Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“I wasn’t revolted or anything, you know? He just seemed really nice. He looked like a mixture of Jeff Bridges and my high school vice principal,” I say. I absentmindedly tug on my sock.
Still draped in uncomfortable date attire, an itch developing on my leg from the confines of the thigh high socks that my date requested I wear, I sit on the floor of my bedroom, excitedly briefing my friends on my date.
Friday nights are quiet at Swarthmore. They’re perfect days to get off campus and do interesting things—see the city, go on a date. This particular Friday, I did the latter. I did it with a forty-something-year-old man who has more money than I can wrap my head around.
A Sugar Daddy.
I’ve always had an interest in the taboo: the creepy, the weird, the sexual, the morbid. So when a conservative high school friend posted an article about Sugar Dating at Arizona State University on their Facebook, claiming that it was a shameful way to live, I ate it up and scrambled over to Google.
“About 40,300,000 results (0.58 seconds).” Recently, the sugar dating lifestyle has found its way into mainstream media and infiltrated our everyday lives— with attention from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, GQ, ABC’s 20/20, CNN’s This is Life, and even Showtime’s Seven Deadly Sins.
The Hugh Hefner persona is all around us, and we now have access to him in a way that we never have before.
Right. So this, I decided, is going to be the theme of this semester. I’m bored, I’m young, I’m stupid and curious, and I figure if I’m going to do something unusual, it might as well be in the interest of journalism.
I do a mental shrug and begin my journey of The First Longform Investigative Piece of My Life.
The same article that sparked my interest had also pointed me in the direction of a Sugar Dating website called SeekingArrangement.com
“Cutefunandfunny,” I type, snorting at my own ridiculous profile. What if people don’t think I’m cute, fun, or funny? I wonder to myself. Whatever, I resolve.
SeekingArrangement (SA, for short) is a Sugar dating website founded in 2006 by now-CEO Brandon Wade. Users set up accounts complete with photos, bios, backgrounds, interests— you know, all the normal things that one would put on a dating site. Until you scroll down someone’s profile and find their net worth and income or find specifics on what sort of financial arrangements they’re looking for.
The site claims to have over five million Active Members, four million Sugar Babies, and one million Sugar Daddies and Mommas from 139 countries. Photos take 24 hours to be approved, profile changes take 24 hours to be approved, while Premium and Diamond members pay extra. Diamond members need background checks.
Babies can browse through the site, looking at profiles of people near them, of a certain income, of a certain body type, married, unmarried, children, no children, preferred eye color, interests, the list goes on. Users can “like” people’s profiles, passively letting them know that they are interested, they can request to see private photos—perhaps less passively letting them know that they are interested—or, most direct of all, they can message them to arrange a date.
“I’m just interested in new life experiences,” I type, lying in bed at two in the morning with a half-empty jar of crunchy Great Value peanut butter next to me, my roommate sleeping soundly on the other side of the room. It’s time to find myself a date. The sound of my clicking continues.
In my escapades, I picked up a nice schmear of jargon that I’m going to be throwing around. Sugar Babies (SBs) are consenting adults who are young and hot and have relationships with Sugar Daddies/Mommies/etc (SD, SM, etc). These wealthier, older, and not-always-hot people date younger people, financially supporting them and pampering them in various ways. I’ll really only be talking about Sugar Daddies and female babies here, so bear that in mind.
This, my friends, is the act of Sugar Dating. And when you join the “Sugar Dating scene,” you enter the Sugar Bowl.
If you find yourself in a relationship with a Salt Daddy, you’re dating a man who has intentionally lied about an aspect of himself or his income in order to get into your pants. If that happens to you, you become a Salt Baby.
And Sugaring is a verb which encompasses most Sugar-related behavior.
