Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.

I saw the billboards during a research trip to Los Angeles.

“Happy 18th Birthday! Meet your new Daddy,” read one website advertisement. “Do you have strong oral skills? We’ve got a job for you!” cooed another.

A message on another billboard directed at the “daddies” was more blunt: “The alternative to escorts. Desperate women will do anything.”

“Sugaring” is an enormously profitable and growing trade. Women are being encouraged to sell sex through so-called sugar baby/sugar daddy arrangements. Online sugar dating sites, such as SeekingArrangement (SA), bypass prostitution and pimping laws by presenting the transaction as “dating with benefits.”

A sugar arrangement is, according to the pimps and entrepreneurs, an exchange of cash, gifts or other financial and material benefits for good company. In fact, it is what is euphemistically known as the “girlfriend experience,” but often on a much longer-term basis.

“I had promoted myself from working in a brothel to going on vacations with rich men, where I was expected to listen to their every word and have sex on demand for two whole weeks,” Charlotte told me, when I spoke to her in Chicago. “Sugaring is way worse. You are expected to be available as and when he wants you to be and get paraded around his fancy friends and business colleagues like a pet poodle.”

As Kenny, a regular sugar daddy, told me via email, “I have money, and the girls have beauty, grace and, more importantly, youth! Why would I want to pay a sex worker, have a maid, and sign up to one of those sites that provide me a date for the evening when I can have it all rolled into one?”

Audrey, a care worker in her late teens, was first sold for sex on the streets of Minneapolis at the age of 15, and eventually found her way into a brothel to escape her pimp. “The first piece of advice I was given by the other girls was to register on SeekingArrangement,” she says. “They told me that it’s way better to date these rich guys who sometimes don’t even ask for sex from one week to the next, especially if they’re married and do lots of business travel, but they pay your rent and bring you gifts.”

For six months, Audrey lived in an apartment rented by Ray, her sugar daddy. He visited her every day for sex, expecting his sexual desires to be met regardless of her mood or feelings. Audrey once refused him because she had food poisoning, but Ray told her she would be homeless that night unless she gave him what he wanted.

“He had my entire life in his hands,” she says. “It was way worse than prostitution, because I could never escape. I was told it was going to be nice dinners and shopping trips, but I was literally his concubine.”

While some women ask their sugar daddy for a monthly allowance, many men are reluctant, preferring a “pay as you go” arrangement. One john and regular user of sugar babies on the SeekingArrangement forum wrote, “I know that there are unscrupulous guys out there that make an entire ‘hobby’ out of ‘trying out’ sugar babies, leading them on with the hook of an allowance, but with no intent of ever providing one. Thus, I find the ‘pay as you go’ approach much more open and honest … but also, it can make some potential sugar babies feel like it is too close to escorting. So, there is that dance to deal with.”

“[Sugaring] is nothing like regular dating,” Judy told me when we met in a coffee bar in central London. “We are just a set of orifices for men to use, and the occasional bit of arm candy.”

Judy learned about SeekingArrangement from her friend at work. “I was earning £5 [$7] an hour in a coffee bar and could not even pay my rent, let alone go out and have fun. I signed up and was immediately inundated with requests to meet, from nice looking men.”

Initially, Judy says she met some “quite nice” men, and was taken for meals and, after sex, was paid between $260 to $650. “It felt like very high-class prostitution, but prostitution nevertheless,” Judy says. For that amount of money there was, of course, a catch. “I was juggling three daddies at once, and I had to be available to see them when they called. It was like that initial payment ‘bought’ me, and they kind of owned me after that.”

SeekingArrangement was founded by Las Vegas tech tycoon Brandon Wade. Wade is apparently worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million. His motto is, “Love is a concept invented by poor people.”

“This is real, I’m living the life,” Wade told a journalist. “I can’t help that I’m attracted to young and beautiful women, like most men are.”

