One perhaps is not worse than the other, but neither is worth celebrating.
Editor’s Note: A few superficial details of this story have been altered per the request of subjects.