Serena doesn’t want a boyfriend.
She’s a busy sophomore at a big university in the South. She’s focusing on a double major in advertising/public relations and English, and she works part time in retail.
“I don’t have time for a boyfriend,” she says in an email about her relationship status. “The fighting, the neediness, the emotional drainage.”
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have time for her sugar daddy.
Last July, 20-year-old Serena (who did not want her full name revealed for this story) created a profile on a dating website called seekingarrangement.com. She filled in the typical relationship-website profile information: age, hair color, hobbies, ethnicity, what she’s looking for in a man – more specifically, though, from a sugar daddy.
She listed her expectations in the form of a monthly stipend. The site offers users choices, ranging from “negotiable” to a monthly allowance of $10,000 or more. Older men looking for sugar babies like Serena can search profiles and find girls they are compatible with, and whose stipend demands they can afford.
Once Serena’s profile was complete, she says, she went to bed and waited for it to be approved. When she checked the site the next morning, she was surprised to see the responses.
“Overnight, my profile was approved and went public,” she says. “I was overwhelmed – it was not just one message but 10 to 20 messages. [I felt] a mix of everything from flattered – a lot of funny and nice compliments, to disgust – some wild requests.”
Since joining in July, Serena has seen three men, but as of October, she was still weeding through her messages on two different sugar sites. One man in particular, whom she calls “Mr. Good” is “almost in the picture,” Serena says. She has seen him five times, she says, and thinks of him as “pot” – in sugar-baby speak, that means “potential sugar daddy.” According to Serena, a pot is “a man that you’re communicating with or meeting with, but who you still haven’t officially agreed to an arrangement with – an allowance, sex, larger time commitment.”
When women enter into arrangements with sugar daddies, the men usually agree to shower them with meals, trips, gifts and money in exchange for their company, which may or may not include sex.
Serena isn’t an anomaly. In fact, she is one of an increasing number of college women (and men) who are using the Internet to find “mutually beneficial relationships,” in which wealthy and older men connect with attractive, younger women looking for men to take care of them.
Although Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper and various media outlets have criticized the sugar lifestyle, calling the relationships unhealthy, opportunistic or even predatory, the men and women involved disagree, saying theirs are no different than traditional relationships. Just like conventional relationships, sugar babies go on dates with potential sugar daddies before deciding whether to go further with them. Sex isn’t always part of the equation (though much of the time it is), and both sugar babies and daddies say the arrangements sometimes lead to more serious romantic relationships that aren’t based on money at all. Serena says Mr. Good’s previous arrangement with a sugar baby lasted a year, and the sugar daddy she met before him had a two-year arrangement, which ended when the sugar baby became engaged to someone else.
“They’re like regular relationships, minus all the negative, plus benefits,” she says. “In the beginning it’s almost businesslike: I expect X out of you – time, travel, gift, money, sex, etc., which should be discussed so both ends will be happy. … It makes it so much easier. There’s no drama, there’s no fighting, neediness, emotional drainage, time commitment, and then there’s the added benefits of money, gifts and travel.”
The sugar lifestyle is most prominent in New York, but it’s also on the rise in other areas of the country, including here in Orlando. Seeking Arrangement has more than 800,000 members, and its former press director, Stephan Smith, says about half of the new sugar babies who sign up for the service are in college. Right now, there are 330 students registered with email addresses associated with one of the Orlando area’s colleges: University of Central Florida, Rollins College, Valencia Community College, Seminole State College or Full Sail University. By the end of 2011, Seeking Arrangement counted 102 UCF students among its sugar babies, putting the school at No. 14 on the site’s list of top 20 schools with the largest number of sugar baby students.
Sugar daddies – mostly men, but sometimes women, who are willing to pay for companionship – pay a monthly membership fee to use the site. Sugar babies – young people, usually women, looking for a wealthy person to support them – pay nothing. In fact, college students receive free premium accounts, which allow them to see who viewed their profiles and hide their last logins to the site. If they register with a university email address (ending in .edu), their profile is marked “college sugar baby.”
UCF junior molecular and microbiology major Courtney (she permitted use of only her first name for this story) is a sugar baby who registered with Seeking Arrangement in July. She thinks her reason for joining is probably pretty typical.
In July 2011, MTV aired a show called “True Life: I’m a Sugar Baby,” which profiled three young people – two financially struggling women and one man who didn’t want to work – who date sugar daddies. Two weeks later, on July 31, the Huffington Post published “Seeking Arrangement: College Students Using Sugar Daddies to Pay off Loan Debt,” an in-depth story on the lives of New York sugar babies.
