“Are you Chinese ?” I’ve heard a lot of pick-up lines tonight, but none quite so direct. I turn around to get a view of the guy who interrupted my interview to ask my subject his question. He looks like he came straight off of an Apprentice taping: early 40s, posh jacket with loosened tie, Brooklyn accent, a reek of Bacardi and sweat. I consider hiding my handheld recorder, but then I realize he doesn’t seem to notice my presence. He leans in toward the girl, even though she can hear him over the blaring reggaeton music permeating the club. Lucky for him, she laughs. “What do I look like?” She’s 19, smiles a lot, and wears a skin-tight blue dress with cutouts on the sides.Turns out she is Chinese. He’s intrigued. After a bit of aimless banter, he tells her what she has been waiting to hear. “I have dessert companies throughout the U.S,” he says. “I have shows, and I haven’t been to Beijing or Shanghai yet. There may be some opportunity to work with each other. You know what I mean? To help each other.”It’s Monday night at the Copacabana Nightclub, and SeekingArrangements.com, the banner website for the growing phenomenon of sugar dating, is throwing its annual Beauty Ball and Businessman Bash. I, like the sugar daddy dessert entrepreneur, am on the prowl for sugar babies. According to Alan “Action” Schneider, the promoter of this “mixer of empowered and beautiful people,” a sugar relationship involves a sugar daddy or momma “that can mentor, give, barter, provide any kind of enrichment to [a sugar baby’s] lifestyle in exchange for love, care, and affection.” Both parties settle the terms and conditions in a negotiation process.Seeking Arrangement was founded in 2005 by MIT graduate Brandon Wade because he was frustrated with the limits of conventional online dating. Now, the site boasts nearly 900,000 members—15 percent from New York City and many from abroad. A quick Google search unearths dozens of other sites serving the same purpose. But recent media attention highlights one number especially: the 35 percent of sugar babies who court daddies or mommas for college tuition.Getting into the IndustrySasha, who, like other girls discussed in this article, uses a pseudonym to protect her identity, is sandwiched between a lap dancer and a middle-aged woman reapplying hairspray after some heavy necking. Her round face, white silk dress and side ‘do remind me of prom. Despite drawing an analogy to a flea market, she says she likes the vibe. Sasha, with a $60,000 educational burden, first created an account on Seeking Arrangements after learning about the site on a news show, which is a common avenue onto the site. Another girl, who goes by “Nonchalant,” came to sugar culture after an episode of True Life. For others, the path is a bit different. “I had worked in accounting and finance, and it was very boring,” says Natalia, a recent graduate of Florida International University with a degree in finance. “It just came to my mind one day—I should be a prostitute.” According to sugar culture researcher Elizabeth Nistico, about a third of all babies begin as or are also working as professional sex workers. As an erotic back rubber, Natalia says she found the transition to sugar life easy.Making the TransactionUnlike many sugar babies, Natalia feels comfortable setting a price. The top customer service inquiry on Seeking Arrangement is how to talk about money, not sex. Sex rarely comes up since the baby either makes a no-sex policy explicit or accepts it as a natural part of any relationship. The Chinese sugar baby I talked to sticks strictly to the former, only accompanying her dates to art galleries and other haute functions. A student at Parsons The New School for Design, she calls the relationship a “connection” that’s “convenient” for both of their schedules and aspirations. She has a long-term girlfriend (who is sitting next to her with three sugar daddies vying for her attention), so she says they both participate for financial security and not attraction. At the party, the business nature of these arrangements is evident: no man circulates without business cards, and, for the first two and a half hours, vendors set up shop in the club. The vendors run the gamut from plastic surgeons to chauffeurs, comedians, promoters, and even representatives from Wells Fargo. (“Sugar babies should be prudent with their money so that sugar daddies can invest in them,” says Schneider.) Sugar couples seem to enjoy the theme. I meet a couple from Las Vegas who came to test the market for new products “to spoil your sugar baby with.” Out by Christmas: a sex hormone-releasing electric cigarette. The business nature of the relationship allows for a certain frankness from both parties in articulating their desires. And these desires are often not limited to sex—many sugar daddies desire intimate relationships with their babies. According to Natalia, her sugar daddies’ sex lives are so repressed that the majority of their time together just involves talking. Relationships can become extremely intimate—once, Natalia claims, an NYU professor offered to write her a recommendation letter and indicate her as a dependent to reduce her fees. This near-mimicry of parenthood isn’t uncommon in a sugar relationship, as evidenced by the designation of roles as daddy, momma, and baby. Ashley, a registered nursing student at Rutgers , says she finds the paternal dynamics intriguing. The Bash is her first exposure to the sugar world—though the friend that invited her is a sugar baby herself—and she is already considering creating an account. “Why not?” Ashley probes. “Someone older and successful can teach me something besides the latest Louis Vuitton purse.” She tells me she’s 21 (the Copacabana is a 21-and-over nightclub), but her looks suggest otherwise.College Bait