Wade, 48, whose 22-year-old sugar baby Zoe lives with him in Las Vegas, claims sugar daddies help empower young women and advance their lives. “If you are poor and you are constantly hanging out with the poor people, you’re never going to find opportunities in life,” he said.

The SeekingArrangement website shows stock photos of white women, sometimes carrying shopping bags from expensive clothing and cosmetic stores. Many are dressed in formal gowns and diamond jewelry, fawning over white men with business-trip suitcases and carefully groomed five o’clock stubble. It includes a section on “hypergamy,” or what used to be known as “marrying up.”

Nowhere are class and other social dividers starker than in an opulent setting — such as a five-star hotel room — in which one person can easily afford the bill, and the other does not even have a bank account. The average SA member spends $3,000 per month on sugar babies. Sex trade survivor Anya, who signed up as a sugar baby when she was in her teens, tells me that “[johns] make you feel like dirt when they have a posh hotel room that they can buy you in. You’re the dirty whore and they have a load of money and power. At least on the street, you are both [the john and the prostituted woman] looked at as scum, to one degree or another, by the residents and police.”

According to data from July 2016, SeekingArrangement boasts more than 5 million active members. More than 4 million of these were sugar baby accounts — women register for free; men have to pay. The website now advertises that it has “four sugar babies per sugar daddy.”

SeekingArrangement covers 139 countries. Married men account for about 40 percent of the sugar daddies on the site.

SA also markets itself as an antidote to student debt. In the U.S. and elsewhere, college students are enduring financial instability and hardship. Because of rising college fees and rent, and the lack of time available for work during studies, many women are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. “SeekingArrangement.com has helped facilitate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of arrangements that have helped students graduate debt-free,” Wade boasts on the website. Promotional videos show young, beautiful women enrolled in “Sugar Baby University” — in classrooms, holding wads of cash, driving luxury cars, and discussing the pleasure and ease of being a sugar baby.

When signing up for an account, potential sugar babies are told, “Tip: Using a .edu email address earns you a free upgrade!”

A company spokeswoman says that college students using their university emails to log into the site also get their profiles included under a “college student” heading so that sugar daddies intent on “helping” college students can find them more easily.

If a student types keywords such as “tuition help” or “financial aid” into a search engine, strategic pop-ups suggesting she become a sugar baby will often appear on her internet browser.

All men who pay for sex are exercising male power, privilege and financial control over the woman he is paying for. One news release from SeekingArrangement claimed that “sugar baby students receive an average of $3,000 in monthly allowances, earning $20,920 more than a student working full time at the federal minimum wage.” But many of the young women who sign up to meet a charming, rich and handsome older boyfriend find themselves trapped in domestic and sexual servitude.

Cheryl, 19, had just begun university in Toronto when she used the website SugarDaddyMeet. “I was broke, feeling low because my boyfriend had broken up with me, and needed some excitement in my life,” she told me over the phone from her home in Vancouver.

Within days, Cheryl was matched with Paul, an independently wealthy sports fanatic in his 60s. “He was not attractive to me at all,” she says. “And because he didn’t work, he was at me all the time, day and night, for sex, and watching him play tennis — anything he did, he wanted me there to boost his fucking ego.”

The first time Paul had sex with Cheryl (“I hated it,” she says), he gave her $100 and told her, “I can pay your bills if you like, but you are not getting any more cash because we both know you will spend it on yourself.” She agreed to “let him pay my rent because I was desperate, and that was all he was offering.” She gave him her landlord’s contact information.

When Cheryl attempted to break up with Paul, her nightmare began.

“When I told him to stop calling me and dropping round unannounced, he threatened to tell the landlord I was a hooker, and would send him ‘proof.’ ”

Paul had taken photographs of Cheryl during sex, which made her feel “super uncomfortable.” Knowing he had those photos, as well as proof of how they met, Cheryl believed Paul would carry out his threat.

“I lost my apartment, because I could not bear staying there with the threats hanging over me, as well as the fact that he knew where I was,” she says. Cheryl moved back in with her parents and dropped out of university. “I am much worse off now than I was before I signed up to that stupid site.”