Both Courtney and Serena credit the media coverage with sparking their curiosity about the lifestyle. Serena says she looked into Seeking Arrangement after reading the Huffington Post story and discovered that there are lots of sites – seekingmillionaire.com, whatsyourprice.com – that cater to people looking for anything ranging from a dinner companion to a long-term arrangement.
“I knew this lifestyle existed, but I didn’t realize so many websites existed just for this purpose,” Serena says. “I researched for a day, and I started coming across personal sugar blogs – real-life experiences – and that’s what really drew me in.”
Courtney says she thought the lifestyle looked appealing based on MTV’s portrayal of it. Now that she’s been involved in it for a while, though, she says she sees a disconnect between the reality of sugar relationships and the media’s take on them.
“The way MTV showed it was misleading almost, because they made it seem like you didn’t have to sleep with someone in order to get all of these things,” Courtney says. “The girls claimed they didn’t have to have sex with anyone or do anything like that, but it was sugar-coated.”
Since Courtney created her account, she has had dates with two men – one is a 50-year-old business owner, the other a divorced CEO. Although she says she has accepted various gifts from the men, she does not receive a monthly allowance from either of them.
“I have only accepted gifts, dinner and stuff, because they’re not going to give you that monthly allowance unless you sleep with them, and they’re really clear about it,” Courtney says. “I’m crazy about sushi. I’ve gone to Kobe Japanese Steakhouse, Seito in Baldwin Park. Stuff I wouldn’t normally pay for, like $15 for a sushi roll. It’s not a dent in their pocket.”
She says she goes on dates with sugar daddies for her own entertainment – it makes for good stories, she says – and sometimes she brings a friend along on her dates to ensure they stay platonic.
“I make it seem as if I’m with my friend 24/7, since he has expectations,” she says. “There’s less of that when she’s around. We actually all got pedicures together. He got one, too, and had his toes painted pink. He sat in between us and called her ‘our adopted sugar baby.’ That made her kind of uncomfortable.” Unlike Serena, who keeps her sugar baby lifestyle a secret from friends and family, Courtney says her friends, her mom and her boyfriend, who lives in California, know about it.
“My mom isn’t really surprised, but she’s really open-minded,” Courtney says. “My boyfriend is OK with it as long as I don’t do anything. He knows nothing is going to progress with these men, but he thinks it’s weird.”
According to the Huffington Post piece, Brandon Wade, founder and CEO of Seeking Arrangement, says there has been a significant increase in college-student participation in his website, from 38,303 college sugar babies registered in 2007 to 179,906 as of July 2011. He says he thinks students are drawn to the site because they know it can connect them with powerful and important people: “A lot of sugar daddies are members of the 1 percent and can be very influential people,” he says. “The site allows people across a diverse population to find meaningful relationships. It’s a fascinating crossover of humanity.”
In summer 2010, Elizabeth Nisticoand Samuel Schall were George Washington University students, both of whom had friends involved in the sugar lifestyle. Since no one else seemed to be studying the trend, they decided to do some research.
“It is something we were around,” Nistico says. “It wasn’t common, but we knew people who were in the relationships. We had gay friends, who had sugar daddies who were politicians. [The lifestyle] was covert at the time so we wanted to expose it.”
They received a Lewis N. Cotlow Foundation award from George Washington University’s anthropology department to support their project, which ended in a report called “Sugar Daddies: The Reality of Affluent Cross-Generational Relationships in New York City.” The report was based on 161 participants’ views of their sugar-lifestyle relationships. Most participants were sugar babies, but 10 in-depth interviews involved sugar daddies.
“About 85 percent [of sugar relationships] are intimate,” Nistico says. “We did not specify whether intimate meant kissing or sex; therefore, the other 15 percent had no physicality within their sugar relationship.”
Nistico says all participants were reached through Internet sources, such as Seeking Arrangement’s sugar blog.
Agreements between sugar daddies and babies vary. Some girls Nistico spoke with had monthly allowances of $1,000; another reported an allowance of $20,000 per month, once the cost of bills, tuition, dinners, vacations and gifts were tallied.
“Because of the way Seeking Arrangement facilitates the site – the way the profiles are set up – a lot of this occurs before [sugar daddies and babies] even meet,” Nistico says. “Almost all sugar babies expect money, and if that doesn’t happen the relationships will usually end. The sugar daddies know this.”
Nistico found that, indeed, a lot of the sugar daddies involved in the site were involved in high-level professions. In Washington, D.C., she says, there were lots of politicians, while in New York, a lot of sugar daddies work in finance.
