I was a broke student for a really long time: nine years, in fact, subsisting on such tiny scraps of money that I wonder now how I managed at all. Two years into my doctoral research, and with two children under five by that point, I remember looking at a small packet of butter in the supermarket and wondering if we could afford it. We couldn't. Beans on toast - with no butter - for tea again that night.
I've got to say it didn't occur to me to start selling my company, and possibly also my body, for cash. Surely that's what marriage is for? (Only joking, darling). But that's exactly what over 200 current female students of Queen's University have signed up for on the Seeking Arrangement website. It's free, apparently, if you have a university email address, and Queen's students are suddenly very keen - according to Seeking Arrangement's figures, sign-ups have leapt up by almost 50% from last year, putting Queen's at number 10 in this rather depressing league table of UK universities.
So what's the deal? Well, the site matches up 'sugar daddies' - rich men, or at least men who claim to be loaded - with 'sugar babies', cash-poor young women who want their tuition fees paid. The babies may also "appreciate exotic trips and gifts", as well as the opportunity to "meet wealthy people on a regular basis". Which perhaps also offers the opportunity to trade up if your current sugar daddy turns out to be more of a cheapskate sugar substitute rather than the raw cane real deal.
The site's director, a charmer called Brandon Wade, is terribly concerned about student debt. "Tripling tuition fees are crippling students, who are left to sort out how to afford their education," he says."True, they can do it the hard way, but why struggle when there are people who are happy to help?"
Wade is also the founder of a website called whatsyourprice.com, which tells you all you need to know about his view of human relationships. He claims that 'sugaring' - in the icky parlance of the trade - is about bringing back chivalry. Hmm. When Walter Raleigh spread his cloak across the puddle so Queen Elizabeth I didn't get her frock mucky, I assume that he didn't expect some regal smooching in return.
True chivalry, an increasingly rare phenomenon in these ignorant times, is about honouring the woman you are with, and possibly also the man you believe yourself to be. I certainly don't find it patronising when a man holds a door open for me or moves to the outside when walking along the pavement beside me (a really unusual one, in my experience, only my father and one other man of my acquaintance does that). I appreciate the gesture: it's a nod to traditional virtues of courtesy and respect, which should be received with grace not derision.
Seeking Arrangement and similar sites are the modern incarnation of something equally old-fashioned but rather less gallant: it's about the acquisition of a mistress. A kept woman, to use the creaky old parlance. An extra-marital accessory, she expects to be lavished with gifts, money, trips and treats. In return he gets the reflected glory of the trophy babe on his arm along with other more private privileges. And everyone's happy, right?
I suppose some people might be, if both parties know and fully accept what they're getting into. If we're talking about consenting adults, then whatever personal arrangements they make, sexual or otherwise, is entirely their own business. Helen Croydon, a British TV producer, has written publicly about her own largely positive experience of 'sugaring'. In her twenties and looking for a well-off, sophisticated older man for a low-maintenance liaison, she came to the conclusion that paying to go on a date, or being paid, was a more upfront way to conduct a non-committal relationship. It was only later that she realised monetary gain had become her main motivation. And that's when she stopped.
This is why I think that straightforward, common-or-garden prostitution is a more honest day's - or night's - work than signing up as a sugar baby or sugar daddy. Sex workers charge for the transaction and that's the business done. But if you're a modern-day mistress, entering into a paid-for relationship, then you're signing over your whole life to another person. You're allowing them to own you. And nothing - certainly no college degree, which is a symbol of intellectual freedom - is worth that.