The sleazy "sugar baby" scandal involving Australian politician Andrew Broad, exposed for his reported cringy attempts to hook up with a woman almost half his age, might look like just another case of a politician caught in flagrante delicto.

The 43-year-old married father of two reportedly arranged to meet the 25-year-old "Amy" while in Hong Kong for a fruit conference. But his penchant for bragging and Amy's interest in financial gain ensured his sext messages ended up with women's magazine New Idea.

They met through a dating platform designed to match wealthy men with young, attractive women. Such sites, as I argue in a recent book, symbolise the rise of what I call sugar daddy capitalism - a deformalisation movement at the centre of Western capitalism that is erasing already blurred lines between commercial and non-commercial worlds.

Transactional intimacy

Sugar baby websites are the brainchild of US tech entrepreneur Brandon Wade. He has established a stable of such sites and apps, all aiming to help wealthy older men (sugar daddies) meet beautiful, usually much younger women (sugar babies) who want to be wined and dined in expensive restaurants and showered with gifts, including cash.

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According to Wade, who has built a lucrative business empire on the concept, his typical sugar daddy has an annual income of US$200,000 ($293,000) and spends about US$3000 a month on a sugar baby. About 40 per cent are married. A similar proportion of the sugar babies are university students. They're not obliged to provide sexual favours, but those who have talked about their experiences indicate that is usually expected if they want material rewards to keep flowing their way.

Wade isn't appealing to romantics. He has called love "a concept invented by poor people".

He told CNN in 2014: "As I look at the future of traditional relationships, I see divorces, heartbreaks and broken families. Marriage is messy, but divorce is even messier. Yet marriage is not the only path to happiness or financial security. An arrangement can provide the same benefits ... without the risk."

His ideas reject the family values Broad has claimed to believe in. It's a transactional approach to intimacy, based on supply and demand. Only hard cash counts, something rich and powerful men have long exploited.

Another way of looking at sugar baby websites is that they promote barely disguised sex work. Indeed Wade has been branded a kind of "e-pimp". We can see his digital platforms as exemplifying a wider trend of casualisation in working relationships, using technology to extend the so-called gig economy.

Informal relationships

The pundits of neoliberalism champion casualisation, individual contracts and other forms of "gig work" because they believe supply and demand is the right way to determine all prices, including wages. It's up to the individuals involved to decide what best suits them.

Friedrich Hayek, a key figure of the neoliberal revolution, argued in his book The Road to Serfdom that deals between individuals are superior to state laws and regulations because they foster personal freedom. Money and self-interest would be the only universal principles permitted, with Governments playing a part only as a last resort. In Hayek's ideal society everyone would interact on a private basis, guided only by the marketplace and personal preferences.

If the economy was rebuilt around this idea, neoliberals believe, we'd all soon be rich micro-entrepreneurs, free to tailor our working lives to individual taste rather than being shackled to global standards imposed by trade unions and Government.

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The sugar daddy phenomenon shows us what happens in reality.

Onward to the past

Consider the status of sex work in New South Wales, which legalised prostitution in 1995 (in large part to stamp out police corruption associated with illegal brothels).

Sex workers are generally seen as independent contractors. That means, like other workers in the gig economy, they don't get the benefits full employees enjoy, such as contributions to superannuation, holiday pay and sick leave.

However, importantly, they are still deemed workers. Employers (or "hirers") must observe regulations that specifically cover workers, such as the right to join a union.

Sugar baby sites are as disruptive to this whole system as platforms like Uber have been to highly regulated taxi industries. They turn sex work back into a strictly private affair.

Uber's official line is that it's just enabling ordinary citizens to share a ride, instead of the regulated system of taxi drivers requiring a licence and police background checks. Sugar baby sites exploit the same loophole. Sugar babies are not officially workers, and thus fall outside any germane employment legislation.

In this sense, these websites and apps represent a return to the past where prostitution was an informal affair and protections and standards were largely non-existent. Given recent trends, there is a danger that large swathes of the economy could soon be restructured in the same way.

So while it is tempting to focus on the salacious aspects of the Andrew Broad scandal, with all its hypocrisy and double standards, let's not lose sight of the bigger picture exposed - of a technology-enabled economic ideology sweeping both working and personal relationships.

Peter Fleming, Professor, University of Technology Sydney

- The Conversation