Parinda Wanitwat was concerned about finances when she graduated from college this summer. After reading a Vanity Fair article about “sugar babies” -- young women who date older men in return for compensation -- she turned to the website SeekingArrangement.com to see what the fuss was about.
“I didn't think it was a safe place at all for me,” Wanitwat, a 23-year-old New York City resident, said of the site. The website, launched in 2006, matches wealthy "sugar daddies" with willing "babies." "But I wanted to do some research."
Wanitwat began thinking about the women in such relationships, and developed an interest. After connecting with young women through online relationship forums and email Listservs, Wanitwat set out to produce a documentary that allows "sugar babies" to tell their own stories -- without judgment.
“Daddies Date Babies,” set to be released in December, follows five young women ranging from ages 18 to 27 as they navigate heterosexual sugar relationships and discuss past encounters.
The documentary explores how women enter and define these relationships, concerns they have about their privacy and safety, preconceived notions they had and why the relationships are so stigmatized.
"The women want as much money as possible for as much stability as possible," one participant says in the film's trailer. "The men want to pay as little as possible for as much novelty as possible."
As college tuition rises and an estimated 37 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, some college students and graduates turn to sites like Seeking Arrangement to help pay bills.
"I got into sugar babying because I didn't have a job, had graduated from college and needed money," Tess Wood, 25, told The Huffington Post. "It seemed easier than bartending. It seemed like a very available option. It seemed easy to fall into."
Wood, who has been involved with sugar daddies in Chicago, New York and Jacksonville, Florida, never found the relationships particularly satisfying. She agreed to participate in Wanitwat's documentary to help debunk myths about the women in sugar relationships and deconstructing the stigma.
“In general, women are sort of trained to not speak about certain things ... One of those things is sex,” Wood told HuffPost. “We're not really supposed to talk about sex. Things like sex work and the dark side of it, the stuff that isn't discussed -- that's the side I think we need to be talking about. We use shame to keep us from confronting these issues.”
Stephany Xu, a 23-year-old entrepreneur (who, in the interest of disclosure, was a college classmate of the author) often dates older men and expects them to provide a credit card for her personal use. Xu joined Seeking Arrangement five years ago and still occasionally checks the site, and has also dated older men she met at airport lounges or through introductions from friends.
"The first person I ever met off [Seeking Arrangement], I had such an amazing experience with," Xu told The Huffington Post. "He turned out to be so nice and knowledgeable and supportive. He's still one of my very close mentors today."
Xu rejects the sugar baby label, and said the credit card arrangement is a perk rather than a requirement.
"I like credit cards because it gives you an amount of freedom," she said. "I can pay off the card myself if I want to, or he can choose not to pay it that month. It never has to be something that's discussed, it's something that's kind of there."
Xu's participation in the documentary stems from her positive experiences dating so-called sugar daddies, though she noted that her relationships have been very different from other women profiled in the film. For example, the idea of a man paying her $500 specifically for oral sex -- an experience another baby recounts -- makes her very uncomfortable.
"That's terrifying to me," Xu said.
Wood no longer seeks out sugar baby relationships, after a series of disappointing endeavors in which she invested significant emotional energy in exchange for what she considered a substandard financial gain. She said she feared for her safety with one man, and had multiple experiences with sugar daddies who promised money and never delivered.
"That's one of the reasons I got out of it," Wood said. "There's no way to make sure people aren't lying."
Wood and Xu discussed relationships and sexual encounters that they said are more socially acceptable than sugar relationships, but still involve some element of exchange. For example, Wood has hooked up with men in the past order to get access to their social circle or aspects of their lifestyle. Xu is currently involved with a man a few years older who treats her to meals, shopping trips and nights out. They call each other "boyfriend" and "girlfriend."
"There are so many different facets to sugar baby dating," Wood said. "I think it ranges. It bleeds into 'regular dating' more than people realize. This whole idea of transactional relationships is insidious. It's everywhere. One thing that stood out to me, is that these [sugar baby-sugar daddy] relationships are not fundamentally different."
Xu and Wood agreed that the sugar baby label is unnecessarily stigmatizing.
"There are elements of transactionality in every single relationship," Xu said. "Who gets to say where the line is?"
Learn more about "Daddies Date Babies" here.
Having a sugar daddy is not as glamorous as first thought
Last updated 12:34, November 20 2017
When a van bearing a mobile billboard made its way through the cobbled streets of Cambridge, England last week, urging university students to earn a bit of extra money by becoming "sugar babies", it raised more than a few eyebrows.
Rich Meets Beautiful, a Norway-based site promising potential sign-ups "romance, passion, fun and 0 per cent study loan", is reportedly on a UK-wide mission for 100,000 new recruits from five UK university towns.
You might imagine, a poorly translated slogan aside, a pair of scantily clad models would get little traction among the country's student elite. But you might be surprised.
Hopeful young women are finding out that the reality of sugar babying doesn't quite correlate with what the websites are promising.
Last year, 58,000 students purportedly signed up to another such site, Seeking Arrangement, which promises salvation for those crippled by "the crushing weight of student loan debt".
