Lily is not your average university student. Even among the young Hongkonger’s crowd of affluent friends, her reputation for conspicuous consumption raises eyebrows.

She flies business class, sports handbags by Chanel and Hermès, takes foreign trips once every two weeks and, as if by magic, every month thousands of dollars appear in her bank account. Her last birthday party, held in one of Kuala Lumpur’s finest clubs, cost US$10,000. Naturally, her friends flew in from Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta and stayed at the finest hotels – on Lily’s tab. At 22, Lily has not yet finished her accountancy degree at a private university in Malaysia, but is already living the life of a high-flying finance professional. How? She is being bankrolled by a 40-year-old sugar daddy.

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Lily met him on The SugarBook website, one of a host of recently launched “sugar dating” sites pursuing aggressive expansion plans in Hong Kong, mainland China and Southeast Asia. They have been together since February last year, an encouraging sign since things didn’t work out with Lily’s last two sugar daddies. Finally, things appear to be going smoothly.

When she wraps up her studies in June, she will take a gap year in Europe, basing herself in a posh house in the fashionable London borough of Camden, owned by her sugar daddy, an expat accountant in Singapore. Still, he’s not making everything easy – he refuses to hire Lily at his company, to avoid a conflict of interest. “My sugar daddy says I have to start from the bottom but he can make a few phone calls for me to get me a job for sure,” Lily says. “I love that I am with a man who is so sure about us and about the future and I know I cannot find that in a boy.”

Along with relationship security there are, of course, the sweeteners – the iPhone, Macbook Pro, and business class flights on Emirates he has lavished on her – or the Hermès Birkin 30 bag he bought her in Paris.

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“I can’t remember how much that cost and I didn’t dare look at the price tag,” Lily says. He also gives her a monthly allowance of US$2,200 “on the last day of the month without fail” and tops this up with another US$700 to complement the flights to Singapore he buys her every fortnight so she can shop on Orchard Road while he plays golf. The US$10,000 dollar birthday bash was his way of saying sorry he couldn’t attend the celebration – the date coincided with a business trip.

With such rewards on offer, it’s easy to see the appeal of sites like The SugarBook. And Lily is far from alone. As of March, The SugarBook had 120,000 users – up from 75,000 at the beginning of the year – mostly from Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. Its founder, Darren Chan, hopes to grow that membership to 200,000 by June, and sees the China, Indonesia and Thailand markets as ripe for expansion. “The idea for The SugarBook came when I read about how finances are one of the most important criteria in relationships,” Chan says. “I delved deeper and found a study that had a summarised conclusion that men seek beauty while women go for money when it comes to choosing life partners.”

About 70 per cent of the members on Chan’s site are “sugar babies”, usually aged between 21 and 32. Sugar daddies and mummies range in age from 30 to 55.

The SugarBook, launched in 2016, competes with a US-based website called SeekingArrangement, founded in 2006 by Singaporean Brandon Wade. In Greater China, the website has over 90,000 active members, mostly female aspiring sugar babies. Hong Kong and Macau account for 11,683 active female members.

To boost membership, both platforms are offering free premium accounts to students who register using their university email address, hoping to cash in on struggling students seeking a way to finance their education. SeekingArrangement says this has helped entice more than three million students in the US and Europe to sign up. For those paying to access the sites, a six-month premium package on SeekingArrangement is US$60, on The SugarBook it is US$215.

Critics of sugar dating – roughly defined as an older man or woman spending extravagantly on a younger girlfriend or boyfriend in return for a relationship – say it is little different to prostitution, as sugar daddies often expect more than just companionship.

“It’s really a kind of marketing where they keep the brand name distinct from prostitution, even though it’s clear the people agreed to have sex for money,” says Helen Pringle, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales who specialises in human rights in the sex industry. “[Sugar dating] creates a sense among many men, a playboy aspiration where they can tell women when they can come and when they can leave and they don’t have to deal with the messy relationship stuff.”

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This has prompted concerns in conservative Southeast Asian states. Singapore police have vowed to take action if they suspect The SugarBook is being used to exchange money for sex. One user of SeekingArrangement has already received a two-year prison term – a 45-year-old married man who had sex with a 15-year-old girl he met on the site. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission also has threatened legal action if prostitution, blackmail or fraud are suspected.

The SugarBook says it understands the concerns and “will work with the authorities to address any questions and concerns”. It also says that user security is a priority and that it has “stringent procedures in place to ensure no fake accounts, exploitation or vice activities happen”.

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Despite these procedures, soliciting sex is rife. This Week in Asia signed up as a sugar baby and sugar mummy on both services for a week and was offered cash for sex on numerous occasions.

On SeekingArrangement, sugar daddy “Joe” wanted a sugar baby to “massage the stress out of me” after flights from Switzerland to Singapore; “Dan” wanted a pay-per-meet arrangement starting at US$260. On The Sugarbook, “Rao”, 21, said he was “just another student with financial constraints” and was “looking for a sugar mummy” – but without the friendship.

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The rise of these websites poses other problems. Critics say the power dynamic is inclined heavily towards the sugar daddies – and that sugar babies often become depressed when their relationships turn sour. Many self-harm and some attempt suicide when the lifestyle they are used to ends, says Dr Andrew Mohanraj, deputy president at the Malaysian Mental Health Association. “Certain types of sugar babies are led to believe that their relationship will become romantic,” Mohanraj says. “I have one case where the sugar baby was told by her sugar daddy that he wanted to marry her. [This never transpired] so she overdosed on sleeping pills.”

Other dumped sugar babies succumb to substance abuse and they are also at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

Even those who evade physical harm may sustain psychological scars – among them, an inability to see relationships as anything other than transactional.

“Even if they put the past behind them and get married and settle down, they might have a distrust of men, particularly older men,” Mohanraj says. “They might pass this kind of thinking to their daughters and tell them to be conscious of men in general.”

Mohanraj says colleges could help by banning flamboyant clothes and cars on campus. “I remember when colleges in Malaysia prohibited students from driving expensive cars, but now people look down on poor students.” Pringle, the lecturer, says parents must teach sons about respecting women and daughters the importance of self-respect.

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All such advice falls on deaf ears as far as Lily is concerned. She’s planning to introduce her sugar daddy to her parents in April. “If we get married, no one will call him my sugar daddy any more. He will just be my husband, right? So why let these labels determine your life,” she says. “Even if a woman wants to be a sex worker or an escort, it’s legal in Europe anyway and they pay taxes, why judge her? It’s like being a woman means your entire life will be judged already no matter what.”

Names have been changed