Peter Fleming, a professor at the University of Technology of Sydney, is the author of a 2018 book titled “Sugar Daddy Capitalism: The Dark Side of the New Economy.” Fleming says the sugar daddy business model exploits women’s financial desperation.

“For all intents and purposes, this is sex work in disguise, or undercover sex work,” Fleming writes, adding that sugar daddy websites are simply selling a “fantasy” to young women, but the dark side is “economic dependence.”

A typical SA sugar daddy is age 45 or above, and worth more than $2 million. About 18 out of 50 sugar daddies say they are looking for a “no strings attached” and “drama free” relationship. Many tempt young women with the offer of accompanying them on luxury vacations.

About 15 out of 50 sugar daddies mention “kink” and specific sexual fetishes in the “what I am looking for” portion of their profile. Other stand-out descriptions of the type of “girl” the men are searching for include: “Very sexual — extremely sexual, open and enjoys being with a dominant hung male”; “Must like sex, a lot! Physical attraction is paramount, if you can fake that convincingly, you’re my girl! I like hearing the words ‘yes baby, anything you want’ ”; “I am seeking an extremely inclined sub for an ongoing discreet relationship”; and “Looking for a young lady that I could pass off as a niece, or a daughter of a friend.”

The young women advertising as sugar babies are typically age 18 to 30, and almost half mention that they are seeking financial support from their new sugar daddy. Many of their photographs are sexualized — showing cleavage, for example, or lingerie.

Scores of women from around the world register as sugar babies to sell their virginity. Their ages range from just 18 to those in their early 20s.

I spoke to Anna, a 20-year-old student who registered as a sugar baby last year. “I saw on the site that auctioning your virginity can bring in a fortune,” she says. She advertised in her profile: “Auction for my virginity. Highest bid before midnight on New Year’s Eve wins.” Anna sold her virginity to a 45-year-old father of three for $5,000.

An 18-year-old woman from Britain stated in her profile, “I’m offering a triangle with 2 virgins (me and a good friend of mine). Candidate who offers the biggest amount of money will get to be our first romance.”

A third student, age 18, advertised: “I need money as I am a student. I am willing to do anything except sexual intercourse. If I was to do that it would come at a very high cost because I am a virgin.”

In 2018, police in Memphis, Tennessee, charged Mark Giannini, 52, a wealthy businessman, with the statutory rape of a 17-year-old he met on SeekingArrangement.

That same year, a pan-European sugar daddy site, RichMeetBeautiful, placed large posters advertising itself as a “sugar daddy and sugar baby dating site” on trucks outside Belgian universities. The site claimed to offer a “Fifty Shades of Grey” experience to its members, and invited young female students to “improve your style of life [by getting] a sugar daddy.” Université libre de Bruxelles officials complained to the police, who seized the billboards.

Norwegian Sigurd Vedal, chief executive of RichMeetBeautiful, found himself charged in a Brussels court in 2019 with debauchery, public “incitement to debauchery and prostitution,” and violating anti-sexism laws.

Vedal maintained that he and his company were only trying to facilitate unusual dating. He also stated that “[w]e are like a normal dating site, but financial is part of the checklist.”

Vedal received a personal fine of $43,000, and a $260,000 fine for his company. Brussels prosecutors are seeking a six-month suspended prison sentence.

They also want the company’s promotional materials to be seized, claiming that they “reduce students to sexual objects.”

Eric Cusas, Vedal’s defense attorney, said his client was an entrepreneur of 15 years and a libertarian. Cusas claimed that any sexual element was “only in the eye of the observer,” and that Vedal had been made a scapegoat.

Laurent Kennes, a spokesman for the Université libre de Bruxelles, said he had no doubt as to the purpose of the website. “We presumed the existence of a sexual counterpart to the registration on this site. The message is: ‘You’re young, you’re beautiful, go out with a sugar daddy!’ Everyone understands what it’s about.”