Nistico says all of the relationships shared one universal characteristic: an expectation of secrecy between the sugar baby and sugar daddy.
“I don’t know if they [sugar daddies] are all important people,” Nistico says. “They all think they’re important and expect that level of secrecy.”
Alan Schneider, 48, founder and owner of Alan Action Productions, an event planning company in New York, doesn’t make it a secret that he’s a sugar daddy. He has used seekingarrangement.com and similar websites, such as establishedmen.com, since 2005. Schneider says he has had “hundreds” of different arrangements – several long-term committed arrangements, others short-lived – with women ranging in age from early 20s to late 40s. He vividly remembers two specific arrangements that exemplify the variation in the types of women who seek sugar daddies.
“I was seeing this empowered, financial woman in her early 30s. She made almost $200,000 per year working as a financial analyst, but she had very bad spending habits,” Schneider says. “I met her through the site, we went out and we had a great time. After four months, this turned into her loving me, and she started putting pressure on me to marry her.”
The pressure for a ring in such a short time frame, as well as the woman’s spending habits, led Schneider to call it off. When that arrangement ended, he says, he got involved in another arrangement, this time with a struggling 21-year-old who worked two jobs and had barely enough money to eat.
“She just wanted someone to assist her with her overwhelming bills and debts, and she didn’t want to have sex with some random man for money,” he says. “I was really into her.”
He says this relationship also ended when the woman wanted to get more serious. “She actually gave me an ultimatum,” he says. “‘If you’re not going to be serious with me and meet my family, I can no longer see you.’ I was blown away. … There were no other women, she knew that.”
Although most of his relationships have been intimate, Schneider says, sugar daddies aren’t always just looking for sex. Despite what people may think, he says that for a sugar relationship to work, there has to be some connection between the two parties.
“If it’s solely based on money or if it’s only based on sex, it’s not going to work. There has got to be chemistry,” he says. “In my experience – and most girls will tell you this – it’s hard to be with someone that you’re not attracted to or don’t have chemistry with because there are some things that money cannot buy, such as affection, feelings born out of respect and care and building memories together. These things are more powerful than any kind of monetary things.”
Serena says she can attest to the fact that there has to be some attraction to carry on with a sugar relationship. She says that on her second date as a sugar baby, she went out with a married businessman who just wasn’t her type.
“We emailed and texted for almost two months,” she says. “[My] first impression: a lot less attractive than his picture. He had a good personality, but I just wasn’t attracted to him. We had drinks, dinner and talked for hours in his hotel room. He wanted sex, I declined and he was accepting. I was sent home with dinner, parking paid and a nice wad of cash.”
A typical sugar daddy profile is straightforward: It specifies income level, net worth, monthly allowance (what he’s willing to spend to keep a sugar baby), marital status and expectations – how many times he wants to see his sugar baby and what he expects from her when he does.
A potential sugar relationship – a pot – is similar to dating. During this time, individuals communicate and perhaps meet to see if they have things in common – most notably, intentions regarding allowances, sex and time commitment. The arrangement is unofficial until the baby and daddy come to a mutual agreement.
“The arrangement talk must come before a meeting,” Serena says, “What you’re expecting, wanting, time, money, travel availability, sex, etc. Some men wanted to see me four times a week. I couldn’t commit to that and didn’t waste my time meeting them. Some men are only offering a few hundred [dollars] as an allowance. You have to make sure you want the same things or your lunch date was just a waste. Why go on multiple first dates just to be disappointed?”
Serena has seen three men in her time on Seeking Arrangement, and she describes the man she’s seeing now – the one she thinks has arrangement potential – as “attractive for an older man.”
“He lives a few hours away, but comes to my city weekly,” she says. “He’s just lonely and misses talking and cuddling. We’ll have a meal, stay up late in his hotel room, then I’ll watch him get ready for work the next morning. He’ll leave me with quite a bit of cash, and I have a feeling gifts are coming soon, since I’ve been hinting at some current wants.”
Serena says she comes from a well-off family, and her first two years of college expenses are covered, thanks to savings, scholarships and grants. But the rest of her college career will be offset with money she makes as a sugar baby. She says the idea of graduating with thousands of dollars in debt in a tough job market and no way to pay her loans back is unappealing. She says she deposits half of her sugar baby earnings into a savings account.
“Scholarships and grants are taking massive cuts, and tuition is going up,” Serena says. “I do have a job making almost $10 per hour, but the sad thing is, I’ll receive more money for a few hours on a sugar date than three weeks of work. … I want to start saving, write a fat check for tuition and I’d really like to kiss my roommates good-bye and live in a nicer apartment on my own.”
