The Tricky Ethics of Trading Sex For Tuition


It's not generally known, but Anna Nicole Smith initially hooked up with billionaire husband J. Herbert Marshall so he could pay her tuition at MIT.* is undoubtedly an unethical website. The question is how unethical, and that is why I’ve taken longer than usual to write about it, and the social phenomenon it and other websites are fostering.

The site is per se unethical because it facilitates adultery, infidelity and improper workplace conduct, by definition and unequivocally, convicted by its own words:

“Rich and successful. Single or married, you have no time for games. You are looking to mentor or spoil someone special — perhaps a “personal secretary”? secret lover? student? or a mistress for an extra-marital affair?”

Based on this alone, is Ashley Madison (the adultery website) all over again. Case closed, no appeal. A website is unethical when it endorses, encourages, and assists in dishonest conduct that is guaranteed to cause harm to third parties. The “consenting adults” argument doesn’t work, and doesn’t apply, when the adults are consenting to something that violates commitments, agreements and promises made to other parties who don’t have the option of consenting., however, became the topic of much debate this month for another reason: its use by desperate students, aspiring students or indebted graduates to pay their college tuition. In this it is like the more specialized, which is solely devoted to matching horny, rich, developmentally retarded and presumably repulsive older men who can’t find real relationships to hot, poor, young women willing to exchange their bodies and dignity to  “help sponsor” their “ dorm rent, books, or provide assistance for tuition.” (“Perhaps even take you shopping for those new clothes you want to impress your sorority sisters!”). The Huntington Post broke the story, telling the tales of both students who “hook up” with wealthy, older men over the internet using and similar sites, have sex with them, and get tuition money or tuition loan repayment funds in return, while the wealthy men gladly pay big bucks to have an evening of passion with a co-ed and some Viagra.

Here’s “Jennifer”:

Jennifer doesn’t label what she’s doing as prostitution. “I’m not a whore. Whores are paid by the hour, can have a high volume of clients in a given day, and it’s based on money, not on who the individual actually is. There’s no feeling involved and the entire interaction revolves around a sexual act,” says Jennifer, who wears a $300 strapless dress purchased with money from her most recent conquest. The rest of the money, she says, went towards paying down her student loans.
“My situation is different in a number of different ways. First of all, I don’t engage with a high volume of people, instead choosing one or two men I actually like spending time with and have decided to develop a friendship with them. And while sex is involved, the focus is on providing friendship. It’s not only about getting paid.”

Here’s “Jack,” one of the “sugar daddies”:

“It’s a very expensive job,” says Jack, a 70-year-old sugar daddy, who describes himself as a “humanitarian” interested in helping young women in financial need….Jack says he meets up twice a week with a young woman from Seeking Arrangement. He typically forks over about $500 a night — and that’s not including lavish dinners at Daniel or shopping excursions on Madison Avenue. “Unlike a traditional escort service, I was surprised to find such an educated, smart population,” says Jack…Educated, debt-ridden 20-somethings happen to be an age demographic that intersects nicely with Jack’s preferences. “I only go out with girls 25 and under,” says Jack, whose thick head of white hair and bushy eyebrows form a halo around a red, flushed face. “But I can’t walk into a bar and go up to a 25-year-old. They’d think I’m a pervert. So, this is how I go about meeting them.”

And here is “Taylor,” a student at Hunter College:

“Faced with about $15,000 in unpaid tuition and overdue bills, Taylor and her roommate typed “tuition,” “debt,” and “money for school” into Google. A website called popped up. Intrigued by the promise of what the site billed as a “college tuition sugar daddy,” Taylor created a “sugar baby” profile and eventually connected with the man from Greenwich. Once in Greenwich, a man who appeared significantly older than his advertised age of 42 greeted Taylor at the train station and then drove her to the largest house she had ever seen. He changed into his swimming trunks, she put on a skimpy bathing suit, and then, by the side of his pool, she rubbed sunscreen into the folds of his sagging back — bracing herself to endure an afternoon of sex with someone she suspected was actually about 30 years her senior….In her profile on the site, Taylor describes herself as “a full-time college student studying psychology and looking to meet someone to help pay the bills.” Photos on the site show her in revealing outfits, a mane of caramel-colored hair framing her face. But unlike other dating sites, where a user might also list preferred hobbies or desired traits, Taylor instead indicates preferences for a “sugar daddy” and an “arrangement” in the range of $1,000 to $3,000 a month.