The huge billboards, which appeared to be poorly translated, showed a couple cuddling alongside the caption, “Romance, passion, fun & 0, — in study loan? Date a sugar daddy or sugar mama.”

Vedal also is accused of “aggravated pimping” in France over a mobile billboard placed on the Sorbonne University campus. It pictured a man lying on top of a woman, with a similar caption: “Hey students! Romantic, passion and no student loan. Go out with a Sugar Daddy or Sugar Mama!”

Photos of the billboard went viral online, leading Deputy Mayor of Paris Helene Bidard to declare, “This site is an offence against women. Behind these glamorized images there are young people who could end up in prostitution.”

A French student association launched a criminal complaint over the ad, while others have launched a petition calling for such ads to be banned.

The Belgian newspaper De Standaard reported that during his trial in Brussels, Vedal told the court he would not mind if his own daughter registered on the site — “If she wants it and she wants it because she wants to start a real relationship.”

The state prosecutor told the court, “Even if weasel words were used, everyone knew what it was about. There are half-dressed women on the site, there are no photos of couples in a restaurant. Students are reduced to sex objects that must undress for money.”

But Brandon Wade, the businessman behind SeekingArrangement, insists it is not an escort service, and even hosts a disclaimer: “An arrangement is not an escort service. SeekingArrangement in no way, shape or form supports escorts or prostitutes using our website for personal gain. Profiles suspected of this usage will be addressed by the SeekingArrangement Misconduct Team and banned from our website.”

Despite this, when images from SA profiles were put through a search engine, matching photographs were found on escort review websites, such as companionsreviews.com, CAescort.club and exoticpostreviews.com. Ads on backpage.com also host some of these images.

Many human rights activists and feminist campaigners are fully aware that sugar dating is part of the exploitative global sex trade.

I spoke to Rob Spectre, a New York technologist and CEO of Childsafe.ai, who has researched the phenomenon of sugar dating sites. “These sites attempt to emulate dating sites, but in fact they are no different from escort prostitution businesses,” he says. “The number of underage young women advertised is significant. The exploitation is off the scale, and clearly crimes are being committed.”

In 2018, a young female member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), which campaigns to end the global sex trade, attended a sugar industry event undercover. Hosted by Let’s Talk Sugar, a blog in partnership with SeekingArrangement, the event aimed to recruit sugar babies onto the site.

A young woman from Brooklyn, New York, spoke of her first experiences on the site: At the end of her first SA date, the man handed her an envelope containing $600. On her second date with a different man, he placed an envelope filled with $2,000 on the countertop after their lunch date. At that point, she said, she felt obligated to have sex with the man because that is “what’s expected after a $2,000 exchange.”

“I observed confirmation of things we already suspected, such as solicitation of minors and financial coercion, but also learned exactly how the website itself ‘coaches’ users to create the most successful profile—from what kind of photos to use down to the lingo. If you’ve heard survivors of [child sexual abuse] describe how their pimps made them curate ads on Backpage … it sounded like that,” the CATW observer says.

In the tips and Q&A portion of the event, Brook Ulrich, the SA representative, announced, “These guys are rich and they don’t have enough time to craft an eloquent message … they want to get to the point … they want to press a button to say, ‘I am interested, are you interested?’ ” She referred to sharing private photos as a “game,” and recommended a little “reveal” in private photos.

Ulrich told the young women they “shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed” to have an older man paying for her expenses.

In response to a woman who asked about potential dangers and safety, Ulrich said that women signing up for SA should assume that all the men on the site have “baggage,” and the women should be cautious about who they meet.

It’s advice that Cheryl, who feels she “lost everything” when she was forced to run away from her abusive sugar daddy, finally understands. “I would tell any woman planning on doing it: ‘Don’t even think about it!’ It is prostitution, but it is even worse in some ways, because the john doesn’t walk away after having sex. He sticks around to take your life from you and make it his.”


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