“Desperate” doesn’t even begin to describe this. “Prostitution” comes much, much closer. In a recent Huffington Post article, Amanda Fairbanks chronicles the rise of “Sugar Daddy” social media sites, like SeekingArrangement.com, SugarDaddyMeet.com and SeekingTuition.com, along with the lifestyle choices of the women responsible for that rise:

Saddled with piles of student debt and a job-scarce, lackluster economy, current college students and recent graduates are selling themselves to pursue a diploma or pay down their loans. An increasing number, according to the the owners of websites that broker such hook-ups, have taken to the web in search of online suitors or wealthy benefactors who, in exchange for sex, companionship, or both, might help with the bills.

The past few years have taken an especially brutal toll on the plans and expectations of 20-somethings. As unemployment rates tick steadily higher, starting salaries have plummeted. Meanwhile, according to Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University, about 85 percent of the class of 2011 will likely move back in with their parents during some period of their post-college years, compared with 40 percent a decade ago.

Besides moving back home, many 20-somethings are beginning their adult lives shouldering substantial amounts of student loan debt. According to Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the financial aid websites Fastweb.com and Finaid.org, while the average 2011 graduate finished school with about $27,200 in debt, many are straining to pay off significantly greater loans.

Enter the sugar daddy, sugar baby phenomenon. This particular dynamic preceded the economic meltdown, of course. Rich guys well past their prime have been plunking down money for thousands of years in search of a tryst or something more with women half their age — and women, willingly or not, have made themselves available. With the whole process going digital, women passing through a system of higher education that fosters indebtedness are using the anonymity of the web to sell their wares and pay down their college loans.

When I happened across a headline about this phenomenon yesterday on the Fox Business News website, I made a note to research it further. Truthfully, I expected sob stories — tales of split-penny, ashamed young women sheepishly seeking the patronage of an older man. I thought unemployment might factor in somewhere. In short, I assumed the success of these sites depended on a Fantine-esque fable of abandonment, factory work and misstaken firings. Naive me.

Nope — what appears to actually be going on here is even more depressing than that. It’s a story of young, successful gals who’ve made a series of inelegant decisions — first, to pursue educations they couldn’t afford, then, to sell themselves to pay down debts and, finally, to blame the economy for choices they’d most likely have been comfortable making anyway. The key paragraphs in Fairbanks’ admirably thorough report come near the end:

As two enterprising anthropology undergraduates at George Washington University, Elizabeth Nistico and Samuel Schall tackled the phenomenon of sugar daddy culture for a recent school project. Schall studied young, gay sugar babies, and Nistico explored the straight scene. Of their study’s 100 participants, more than half said the money they received financed their education. On average, the relationships lasted between three and four months.

Nistico found that some of the sugar babies used the excuse of the economic downturn for behavior she thinks they would still have otherwise condoned. “We concluded that people who say they have a sugar daddy to pay off their loans are people who would already contemplate being in that relationship if the economy was doing just fine,” says Nistico, whose subjects frequently mentioned the recession, a bad economy or debt as motivating factors in their decisions.

Admittedly, the sugar daddy phenomenon does point to a few important problems for which society at large is at least partially culpable, from the eduction bubble that led to absurdly high college tuition rates … to the sexual economics that have so lowered the price of sex that it might actually be more self-respecting for a girl to seek payment from a sugar daddy than to repeatedly give herself away for free … to the policy decisions that created the abysmal economy that makes this seem, by some accounts, less unacceptable than it otherwise would be. But, in the end, the “sugar babies” themselves bear responsibility for what they’re doing.

These women happen to be just about my age, which means, even though they’re young, they’re adults. Perhaps if I hadn’t purposefully decided at age 18 to attend my state school on scholarship or at age 22 to forgo law school to work and save money precisely to forestall a life situation in which the demands of student loan debt exceeded my income, I’d be in more of a mood to make excuses for my fellow females. But the quotes from several of these sugar babies smack of an entitlement mentality. They’d like to be able to earn a Ph.D. in finance at the London School of Economics, please. To be able to eat Michelin-rated meals and take Travel-channel-worthy vacations, thank you very much. Wouldn’t we all?

Crises always reveal character — and what stories like this remind me of is that the fight for the nation’s economy is equally a fight for its culture. Will we return to personal responsibility and self-government? Or will we descend further into an entitlement-and-excuse-making mentality?

For sugar babies who fell into a trap of their own making, FBN’s Dr. Woody offers some timely and well-intentioned advice, but it’s relevant for us all as we consider ways to make ends meet in the midst of economic challenges:

Tap Family and Friends: In tough times always start with family and friends. We all have our own support networks and the time to tap them is when you are in need. Remember, those who really care about you will do what they can to get you moving in the right direction.

Gigging: When in a desperate financial situation, start thinking entrepreneurially and consider freelancing or starting your own business. In a previous article I wrote about the several ways one can cobble together a series of gigs to make ends meet while in transition. …

Although we are in desperate times, be [wary] of desperate measures. Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, recently told me that “there is always work that needs to be done” and for the recent grad “it’s a matter of figuring out what that work is.” If you are willing to open your eyes, the right opportunity will present itself.

But, first, we have to be willing to open our eyes.

Update: Just thought of this, too: What will these sugar babies do when the president taxes their millionaire and billionaire corporate-jet-owning sugar daddies into oblivion?