After some light lurking on a Sugar Baby forum (Yes! That’s a thing!), I get in touch with Candice K., a graduate student in her third year of law school at Villanova, to discuss her experiences as a sugar baby. Candice is currently dating her fourth Sugar Daddy, whom she met online, but her first Sugar Daddy was actually someone whom she met in her day-to-day life.
We had to reschedule our first meeting because she was still recovering from her third boob job.
I’m stunned by her beauty. Her SoCal-esque dialect is fast-paced, and she vocally fries the ends of her sentences without fail. Very Kim Kardashian. Candice turns out to be incredibly engaging and marvelously articulate. Her face slim and her lips full, in workout clothing and cigarette in hand, there is something especially enchanting about her.
“Sorry. I curse a lot,” she warns me.
“It was kinda like we were just dating and I ended up finding out [that he was rich]— I didn’t actually know how much money he had when we were just dating—I mean I’ve dated a lot of guys that don’t want to let girls know, ‘Hey! I’m a fucking billionaire,’” she says.
Candice maintains that many Sugar Daddies are anxious that they’re being used for their wealth, so they try to avoid letting their sugar babies know just how much they’re worth right off the bat. She only found out gradually.
“He started buying me gifts, and then he kind of came clean about how much his worth is,” she says.
Sugar Dating doesn’t just come in one form. Arrangements can be anything from video chatting once a week and having online sex in return for money (which is uncommon, and actually frowned upon by SeekingArrangement) to developing a real, honest relationship in which both parties are truly romantic invested.
Some Sugar Relationships are long-distance; some are not. Some involve traveling often, and some do not. Some include sex, and some do not. Veronica*, for instance, is not interested in having a sexual relationship with her potential Sugar Daddy. She is currently dating around.
“Yes, I make sure it’s very clear. I really don’t want to deal with miscommunication. Especially because I’m not down with having sex. I make sure they know. I feel like all the guys are super entitled, and if they don’t get exactly what they want, they get really pissy,” she says.
The dance normally begins with a message— a plan to get coffee or dinner—something very quintessentially “first-date-like.”
“I’ve only met four women in person. All four were very cool and interesting people. Three lasted over multiple meetings. One was a dinner/drinks date and ended there. The most recent woman really wanted sonic grilled cheese sandwiches, so after multiple texts and several extended phone conversations, I drove up to meet her and gave her about eight sandwiches. Then we spent the next eight days together and we still hang out every now and then,” says Jay Will*, one Sugar Daddy out of the one hundred-plus I hounded who actually ended up giving me an interview.
(The eight days/eight sandwiches was a massive coincidence, by the way.)
The first few dates are usually shopping or dinner dates, where an SD and SB can build financial trust while spending time with one another.
My date spent about 200 dollars on dinner.
If you make it past the first few dates as a Sugar Baby, you might find yourself receiving an “allowance”— a weekly dollar amount that can be used for leisure, bills, or anything else your heart desires. Allowances are negotiated, but they usually start at around $3,000 a week and can amount to upwards of $5,000 with enough time, trust, and negotiation.
Some Sugar Daddies give their SBs access to credit and debit cards.
Dating can be as long-term as multiple years or decades, even, and as short as a few months, or even just one date. Some Sugar Parents and Babies are looking for long-term relationships, while others are not. The “dating” aspect of Sugaring is relatively similar to the “dating” aspect of capital-d Dating.
Candice states matter-of-factly, “If one party wants to end it, there’s not going to be, like, fucking issues. There’s not going to be fucking bullshit. Just accept it, move on, find someone else. Like, that sort of thing.”
She takes another drag of her cigarette.
I get a few matches on SA. Or maybe more than a few. I guess the Cutefunandfunny persona isn’t as stupid as I thought it would be.
It’s probably still stupid.
Anyways, I don’t have much time for dilly-dallying, so I start sending messages to everyone who seems like they’re ready to meet up the fastest. This way, I have less time to chicken out and can maintain a steady progression of all my investigations.
