It’s the first snowfall of the season, and class is about to begin in the low-lit lounge of the Nomo hotel in SoHo. Women in their twenties mill about, nervously chatting each other up between hors d’oeuvres and sips of white wine. Diverse and attractive, some are turned out for date night with Kardashian blowouts and cleavage-baring ensembles. Others are dressed for a job interview, in shift dresses and sleek, shoulder-length bobs. From the far end of the bar, there is the sound of champagne popping. “That’s always a good sign!” one woman says. Along with the 26 other women in attendance, she is here for one reason: to learn how to bag a rich man.
The seminar is hosted by Seeking (formerly Seeking Arrangement), a dating website launched in 2006 to broker relationships in which one person (typically a young woman) provides companionship to another individual (usually an older man) in exchange for material benefits. It’s called sugaring, and if the definition sounds vague to you, that’s by design. The relationship between sugar babies and sugar daddies exists in a legal grey area, somewhere between illegal sex work and traditional dating. Among the 24 sugar babies and four sugar daddies I spoke to, financial arrangements varied widely. There was typically some expectation, on both sides, of a genuine romantic relationship. A rare few wound up falling in love and getting married.
Courtney, a 21-year-old recent college grad beginning a career in finance, says that one man began sending her hundreds of dollars for no apparent reason. She offered to FaceTime him, and, over the course of the next few months, they made it a habit. The money kept rolling in. “I was like, God is real,” she says, adding that she never met him face to face. (Like most of the women I interviewed, Courtney asked to be identified by her first name only.)
Joy, 30, says a former sugar daddy “wasn’t interested in providing money, but in giving experiences.” He sent her on a dozen lavish trips abroad, with whomever she pleased. Joy invited her girlfriends. “It was the best time,” she says. Ashley, 25, says her current sugar daddy sends her on a trip at least once a month, “to Mexico, Florida—I’m a Disney girl, I love Disney—Canada, all over. And then we’re going to Paris next year.”
Ava, 24, expects a monthly allowance “around $2,000, depending” for an ongoing, intimate relationship. She’ll also collect a few hundred dollars per date with other men—what the sugaring community calls “pay-per-meet”—though she says she has never slept with a guy in such a situation.
Seeking says sugaring is a lifestyle, not a job, and discourages users from charging by the date or discussing finances prior to meeting. After legislation passed in April making online platforms liable for user-generated content that relates to sex trafficking, the site released a video saying sex workers are “never welcome” and, if not reported, may “contaminate our community.” But advocates for sex workers say sugaring is sex work by another name. According to Laura Dilley, executive director of Canadian sex worker support group PACE Society, the distinctions boil down to classism. “It’s what some sex workers call the ‘whorearchy’,” she says, “a tiered system of sex work where sex workers are segregated by perceived social and legal lines.”
Among Seeking’s 20 million users, the average sugar daddy is 38, male and makes $250,000 annually. The site says the average sugar baby collects $2,800 a month. On and off Seeking, there are sugar mommies with male sugar babies and LGBTQ sugar relationships. But the archetypal sugar baby (which I’ve focused on in this piece) is a young, heterosexual, student or professional women who uses sugaring to feel less financially precarious—or enjoy a higher standard of living—while largely avoiding the stigma and legal risks of sex work.
“I want to meet a guy [with whom] there’s chemistry and we have fun and he takes me to places that I couldn’t go by myself or I couldn’t afford,” says Lola, a doe-eyed 24-year old who recently moved to New York City from Idaho. Soon after she moved in with her Craigslist roommate, they started dating. When they broke up, he asked her to move out, and she’s had a tough time navigating the housing market since. “I want to learn from these girls how to travel and how to get relationships that will really benefit me, instead of someone who’s going to ask me to move out,” she says.
Brook Urick and Alexis Germany, two veteran sugar babies who serve as spokespeople for Seeking, take the stage, and the crowd of women grows quiet. Lola files into a seat already set with a notepad, pen and a bottle of Evian. School is in session.