She also says she hopes that she might meet a man who can help her out when the time does come to move up in the world.
“These successful men have connections,” she says. “I have read multiple articles and blogs about sugar babies who get into Ivy League schools or a job at a top law firm just because of a recommendation from their sugar daddy.”
In her research on sugar relationships, Nistico says she did find that college-aged sugar babies look up to their sugar daddies, who sometimes act as mentors for them.
“If it’s a mentorship, the sugar baby usually gets employment, or the sugar daddy will set them up with a fund because they know they won’t be around forever,” she says.
But is this a healthy way to create a relationship? That depends, Nistico says.
“If all goes well, the relationship is healthy and honest, and then both parties benefit – that’s the ideal,” Nistico says. “When there is immaturity from one of the parties – if the younger sugar baby is manipulative, or if the sugar daddy has superficial motives – then that’s just a situation where one or both are exploited.”
Nistico says she doesn’t see a significant difference between Seeking Arrangement and other kinds of dating sites. When asked why she thinks people sign up for sugar daddy websites, she responds with a question of her own: “Why would you go on match.com? I think Seeking Arrangement has a good reputation in that its members are classy and discreet.”
No one in Serena’s personal life knows about her sugar baby account, and she said it is not hard to keep the secret.
“I don’t really have any extremely close college friends,” she says. “They’re more of the convenient friend type – we’ll hang out occasionally, but they don’t know every detail about me. My roommates will sometimes ask where I’m going or what I did, and I give a vague ‘went to a friend’s house’ or ‘out to dinner with a friend.’ We’re not that close, either.”
None of her sugar daddies know her full name, hometown or employer, nor do they have her real phone number or email address. Thanks to a Google search, she says, she recently discovered that her potential sugar daddy uses an alias with her, too. To stay safe, she gave her best friend just enough information about the man, just in case.
“I informed my best friend from high school of an older man in the picture and gave her his name and company in case anything should ever happen to me,” she says. “She asked how we met, and I made up a story of us meeting at the grocery store – she half-way bought it.”
Chris Donaghue, a West Hollywood, Calif.-based sex specialist, relationship expert and a graduate of the Florida Post Graduate Sex Therapy Training Institute in Palm Beach, says that kind of secrecy about a relationship is a red flag.
If people are OK with what they are doing, he says, they are going to be willing to share it. “The minute they hide it, they know it is problematic,” he says. “They already know it’s destructive because they’re already trying to defend it. They’re saying: ‘I know this doesn’t match my value system.’”
Donaghue says he supports all kinds of relationships, but he questions the motivation that sugar babies have for getting involved in the lifestyle – even young women who say they just do it for the fun of it. He points out that there are other ways to alleviate boredom or find fun.
“Why are you not taking a cooking class, or if you enjoy hiking, why are you not on a hiking website to meet other people with similar interests?” he wonders. “Why is it a website for sex and money? What is making these girls think that these guys are sophisticated? If he is so sophisticated, then why is he not going out and meeting girls?”
Schall and Nistico say they plan to continue their study of sugar relationships. They’re working on a documentary based on their research, and Nistico says the intention is to more accurately portray the sugar lifestyle for those who don’t understand it.
“I hope they [viewers] watch the documentary, and I hope that they are forced to reflect on their own role in society and their own relationships,” Nistico says, “because our culture breeds this relationship. Any un-comfort should be seen as a greater flaw within our culture.”
After seven months on Seeking Arrangement, Courtney has considered removing her profile from the site. “I want to go to med school,” she says. “I want to have a husband that’s the same age as me.”
She’s found, though, that deactivating an account on Seeking Arrangement is difficult – almost as difficult as deactivating a Facebook account. But she’s planning to delete herself soon because “at the end of the day it’s just not worth it anymore.”
Serena, though, still sees the value in using the sites. Not only is she enjoying the extra money, she says, she’s also enjoying the companionship. She says she likes looking forward to meeting with someone weekly who she can talk to about “grown-up life.”
“[Sugar daddies are] well-traveled and experienced and can tell you whatever you want to know,” she says. “They’re great for advice, from what should I write my paper on tomorrow to what company should I work for?”
Serena says she will remove her account when she is content with an arrangement or two, and depending upon what comes first – graduation or boredom – she will put the sugar world behind her for good.
“I want to graduate on time, get a job straight out of college – one I enjoy,” she says. “And marry very close to 30. I’m still undecided on kids.”