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Research projects

Between Romance and Sexual Commerce: Sugar Dating and the renegotiation of the boundaries between economy and intimacy

About this project

Project information

Project status



Lena Gunnarsson

Research subject

The project has, in a Swedish context, investigated the phenomenon of sugar dating, which has been on the public agenda in the wake of the launch of the first Swedish sugar dating site in 2017. Sugar dating is marketed as a mutually beneficial arrangement between a “sugar baby” and a “sugar daddy”, or sometimes “mama”, where intimacy and company are exchanged for financial or other forms of support. In Swedish public debate the phenomenon is often characterized as covert prostitution.

The research shows that the practices labelled sugar dating differ in kind. Sometimes the label is used as a cover for pronounced forms of prostitution. Other forms of sugar dating are located in a grey area between sexual service and dating, in that the compensation is not clearly linked to the sex and in that the arrangements takes on a long-term and personal character. A watershed between various forms of sugar dating is also that some “sugar babies” do it only for the money, while others get something out of the interaction with “sugar daddies”, such as adventure, glamour, sex or a clearly delimited form of dating without emotional demands.

“Sugar daddies” are often drawn to sugar dating as an alternative to explicit sexual services not only to avoid the stigma associated with buying sex but also since they want something more authentic and personal than what is offered in explicit prostitution. Sugar dating thereby hooks onto, and amplifies, wider tendencies in the sex industry of an increased demand for authentic and personal sexual experiences among men buying sex.

The research shows that sugar dating constitutes a gateway to buying and selling sex for people who would not otherwise choose this route, due to the marketing of sugar dating as something normal or even glamorous. Meanwhile, sugar dating has features distinguishing it from other forms of prostitution and some types of sugar dating exist in a grey are between prostitution and dating. This transgressive character points to the limits of addressing sugar dating from a sex industry perspective only. To understand the phenomenon it also needs to be linked to tendencies of increased “marketization” of regular dating and sexuality.

The project has generated knowledge about what kind of phenomenon sugar dating is, which is important for societal actors addressing, on different levels, problems associated with sugar dating, such as school, social workers, police, legislators, and policy developers.


Fröling, Paulina & Helander, Gabriella (2021). “I don’t ask myself that question. Maybe because I don’t want to know the answer.” A qualitative study on sugar daters’ cognitive dissonance. Master Thesis in Psychology, Örebro University. 

Gunnarsson, Lena (2023). The Allure of Transactional Intimacy in Sugar Dating. Sociological Perspectives.

Gunnarsson, Lena & Strid, Sofia (2021). Varieties of Sugar Dating in Sweden: Content, Compensation, Motivations. Social problems

Gunnarsson, Lena & Strid, Sofia (2022). Chemistry or service? Sugar daddies’ (re)quest for mutuality within the confines of commercial exchange. Journal of Sex Research, 59 (3), 309-320. 

Gunnarsson, Lena (2022). Sugardejting. Texter om våld (1), 10-17. 

Johansson, Alessandro & Gunnarsson, Lena (2022). ”Jag är inte prostituerad, jag lever normalt”: Sugardejtares språkliga och praktiska relationsarbete för att avgränsa sugardejting från prostitution. Sociologisk forskning, 59 (1–2), 101-125. 

Johansson, Alessandro (2021). ”I någon mening köper jag ju sex, men...” En analys av hur icke-prostitution konstrueras inom sugardejting. Masters thesis in Sociology, University of Gothenburg. 

Johansson Wilén, Evelina & Gunnarsson, Lena (2023). Who knows? On the epistemic status of experience in sugar-dating research. Feminist Theory

Sociologipodden (2023) Sugardejting. Intervju med Sofia Strid och Alessandro Johansson.

Studio Genus (2023) Sugardaddies. Interview with Lena Gunnarsson. Örebro University.

Research funding bodies

  • The Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (FORTE)