New comedy explores the challenges and benefits of working as a ‘sugar baby’ to pay for college

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The idea of using sex work to pay for college has occupied popular culture and the public imagination for years. But rising college costs, growing student debt and the explosion of new technology has taken fascination in a new direction.

Headlines across the country have highlighted the stories of “sugar babies,” or young women who use matchmaking websites to find older men who can offer financial help in exchange for companionship and sex. Now, a new film explores this phenomenon — through comedy.

“The New Romantic” premiered last week at South by Southwest, a music, tech and film festival. It chronicles a college senior’s decision to date and sleep with an older man, Ian (Timm Sharp), in exchange for gifts as she approaches graduation.

Blake (Jessica Barden, who stars in Netflix’s NFLX, -0.82% “The End of the F***ing World”), the film’s main character, is motivated to engage in the relationship by two intertwined forces: A desire to feed her relationship column in the student newspaper with interesting material and a hope that the column will win a $50,000 award Blake can use to help pay off her student loans.

It’s a novel take on the blockbuster “Pretty Woman” (1990). There’s even a scene with a jewelry box that alludes to the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts movie.

But how often is the plot from “The New Romantic” played out in real life? There’s not much data available on the phenomenon, except for from companies that match young people with older, wealthier companions and they may have a vested interest in claiming the numbers are relatively high, said Heather Berg, a lecturer of gender studies at the University of Southern California.

The website SeekingArrangement, which connects young people with older, wealthy companions, claims that 3 million registered students are using the site to find financial aid — a small fraction of the roughly 20 million students who enroll in college each year. (The company defines a student as a someone using a university email address or lists “student” as their occupation and has been active on the platform in the last 90 days.)

Still, the film is just the latest example of how the challenge of graduating into an uncertain economy and affording college and student loan payments has entered popular culture. The explosion of student debt has also shifted the way society thinks about these “sugar baby” relationships, said Berg.

“People are actually talking about the material dimensions of this,” she said.

Whereas before relationships between young people seeking financial help and older, wealthier providers were often viewed as fueled by “naive 19-year-olds wanting nice shoes,” now society is acknowledging that the young people — usually women — in these relationships are “strategic economic actors,” looking to pay for rent or pay off debt, Berg said.

Throughout the film, Blake and other characters reference the challenge, universal among their peers, of making post-graduation career plans and affording their lives and student loans after college. When Blake begins investigating the idea of having sex and providing companionship for money for her column, she interviews a woman who tells her she’s made $67,000 in gifts in one year providing those services.

“Am I having a better time than all these girls stuck in mountains of debt who get nothing more than a pregnancy scare from their one night stands? Most definitely,” the woman tells Blake.

The movie’s director graduated in 2011

Carly Stone, the director and co-writer of the film, said she was drawn to the project in part because she could relate to the angst the main character feels about her future as she approaches graduation. Stone graduated in 2011, when the economy was still in the midst of its sluggish recovery, making it difficult for entry-level workers to find jobs. That was especially true for graduates like Stone and the film’s main character, Blake, who had the types of degrees that didn’t necessarily lead directly to a job.

“It was a sense of panic,” Stone said. “We were all scrounging for unpaid internships because that was basically a stepping stone — and one of the only stepping stones — unless you were going to take a job that wasn’t necessarily career-oriented.”

It was in part that understanding of the main character’s situation that pushed Kyle Mann, the film’s main producer, to ask Stone to write the script. Mann said he first got the idea for the movie after reading an article about sugar babies. He was struck by how forthcoming the women featured in the article were about their choice to raise money in this way.

“They were just saying, ‘It is, what it is, I’m doing this because I don’t want to be in debt and I don’t want to go out into the world with hundreds of thousands of dollars in my name,’” he said. “That’s an interesting moral landscape to explore.”

But Mann said he knew he wasn’t the one to tell that story. “I’m a male in my 40s, I haven’t been in college for years,” Mann said.

Film producer says ‘The New Romantic’ reflects real life

Both Mann and Stone agree that the film is in many ways a product of our times. In addition to exploring the economic anxiety that comes with young adulthood, the movie also features moments familiar to many women and to anyone paying attention to the national conversation around #MeToo on the way men and women relate to one another.

We watch as Blake’s male boss at the student newspaper favors her male colleague, agreeing to write him a recommendation to the same fellowship to which she is applying while pushing her request aside. Later, we’re voyeurs in a sexual encounter where Blake’s clear discomfort — she’s wiping away tears — doesn’t appear to register with her partner.

“It’s so much in the zeitgeist right now,” Mann said of the film’s topics. “All the conversations that are going on in the #MeToo campaign and the discussions about gender politics — the film has something to really add to that.”