Dating website accused of promoting prostitution

BRUSSELS • It is not sweet news to the Belgian authorities, so they are set to take legal action against a dating website's campaign promising to help make young female students rich by hooking them up with wealthy older men or sugar daddies.

The Norwegian-based website RichMeetBeautiful has faced accusations in Belgium of promoting prostitution, following a publicity campaign that involved lorries with huge billboards parading past universities in Brussels.

The billboards carried a picture of a woman's chest barely hidden by a red bra, with the slogan, "Hey students! Improve your lifestyle, go out with a 'sugar daddy'."

The lorries were parked on Monday outside the Brussels Free University (ULB), one of the country's top universities, for the start of the new term.

According to RichMeetBeautiful's Norwegian chief Sigurd Vedal, 10 other such lorries would be rolled out across Belgium in the coming weeks, "mainly near universities".

The regional government of Wallonia-Brussels, which includes the Belgian capital, said it would make a legal complaint for the "incitement of debauchery and prostitution" against the website.

A sugar daddy is a wealthy, middle-aged man who spends freely on a young woman in return for her companionship or intimacy, according to Dictionary.com.

The mayor of Brussels, Mr Philippe Close, said he would ask police to ban the lorries.

ULB had lodged a complaint with an advertising ethics watchdog, which had also received several other complaints, said the watchdog's head Sandrine Sepul.

A student group, the Union of Students of the French community, said it was a "completely immoral campaign".

"More and more students are in social or economic difficulties. We know the phenomenon of student prostitution is gaining ground and here you have a business which exploits the distress of these young women for profit," its president Opaline Meunier noted.

"If this is not incitement to prostitution, it is at the very least comparable to using the services of an escort girl. Students who are struggling to pay for their courses need a scholarship, not a 'sugar daddy'."

Mr Vedal said criticisms likening the site to prostitution were unfair.

"It's a classic misunderstanding," he noted, adding that television, radio and Internet campaigns were also in the works. "We are like a normal dating site, but finance is part of the checklist. We have very clear terms of agreement, 'sugar babies' must be 18 years of age and prostitution is not allowed."

Out of 150,000 young women who have signed up in Scandinavian countries plus Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, around 21,000 are Belgians, according to the site.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2017, with the headline 'Dating website accused of promoting prostitution'. Print Edition | Subscribe