Somewhere in the whirlwind of a Wednesday evening, I message, speak to briefly, and set up a date for Friday with a guy from SA. I spend most of the following Thursday questioning, “what the hell am I doing?”
I spend most of Friday the same way.
Night falls, and I suddenly find myself past the point of no return.
After equipping myself with mace and a location tracking app downloaded on my phone, thigh-high socks jerked up and suffocating, ready to freeze on a cold, January evening, I get myself into an Uber and head out on my date. I walk into the restaurant and find my date still standing in the main lobby. The hostess had refused to seat him, insisting that his party needed to arrive.
He explains this to me as we side-hug with earth-shattering awkwardness.
The Hugh Hefner persona is all around us, and we now have access to him in a way that we never have before.
I sit down nervously at the table, lifting up my menu and promptly slamming it into the cup to my right –toppling it over, making a heinously loud noise, and disturbing the quiet section of the restaurant. I jerk my head up and smile sheepishly at my date, fully conscious of how absurd I must have looked.
“Well, I’m obviously making a good impression right now,” I say, chuckling awkwardly.
I run my hand through my hair and adjust my position on the floor of my bedroom, looking up at my girlfriends sitting on my bed. I pause for a long time, thinking about what felt off about the date that night. Something did feel off.
I launch into a rant, suddenly feeling myself able to pinpoint the source of my ambivalence.
“First of all, he could be my father,” I say. “Second of all, he has the capacity to have all of these crazy experiences.” Common ground is limited when you’re dating a guy who has that much more life experience than you because he’s older and rich.
“There’s definitely a distance that I feel between the fact that I’ve always been lower middle-class, and he’s been wealthy probably since before I was born,” I continue. “At no point did I feel like there was any power play, though. I didn’t feel like ‘I don’t have full control of the situation because he’s wealthier than I am.’”
Barthelemy Kuate-Defo, a professor at the University of Montreal, addresses the issue of power in certain Sugar Relationships. He writes, “the greater the degree of financial dependence for survival, the smaller scope girls and boys have to protect themselves.” With 65% of SA Sugar Babies purportedly being lower or middle class and the persistent trope of the “hot, struggling college girl,” financially dependent young people need to be cautious of those who do want to place them in a subservient position.
Alice Holland, Director of Health and Wellness Services at Swarthmore College and certified sexuality educator, agreed to have a chat with me about potential problems with Sugar Relationships. Her presence is warm and her voice airy, making me feel comfortable having this discussion with her. She speaks frankly and without bias.
“It could possibly be seen as a power dynamic if someone feels that someone else has the power over them, […] and that could be financial control, or emotional control […] but I can’t say if it is for all relationships,” she says.
When asked if it’s possible to nurture a healthy relationship in which finances are so integral, she provides insight that I hadn’t yet received,
“[T]here seems to be this emphasis on finances, but that can happen in any relationship. Where one partner is working and the other isn’t. [The non-working partner is] still offering something financially to the table, it just might not be in the form of a weekly paycheck,” she says.
There’s a lull in the room as I finish my rant, suddenly coming to the realization that I have been recounting my evening for nearly a half hour. The effects of the evening’s adventure weigh on me as the exhilaration of having done something so taboo, so rebellious— something my mother would almost certainly have my head for (she did, by the way, and what an incredibly emotional Sunday night that was)—wears off. I feel winded.
I’ve always had an interest in the taboo: the creepy, the weird, the sexual, the morbid.
I breathe slowly and pick at a crumb nestled in the fibers of my carpet.
A voice from my bed asks quietly, “But…Does it seem sad on his part? Like, kind of pathetic?”
I pause, picking at the crumb some more. I consider it.
After consideration, I respond, “No, I don’t think so. At no point did I feel like he was a sad guy. He just seems really…busy. I guess… Like, when I want to go to a concert, I don’t want to go alone, so I’ll pay for a friend to come with me. It seems like the same thing, but in addition to wanting a relationship.”