The expanding college sugar demographic neglects few schools. A database check of Seeking Arrangement’s members reveals that at least 99 sugar babies are Columbia students or graduates. NYU claims the most sugar babies with more than 500; Harvard is ninth with 231. Paul Madison, founder of sugar baby-daddy site Sugar Sugar, attributes the high numbers to a “moral openness” as the economy weakens and tuition rises steadily. Yet despite the near-doubling of the student portion of babies after the recession, researcher Nistico suggests that money is only a pretext. Wade of Seeking Arrangement says that he, like Mark Zuckerberg, targets users with .edu email addresses because the market shows they are more trustworthy and more active daters who are also more likely to be comfortable with the sugar baby concept. Certified college baby badges, in turn, yield more responses. The babies have observed that sugar daddies and mommas are often nostalgic and feel philanthropic when they invest in an education. Barnard psychology professor Wendy McKenna remarks that the success of college sugar babies implies a “cultural pedophilia” upon which the relationship capitalizes. She adds, “There’s an interesting analysis here of why being educated makes a woman’s body parts more valuable.” Natalia, who hopes for a full ride to the London School of Economics, finds that by marketing herself on Seeking Arrangement as a college student, she attracts more attention. On her profile, she lists books that she likes. That, she thinks, paired with her “exotic” Puerto Rican looks, may be what draws in regulars, which mostly include Hasidic Jews and even a few Columbia professors. Tuition babies are also unique in that they often treat the relationship less as a transaction than as a means to an intellectual end. A 23-year-old baby proud of her blouse-khaki pants ensemble and 10 o’clock curfew emphasizes, “I’m not gonna show my vagina off.” She has her sights on Cambridge and came to the party to find herself a Robert Redford type—to fund her way there.
The Public GazeThe current hype around college sugars makes me one in a brigade of press at the party: among them, BBC, NBC, CNN, CBS, and Time Out New York. Since Seeking Arrangement’s launch, few television personalities have neglected to add their dose of edifying commentary, warning listeners to scramble before the prostitution ring-in-disguise ambushes their children. “Eighteen months from now, another talk show will need another potentially scandalous theme, and [the prostitution question in the sugar phenomenon] will recycle all over again,” says Madison of Sugar Sugar. Though some sugar interactions are too strained for me to look at comfortably—the balmy hands, the painted smiles, the distracted gazes—none of the sugar babies I talk to express remorse. A Dr. Phil poll (which, granted, isn’t entirely representative of the wider populace) indicates that more people would participate in the sugar baby lifestyle than not if it were kept secret. “If they wanted to be prostitutes, they could,” says Wade. “The reason why they choose Seeking Arrangement is that they can have a relationship on an ongoing basis. A person will help them so that they don’t have to sleep alone [in the streets] where sex is being sold.” Legally, a sugar relationship is not prostitution. But the same deception—the same double life—remains. Natalia has no problem bringing her best friend to the party—most of the babies, for company or precaution, did—but she still tells her parents she works in the financial sector. “It’s a lot every day,” she says. “I wake up, I have another name, another bullshit going on.” She dismisses the idea that the sugar life is an option for everyone. “My maturity gave me the peace of mind of doing this.”Baby ExpirationThe unspoken purpose of the Beauty Ball is to provide a haven from disapproving eyes. Still, the more discreet, generally higher-profile babies and daddies avoided even the accepting party crowd. (Some babies, like Nonchalant, don’t seem to care: “Fuck what people think, I’m not sticking a gun to their head!”) While New York City offers a liberal climate, a few sugar babies mention aspirations of studying abroad in Europe, where they feel sexual norms are even more relaxed. To babies like Natalia, though, the sugar life is just a “small vacation” to last until the final loan is paid off. Or, for others, to last until their youth wears out. Once the baby does move on, Professor McKenna says a psychological toll is unlikely to stay. As long as the baby is in control of her relationships—which, minus a few cases of what Wade dismisses as “bad apples,” is largely true—she can presumably transition into her old lifestyle unscathed. Natalia acknowledges that the transition will be hard but necessary. “I still have that passion to pursue other stuff. Of course, it will take me [time] to adjust back to buying clothing at Kmart and not designer stores, but that’s something I have to do. Eventually.”