All of which raises questions, some more difficult than others:

1. Is this prostitution? “Jennifer’s” desperate rationalizations to the contrary, of course it is. It may not be provable in a court of law, but the conduct is virtually indistinguishable from the conduct prostitution laws aim to discourage and prevent. (Agreed, the “virtually” is what would impede any prosecution.)

2. Presuming that prostitution is generally considered conduct that harms individuals and society, hence its illegal status in most states, is this kind of prostitution an exception? The reasons prostitution is illegal are a) It is immoral, and the laws against it is an example of culture bolstering morality. b) It undermines marital fidelity and the stability of families. c) The system of prostitution exploits women and traps them in a lifestyle that is unhealthy, dangerous, and difficult to escape. d) It permits wealthy men to exercise unfair and destructive power and influence over poor women. e) Prostitution undermines gender equality.  f) The practice degrades the culture and society, and government has a legitimate interest in discouraging it.

Without opening the debate as to whether prostitution of any kind should be illegal, it is obvious that all of these reason still apply to tuition for sex arrangements except, arguably, c. and possibly e.
Regarding c., however, consider another profile in the Huffington Post piece (by Amanda Fairbanks).
Here is “Suzanne”:

“Earlier this spring, after Suzanne got fired from her job as a waitress at a diner on the Upper East Side, a girlfriend suggested she create a profile on Seeking Arrangement. Suzanne had grown desperate after falling behind on rent. She also needed to come up with $3,000 for a trimester’s worth of paralegal classes.Suzanne already has an associate’s degree in elementary education from a community college in New Jersey. Unable to find a job as a teacher’s aide, she decided to enroll in paralegal classes at night. But after losing her job, the extra debt proved more than she could afford. She took out $10,000 in loans to pay for a year of school and promptly went on the hunt for a sugar daddy.

“Over the past few months, Suzanne says she’s gone on more than 40 dates with men from the site. … Suzanne recently met a 39-year-old college professor from Dover, N.J. So far, the two have gone on three dates. They typically meet at his house, where he usually cooks her dinner. Afterwards, they have sex. “At the end of the night, he usually gives me $400 or $500 bucks. It’s not bad money for a night,” [she says.] …While she does not label herself a prostitute, Suzanne’s not one to mince words: ‘If this isn’t what prostitution is called, I don’t know what is.'”

This sounds like the beginning of a lifestyle dead-end to me.

I think all of the reasons for making prostitution illegal apply to sex for tuition arrangements. I think that they apply with less force and certainly in many cases, and that supports an argument that such arrangements are ethical exceptions to what is a generally unethical relationship. I am not yet convinced.

3. Isn’t this really an education system problem? Some some are trying to shift the issue into  the educational policy and financing realm. It’s the current state of higher education that is at fault for driving young women into the equivalent of prostitution, they argue. That’s just not going to fly as an ethical argument. If sex for tuition is ethical, it’s ethical. If it isn’t ethical, then the fact that bad choices and bad luck make it look like a viable option to desperate students doesn’t alter its status. The bad economy makes some people more likely to consider crime, but they can’t duck accountability by saying, “The economy made me do it.” “I need to get money for sex to pay my student loans” is no better a justification for prostitution than “I need to get money for sex to feed my kid…get a fix…pay for my father’s liver transplant…afford the clinical trials for my new cancer drug…send a contribution to Al Gore…get some breast implants.”

4. The bottom line: is sex for tuition unethical conduct? If it is, it is unethical conduct from an absolutist perspective. When the sex for tuition arrangement constitutes adultery and facilitates a sugardaddy’s betrayal of his duties to a wife and family, there is no question: it is unethical, because we’re back in Ashley Madison territory. But this isn’t necessarily the case: “Suzanne,” for example, told writer Fairbanks that she refused to hook up with married men. Using her moral version of sex for tuition (which she herself views as indistinguishable from prostitution) as our model, there is a valid utilitarian argument that the arrangement is ethical: nobody is harmed, everyone has a choice, and problems are solved in exchange for dignity and some acceptable risk.

Sorry, Libertarians, but I don’t accept it.

Just as society shouldn’t permit the poor to sell themselves into slavery, or permit the rich to use the power created by their wealth to persuade desperate individuals to allow themselves to be tortured, or beaten, or humiliated, or maimed in exchange for cash—no matter what the cash will be used for—society should not approve of the rich abusing their power by paying desperate women to have sex with them. In the end, it is power abuse made possible by inequality of resources and gender that makes sex for tuition ethically offensive.

