The Columbia News Service (CNS) operates as a feature syndicate. The stories are conceived, reported and written by students under the guidance of Columbia Journalism School’s faculty members. These stories are distributed by The New York Times News Service for publication in some 400 daily newspapers throughout the United States and Canada.
By Deena Guzder, February 23, 2007
Mark has a secret.
“I don’t talk about it with anyone because you can’t interfere with the veneer,” he said in a low voice while sipping a kumquat martini at the posh Hotel W in Manhattan. “Everyone thinks my wife and I are a happy couple, and you don’t want anyone’s impressions to change.”
Mark, a 48-year-old investment manager, has been married for two decades and has three children.
What his wife doesn’t know is that Mark, who declined to give his last name for fear his family would learn his secret, also has three “sugar babies,” women in their early 20s whom he meets for trysts, and upon whom he lavishes expensive gifts and hard cash–anywhere from $600 to $1,500 a date.
The concept of the sugar baby is old, but it now has a 21st-century twist–young women willing, even wanting to be kept who find their “daddies” in cyberspace.
“Relationships have always involved money, but the huge difference today is that the Internet has made such arrangements remarkably easier,” said Viviana Zelizer, a sociology professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Purchase of Intimacy.”
Mark met his paramours on seekingarrangement.com, which calls itself “the premier matchmaking Web site for Sugar Daddies, Mommies & Babies.”
There are at least a dozen Web sites that cater to rich men looking “to mentor or spoil someone special,” as Seeking Arrangement says, and pursue commitment-free sexual arrangements. For these men, the sites provide an ideal venue for forming mutually beneficial relationships. Others say the sites degrade women by promoting nothing short of cyberprostitution.
The Seeking Arrangement Web site says it was founded in June 2006 and already has 75,000 members. “It started out as a fun project and grew into something larger than any of us could imagine,” said Brandon Wade, 36, a native of Nevada and the founder of the Web site.
Wade, an M.I.T. graduate, wanted a site that would facilitate “arrangements” while preserving people’s anonymity. Wade says the site made $15,000 a month in the first three months after its launch and today pulls in $50,000 a month.
Sugar daddies shell out $15 a month to meet their babies. Sugar babies don’t pay a penny. The monthly charge shows up on a credit card bill as being from the innocuous-sounding “worldemail.com,” so wives don’t grow suspicious.
The Web site asks sugar daddies to state their net worth and annual income. Sugar babies answer questions about their appearance, occupation and education levels.
In his profile, Mark says he makes more than $1 million a year. He gets daily inquiries from women as far away as London and Sydney, Australia. That’s heady stuff for a blue-collar boy from Michigan who was not popular in high school.
His relationships are more intimate and altruistic than a typical prostitute-john transaction, Mark insists. “A professional is someone who jumps up as soon as she’s done, and a sugar babe is someone who will hold you in her arms for hours afterward,” he said. “I’m not paying for sex. I’m helping somebody out financially.”
Catharine MacKinnon, the noted feminist, scholar, lawyer and teacher, has a different take: Sugar daddy relationships are exploitative. “Many young women I know who had what might be dressed up as sugar daddy arrangements have in reality been sexually violated by older men for years in exchange for being put through college, or for survival for themselves and their children,” MacKinnon said. “They were prostituted, knew it, loathed it, were badly damaged by it and felt trapped in it.”
According to Wade, “The only complaints we have ever received were from men being blackmailed by women.”
So are sugar daddy relationships legal, or are these men just johns by a sweeter name?
Not even lawyers are sure how to answer that question. Richard Epstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said he doubted sugar daddies could be punished under the law because there were plenty of other arranged relationships in our society. “We have senior couples that live together without marriage because of their need to keep Social Security,” Epstein said. “The sugar daddy could well be an informal arrangement that is a substitute for a prenuptial agreement.”
Other lawyers argue that these relationships are borderline criminal. “You are not granted legal immunity just because you prostitute yourself on a Web site instead of a street corner,” said Robert Post, a professor at Yale Law School.
Sheena, who asked that her last name not be used, is a 23-year-old sugar babe on Wade’s site. She laughed when asked if sugar daddy relationships were exploitative. “No, I turned promiscuity into profit,” she said, surrounded by her collection of stuffed toys in her dorm room at Rutgers University. “I get more than I give because these men are paying for companionship and a fantasy.”
Sheena says she has five sugar daddies and meets each at least two to three times a month. The cherubic-faced college senior teaches Sunday school and grew up in a white-picket-fence neighborhood in a midsize New Jersey town. Her parents work in aeronautics and own a second home in California, she says.
Sheena hates the word prostitute. She insists that most of the men just want to get dinner and a movie, or are looking for “arm candy” for a business engagement.
But that doesn’t mean all of Sheena’s experiences with sugar daddies have been sweet deals. She recently spent most of one day at the public safety department at Rutgers filing a complaint against a stalker whom she met online.
Most of the men Sheena hooks up with are lonely. When asked if she was worried about falling in love with one of her sugar daddies, Sheena retorted quickly: “No, this isn’t real. This isn’t like the movie ‘Pretty Woman.’”