* Dating sites matching 'sugar daddies' with 'sugar babies' take off in New Zealand
* Hamilton 'sugar baby' charged with blackmail after meeting man online
* Students turning to 'sugar daddies' to scrape through university
The site's major "Sugar Baby University" marketing drive apparently brought their global user base to 10 million, with Cambridge University, where Rich Meets Beautiful pitched up, ranking 13th on their list of fastest-growing sign-ups; Exeter and York also make the top 20.
In theory, its premise is brazen, but innocent enough: a bright young thing arranges to spend time in the company of a more mature "sugar daddy" or "sugar mama", with the expectation that they will receive some kind of financial remuneration - slap-up dinners, a shopping allowance or even a five-star holiday - in return.
In practice, though Seeking Arrangement has a strict no prostitution policy - "sex is never a requirement, only an aspiration" reads a blog on the site - it seems fair to assume users might expect more than sparkling conversation for their money.
The promise of an opportunity to form what the site bills as a "mutually beneficial financial relationship" was enough to intrigue Emily*, now 23, when she was a cash-strapped second-year student at The University of Birmingham.
She says: "the plan was to say 'oh yes, let's go on a date... but I don't have anything to wear', and then I'd try to get them to buy me a new dress or just give me money," she explains. "Then I'd go on the date, have a good time and call it quits."
She realised quickly that her expectations were unlikely to be met. "It's difficult to describe, but it was objectifying and condescending," she says of her online correspondence with suitors, whom she found, by and large, unwilling to part easily with their cash. "Even though it seems like a potentially efficient way of funding your studies, I think it would be very difficult to actually find such a situation."
But who is exploiting whom, here? Are websites preying upon well-educated but cash-poor young students? Or are sugar babies using their esteemed academic institutions to take advantage of lonely, wealthy suitors?
For Fiona, a 21-year-old master's student at Cambridge who signed up to Seeking Arrangement, cultivating an online persona - in which she invested "a lot of thought, because I really wanted the money" - around her scholastic prowess was crucial.
"I crafted this image surrounding my elite university," she says. "The website literally plays off the student fetish. I never really felt bad about it, though. I was just playing the game."
Like Emily, she found the experience rather less glamorous than she had hoped. "We'd go for an initial coffee date, no money would change hands and they'd either ghost me [cut off all contact] afterwards or immediately ask for sex. I'd decline and that was that," she recalls of her six months on the site.
"I found it really hard to actually find men who wanted to go on dates, as the website describes," adds Fiona. "After talking on the site for a bit, you'd often move to WhatsApp and it would usually end up with them asking: 'Can I have other pictures of you?', clearly referring to nudes." After she told them she wasn't comfortable with that, the conversation would often come to an abrupt end. "During my whole time using it, I didn't earn a single penny. I felt cheated."
Unsurprisingly, the reality of sugar babying doesn't quite correlate with Seeking Arrangement's version of events. They claim that "the allure of the so-called 'sugar baby lifestyle' is indisputable", stating that "babies" receive average monthly allowances of NZ$2,580.
While this might be the case, not one of their users that I spoke to had managed to earn a single penny using their website - and in my own experience of signing up as an Oxford student (for reporting purposes), messages from older wealthy types of both sexes led to no kind of financial reward.
Hard luck, you might think, given these students' willingness to take potential suitors for a financial ride. But how did Seeking Arrangement reach their thousands-per-month allowance figure - undeniably attractive to financially vulnerable students - in the first place?
"We send surveys to sugar babies and sugar daddies so that we can gather data from both sides, in order to track average allowances," a spokesman for the website told me. The site's founder, Brandon Wade, an MIT graduate, hails its role in helping students with the cost of $9,000-per-year tuition fees: "In the years that we've started tracking student participation in the UK, we've noticed a significant number of students who previously left university to save money, [being] able to continue pursuing their degrees."
"Seeking Arrangement is a dating site, it is not a service and it doesn't target any specific group," a spokesperson adds. "It is attractive to many students because it is a way to combine dating (which they are likely going to do anyway) with elevating their lifestyle (which most people want to do). If someone does not want to be involved in sugar dating, the answer is simple; don't sign up for the site."
Emily deleted her online sugar dating account after a few weeks, but didn't give up on the project altogether, searching for wealthy older suitors in "posh clubs" instead. "I had the most amazing experiences," she says of her real-life ventures in Mayfair.
"I'm a big foodie, so I got to go to $500-per-meal restaurants, like Hakkasan in Mayfair and The Ritz." One of her sugar daddies also secured sold-out tickets to Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, at a cost of several thousand pounds apiece.
She is now in a relationship with one of them, a City worker more than a decade her senior, and admits that "he still takes me out, but it's not like, 'I pay for this, so you do this', it's because he loves me".
A sizeable allowance in return for a couple of steaks with a lonely CEO a few times a month? To would-be sugar babies, that doesn't sound too bad. But they may find that putting off that essay in pursuit of someone else to bankroll their studies rarely results in a sweet deal.
*Some names have been changed
- The Telegraph, London