The slumped figure’s stillness is interrupted by the constant nervous jiggling of his left leg. His eyes flash around the outdoor café. His long hair is greased back into a ponytail that emphasizes his receding hairline. He flexes his fingers momentarily, causing his untucked light blue shirt to float over his sizable stomach. A cigar rests in his shirt pocket. Across the table from him a 21-year-old student, “Kelly”, perches. Hidden cameras capture everything.
The unusual meeting has taken a turn too far. Kelly’s eyes widen. The man has just asked her how high her pain threshold is.
“Excuse me?” she asks, her words echoed in bold yellow subtitles. The man repeats the question. Kelly laughs nervously and looks away.
Kelly need not worry, as Inside Edition i-Squad reporter Lisa Guerrero has just entered the scene, brandishing a microphone and trailed by her camera crew. She pushes the microphone into the man’s face. He tenses in his chair, his knee still jiggling up and down. As Guerrero asks him if he was offering Kelly money for sex, the student slips from her chair and out of shot. He denies everything. Cut to an in-studio interview, as dramatic music crashes in the background: America has found its newest predators.
This segment was part of “Inside Edition Investigates Sugar Daddies”, which aired in October. The website featured, SeekingArrangement.com, quickly issued a press release calling the coverage “one-sided and biased”, although in that respect Inside Edition was merely conforming to a larger trend in the coverage of this growing community.
The Sugar Community is a primarily web-based network that links wealthy, and frequently male, Sugar Daddies with young men and women – the Sugar Babies. Of the numerous websites serving this community, SeekingArrangement.com has established itself as the frontrunner. The website, founded by MIT-graduate Brandon Wade, encourages babies and daddies to develop financially-based “mutually beneficial relationships”.
Unlike traditional dating, these arrangements carry an expectation of a direct exchange of money for sex. Mélanie Berliet is a freelance-writer who immersed herself in the Sugar Community in 2009, and later wrote about her experiences in Vanity Fair.
“In the back of your mind there’s always this question of ‘What is this guy going to offer me?’” she said.
“There was one guy who definitely expected at least a blow job,” Berliet said, explaining how the man aggressively tried to cash in on her side of the deal after their first dinner together. “He was just an asshole.”
It is this aspect of the community – the line that it precariously treads between dating and prostitution – that drives much of the publicity that it receives.
On MSNBC’s The Today Show: The Professionals heated discussions about the websites broke out amongst the guests twice in August. When anchor Tamron Hall introduced the topic Dr Nancy Snyderman declared “They’re hookers.” Star Jones joined her in a deconstruction of the morality of the sugar babies, leaving the only male pundit, Donny Deutsch, uncomfortably sandwiched between them. When Deutsch attempted to compare the arrangements to some financially-based marriages he was shouted down.
“I believe in brutal honesty,” Wade countered when he spoke via video-link the following week. Throughout his explanations, mumbles of “Oh really?” were heard from the Professionals. After Wade finished, anchor Savannah Guthrie turned back to the Professionals and joined Jones and Snyderman in a second round of headshakes. Snyderman mentioned her 23-year-old daughter’s objections to her views, before dismissing them as “flat-ass wrong”.
“I think it’s misplaced aggression,” Berliet said of reactions like these, which she suggested were the result of an unwillingness to admit the financial arrangements that underpin most relationships. “And that’s just our puritanical society.”
A recent focus on the student membership of the community has added a new spark to the debate. In “Seeking Arrangement: College Students Using ‘Sugar Daddies’ To Pay Off Loan Debt’” (The Huffington Post), Amanda M. Fairbanks follows a number of desperate young college students who put themselves in increasingly dangerous situations in order to fund their education. The debt-ridden students are contrasted with men who enjoy “shopping online for companionship and sex”, such as 70 year-old Jack who propositions Fairbanks herself during their interview. These coarse caricatures are set in a bleak landscape of unemployment statistics and graphs comparing tuition and numbers of Sugar Babies per college.
When John Petinos, a writer for the college blog NYULocal, heard that 500 NYU students had registered with SeekingArrangement.com – the largest number from any single college – he decided to interview Wade.
“I told him ‘I’m going to try to be unbiased about it,’ and he said he didn’t really care either way, he just wanted publicity.”
Nevertheless, Petinos kept his promise, presenting the interview in a neutral question-answer style. He noted that he had felt a pressure to portray Wade in an obviously negative light. “I really wanted to fight that hard.”
Petinos’s position did not pay off. “People were not satisfied. They wanted an attack.” In the comments on the blog Petinos was called a misogynist, and he was accused of making light of the situation by his editors.
However the statistics proved to be misleading. Petinos admitted that the figure of 500 NYU students had been taken from the cumulative membership of the website over six years. What at first seemed like a worrying trend can be absorbed into the 800,000 total membership of the website: NYU student accounts, both active and defunct, account for only 0.0625% of the SeekingArrangement.com population.
Without the sensational student headlines, coverage of the community focuses on the parties that Wade throws for members. International stories have cast these gatherings as uneasy business meetings. The Daily Mail notes that photos of young women “hanging off the arms of much older men only add to the sleaziness factor”
in an article that ominously anticipates the arrival of Wade’s parties in England. The New York Post took a different angle in their coverage of these parties in “Are you my new sugar daddy?”, openly calling the women involved “gold diggers” and parceling whatever moral blame they attribute to the parties equally between those involved.
In this article we see a familiar face. His ponytail is still greased back, but this time he has been more successful, with each arm around a much younger girl. One poses with his cigar in her mouth, the other leans towards him to accept his kiss on her cheek. He is Lak Vohra, a 46-year-old marketing-firm owner worth $2 million. He tells the Post reporter “When does a guy like me – aging, losing hair, big belly – meet a girl like this?”
Ironically, the more negative coverage that the Sugar community gets, the more popular these websites become. Frequently girls join the websites after reading articles about them, and the perpetuation of their popularity could be linked to their increased coverage. Perhaps this reactionary condemnation of the websites is leading to a questioning of how we understand relationships.
“What do you think an engagement ring is,” Berliet says “other than a financial contract?”
Originally published December 2011.