He framed it as ‘getting away from things.’ Almost like an escape.
I segue into my next question for Candice, excited to find out, finally, what it was that enticed her to drop conventional dating and pursue the life of a Sugar Baby. I felt myself expecting a similar explanation to the one I got from Veronica, and the one that the Sugar Baby narrative beckons:
“I’m in college, so I’m super broke, and I work two jobs to pay my outrageous rent. I did some Googling and checked out Seeking Arrangement, and I started talking to a few guys there,” she writes to me.
The video pixelates as Candice chuckles.,
“I have a shopping problem. I’ll be first one to admit it. […] I come from a very wealthy family, […] I was accustomed to having things, and expensive things, but there comes a time when your parents cut you off. And yeah, I didn’t know what to do because I have a certain lifestyle. Like, I’ve grown up a princess,” she says, adding, “I don’t know what the hell else to do.”
It’s not hard for me to understand why a young woman would want to be with an older man and benefit financially from him. If I weren’t so hell-bent on doing everything for my own self, even if it means struggling, then I could easily see the appeal. In fact, I see the appeal now — I sometimes find myself wishing I had more nice clothing and thinking,
Gee, if I had a rich boyfriend, I wouldn’t have to wish anymore.
But the question is why older men want to spend money on someone else. The appeal of a younger girlfriend is obvious. As Holland explains, males are fertile their entire lives, capable of providing the means to produce offspring, while women are not. A woman’s youth equates to her health which equates to her fertility and child-bearing abilities. So it’s no wonder that 40-something-year-olds are pursuing young, hot, intelligent women.
No; that wasn’t a humblebrag.
Scrolling through SA and reading the short snippets of bio that are offered before opening to more details, I’m met with multiple iterations of the same sentiment
“Looking for fun”
“Looking to enjoy life”
“Ready to take care of you”
It seems that men are looking for a companion to, at the very least, do interesting and exciting things with. But there’s still something I’m just not entirely sure about. Why the money? Why taking care of someone else? If not for power, then why?
The whole thing seems to make a lot more sense to Candice, whom I’ve begun to admire. She has this way of phrasing things so honestly— so matter-of-factly.
Her demeanor moves away from its former seriousness as a wave of contentedness creeps into her tone.
“They feel good about taking me shopping because they see it makes me happy. Or they’ll buy me gifts, and it’s just, like, a happy experience for both parties. […] I mean, if you think about it, you can have all the money in the world, but you can’t take it to the fucking grave with you,” Candice says.
The fact that I was working on this article was hardly a secret (you know, except from my mom, whom I eventually told and who is probably reading this now— hi, mom!). Admittedly, I was met with a lot of resistance in my attempts to explain that Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies really do perceive themselves as being in relationships, not as veiled versions of prostitutes or escorts.
“You can have all the money in the world, but you can’t take it to the fucking grave with you” – Candice K.
While Barthelemy Kuate-Defo explains that “it tends to show a stable pattern with relationships being quite regular […] and lasting even one year or more,” he further identifies four main “Sugar” relationships that young women may be having with their older partners.
- A boyfriend/girlfriend situation where both parties have regular sexual contact
- This is the primary relationship type that I encountered in my ventures and seems to be met with less social resistance than others.
- A temporary partner with whom sexual favors are exchanged for money and gifts, etc.
- A relationship in which sexual contact is one-time or sporadic in exchange for monetary goods.
- The last is a Sugar Relationship in which both parties are presumably in love and looking to the long-term.
While this is not an exhaustive list, it does a decent job of loosely defining some Sugar Relationships—some of which may lean closer to the edge of sex work than the others, but that is not my place to make definitions.
The controversy is salient enough that SA, two years ago, uploaded a blog post to their site that differentiates between Sugaring and Prostitution. They, too, provide a list of four ways they are different. These are:
- A Relationship vs. A Transaction
- Money and gifts are perks that come with dating a generous man, and sex and money aren’t exchanged on a case-by-case basis.