I am open to having my mind changed on this. I think it is a close question. Today, however, the Ethics Alarms verdict on and other websites that facilitate sex for tuition is that the sites, and the conduct they promote, is unethical. And we need, as a society, to make up our minds whether we are willing to make the ethical verdict loud and clear. Sex for tuition is on the rise in both the U.S. and abroad, and the legal system won’t stop it. The only thing that can is a cultural consensus that it is wrong.

* Okay, I made that up.

9 thoughts on “The Tricky Ethics of Trading Sex For Tuition

  1. For a long time, the popular culture has portrayed hypersexed teens, Dirty Old Men, adultery, prostitution, etc. as funny, natural and sometimes laudable. Sometimes sorrowful as well, but stripped (as it were!) of much of a guilt factor. And the bulk of the TV/book/motion picture industry output revolves around this. Therefore, is this any wonder? Kids raised in this environment will “naturally” reflect it… sometimes while still young kids. The moral stigma has been banished from their minds and the consequences (which can be grim indeed) have been downplayed. It’s only later that they come to realize their moral and physical degradation and peril. But then it’s too late to turn back.

  2. Jack,
    Small gripe: “Sorry, Libertarians, but I don’t accept it.”

    Being a libertarian doesn’t necessarily preclude one (myself included) from finding this or any other kind of prostitution unethical, only that it shouldn’t be made illegal.


    • Two points you might want to think about? Who owns your body? Who gets to say how your body and mind may be used? If the answer is you then there isn’t the government’s business when some kid decides to trade time and sex for money that is used to pay their education.

      • And it isn’t the government’s business to stop that body selling pieces of itself on the black mrket to take care of the body’s sick dog? I’ll hand it to you, as silly justification for extreme libertarianism, this is a great innovation. It ignores the fact that the conduct affects more than the body and kid in question. If prostitution were just a matter of two consenting adults with no family or societal obligations and no connecting, past, present or future, to others so their conduct was 100% isolated in its influence and consequences, your hypothetical would be valid. Prostitution on a dessert island with two occupants is hunky-dory. In the real world, however, such a hypothetical is either intellectually dishonest or naive.

  3. It reminded me of a television news segment I saw years ago that involved beautiful, intelligent women who were stripping to pay their way through law school. In other words, they took the 0.01 (or less) percentage of strippers who aren’t addicts, party girls, uneducated, poor, self-loathing, etc. and showed the audience how successful women who take off their clothes (amongst other acts) for money can be. It was nauseating. This tuition assistance plan is prostitution, no doubt about it, and the fact that these women think it’s not because there’s dinner and shopping trips involved shows just how willing some young women are to forsake what is right as long as it gets them what they want. Ugh!

  4. Just as society shouldn’t permit the poor to sell themselves into slavery, or permit the rich to use the power created by their wealth to persuade desperate individuals to allow themselves to be tortured, or beaten, or humiliated, or maimed in exchange for cash—no matter what the cash will be used for—society should not approve of the rich abusing their power by paying desperate women to have sex with them. In the end, it is power abuse made possible by inequality of resources and gender that makes sex for tuition ethically offensive.

    Not to defend the practice, but your examples here seem … less than persuasive under the rubric of “harm.”

    A single man-single woman intentional exchange of sexual liaison for cash or other favors meets the definition of prostitution. What it does not do is compare to your examples above, in which people are surrendering human rights or allowing themselves to be physically or psychologically harmed. In all of the above, somebody is getting harmed in return for remuneration, either physically or by surrendering something precious to every person — their freedom.

    The “nobody gets harmed” argument does not apply to those cases, but it arguably does in the case of two consenting unattached adults swapping sex for money or its equivalent.

    So where does that leave the ethics of the matter? I really don’t know, probably, as you suggest, in the no-man’s land between utilitarianism and absolutism. As a societal matter, is is an offense to our mores (not to mention our laws), but the practice is logically and, to some extent, ethically defensible.

    What difference is there between trying to capture a wealthy man as a mate by using sex, among other things, and simply trading a sexual encounter for compensation on an occasional basis? Not all that much, for my money.

    • Your last question is the crux of the matter, and I have no answer. Sex for tuition, I am tempted to argue, puts one on that slippery slope—the geek slope—where accepting money in desperation to do something revolting for money becomes a lifestyle of exercising autonomy to abandon it.
      I put the main accountability of the unethical conduct, if it is that, on the one abusing power, the sugardaddy—but that’s not satisfying either, when he is being sought out specifically so he can abuse his power.

      I am pretty sure that the arrangement would make Kant puke. But Kant lived in fantasyland.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.