- Lifestyle vs. Profession
- Sugaring is a particular way of approaching relationships, whereas escorts and prostitutes are first and foremost, ways of making money.
- Dating vs. Ordering
- Having most of the traditional prerequisites of being in a relationship versus providing a service.
- Quality vs. Quantity
- Seeing one generous man who there is a substantive relationship with, as opposed to many clients.
When I ask Candice the Big Question, “what do you think of the claim that Sugaring is a form of ‘sex work’?” she gets visibly irritated.
“Um. I mean, I 100% percent disagree with it. […] I think that’s the misconception that a lot of people have: ‘Oh it’s money for sex.’ No, it’s not because it’s like…we’re dating. We are—he is the only person right now that I’m sleeping with, and, like, I really like him for who he is,” she retorts.
Her frustration stems from the especially harsh social perception of sex workers in addition to the objective and current illegality of sex work.
“I hate when people have these negative judgments and society like, ‘Oh, you’re a whore.’—No, I’m not. Actually, I’m not,” Candice states.
Candice also considers herself a feminist and feels that Sugaring can be a way for women to feel empowered.
“If I’m doing what makes me happy, and I’m happy with my life, then that’s the sort of empowerment that this gives women… You’re doing what makes you happy and not giving a shit what other people think,” she says.
I type to Jay Will, “Do you think there is a social stigma surrounding sugar relationships? What differentiates being a sugar daddy from paying for an escort? I know that even SA makes a distinction, but what, for you personally, is the distinction?”
His response is less resolute than Candice’s but is nonetheless insightful.
“I do think there’s a social stigma, sure. Seems both parties start off in almost adversarial roles: Trying to make sure the other is telling the truth, being cagey, etc.,” Jay explains, adding, “the difference between SD/SB and paying for an escort could very easily be blurred or non-existent, depending on what road each person chooses. Although, with an escort I assume the sex/sexual component is more assured and the SD/SB can be much more nuanced.”
The date drags on for a little over two hours, and I find myself losing energy fast. I had lost interest long before; one can only talk about work for so long before it becomes a game of “smile and nod,” so I mentioned the time. It was getting a little late.
He looks at me with melancholy eyes as I explain that the likelihood of this happening again was low, but that I would consider it. He offers me a ride home. I decline, claiming that I would feel more comfortable taking an Uber and do not live far.
Suddenly, he asks if I would like some money for the Uber, and of course, I wasn’t going to turn that offer down. 10 bucks I don’t have to spend? Count me in.
He hands me $60.
I say nothing, giddy on the inside, and tuck the money away into my wallet. We exit the restaurant and hug once more before we part ways. He walks away to his car, heading home to unpack from the flight he had been on that afternoon as I stand on the corner of the sidewalk, yanking up my socks and staring at the ground. The Uber arrives. I climb inside.
These past two months, I have found myself engaging with a world that only a few years ago I didn’t know existed— that many people, young and old, still do not know exist. Or do not fully understand.
Sugaring isn’t for everyone. It can be bitter for some, salty for others. Our palates are different— we are different.
As we sit and talk in my room, I realize that what I want right now is this: me and three of my best girlfriends. Sprawled out on a quiet night at Swarthmore College. I want that every Friday until I can’t have it anymore. I want to eat shitty Renato’s pizza and whine about the fact that my bank account only has ten dollars in it until it finally reaches eleven. I want to shop at Forever 21. I want to complain about college boys.
But somewhere not far from here, even on our own campus (you’d be surprised), there are young women who are choosing to live their lives in a different way. Money, adventure, passion, sex, and luxury. Who could blame them?
Jay Will leaves me with a sentiment:
“Good luck with the story. And with dating in general. It’s crazy out there.”
It sure is.
*Names with an asterisk have been changed.
Featured image by Natalie Flores ’19/The Daily Gazette