You guys know what an elevator pitch is?” Urick asks the crowd. An athletic-looking brunette in a three-quarter sleeve emerald shift dress, she could be mistaken for Kate Middleton at a glance. “Say you’re standing in an elevator next to this really successful person,” she continues, “you only have 15 to 30 seconds to pitch them your heart out… Find out what you’re passionate about and put it in an elevator pitch.” Urick and Germany talk to sugar babies like fellow entrepreneurs or CEOs in the making (or like sugar daddies). So even though Seeking insists sugaring is not a job, tonight’s class feels a little like a job expo for the gig economy era.
Germany, a curvy brunette with a megawatt smile and flawless skin, recommends having a canned “first date story” to tell prospective daddies. “I like it to be something kind of embarrassing and that way, when I tell it, I seem all cute and vulnerable,” she says. Urick recommends boning up on podcasts. “Learn things, have interesting things to say about studies and stats stuff old guys are about,” she says. “Be positive, bright and uplifting.”
Nearly 30 percent of workers rely on part-time or short-term jobs to make ends meet, according to Cornell University’s Institute of Labor Relations and the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative, and women are more likely than men to earn supplemental income through part-time work, especially multi-level or direct marketing and selling goods online. The line between our personal and professional lives has never been blurrier, whether we’re selling leggings to our Facebook friends or renting our personal spaces to strangers on AirBnB. Meanwhile, Instagram influencers use their personal life to market products as a full-time career; Kim Kardashian has leveraged her intimate relationships, sex appeal and personality to build a $350 million empire.
“I just think of it as a side hustle,” says Dani, a 24-year-old sugar baby who prefers to “freestyle,” meeting her daddies at bars or restaurants rather than on an app. “I like the freedom it gives me to concentrate on school and my vanilla life.” Dani is based in California, and is studying fashion design and merchandising. Besides school, her “vanilla” life includes taking freelance graphic design work, and caring for two chronically ill family members.
Young workers are encouraged to pursue our passions, and dating can be an emotionally fulfilling line of work. Joy, who wears her hair natural, sports a septum piercing, and describes herself as an intersectional womanist, was attracted to sugaring to offset a take-charge job in finance. “Even though in everything else I’m dominant and hustling, I like sometimes being able to chill and feel like I’m being taken care of.” Her mother always worked, she notes, but her dad never once let her take out her wallet. “I still like that sort of traditional dynamic,” she says. To her, empowerment in 2019 means “owning what you want, demanding what you want and getting it, whether that’s choosing to be in the passenger seat or choosing to be in the driver seat.”
Rachel, a 49-year-old sugar baby, (whom I meet up with separately from Seeking), says she is using the extra funds she makes sugaring to contribute to her retirement fund. Ava, 24, says sugaring is helping her save up to start her own business. Her sugar daddy is helping her formulate a business plan. “He’s not just like giving me money for me to buy, just like, purses or whatever,” Ava says. “He considers it an investment in my future. It’s like how they say investors don’t invest in the company, they invest in the founder.”
For some women, rubbing shoulders with powerful and successful men is an education unto itself. But unlike in the workplace, where mentorship can be a guise for sexual harassment, in sugaring a young woman might have more control of the terms of engagement. Three women I spoke to said their sugar daddies helped them find entry level jobs or internships in the field they wanted to pursue. One San Francisco-based sugar daddy fondly recalled how he coached his sugar baby in salary negotiations with the tech firm she now works for. “Now, she’s got a better car service than I do!” he says.
Finding a sugar daddy differs from making an elevator pitch in that you are both the entrepreneur and the product. “You’ve got to have the nails done, the hair blown out,” says Valentina, a 26-year-old brunette wearing a sleeveless black catsuit with stiletto boots. “Otherwise he’s just not even going to look at you.” Valentina has been seeing the same 42-year-old man for two years, her primary sugar daddy. She thinks of him almost like a boyfriend, but will occasionally still accept dates and trips with other men. And the Chanel bag swinging from her arm? A present from a sugar daddy who offered to fly her to Miami to buy it.
When meeting potential sugar daddies, Germany advises stacking multiple dates into one day, “that way you only need to get ready once.” Sugar daddies have busy schedules, she points out, and meeting for a quick coffee during the week appeals to them. Later, sugar babies expect to be reimbursed for their efforts. “I’m busy and my time is valuable,” says Ava. “If he wants me to take time out of my day, and get my hair done and look all cute then the least he can do is give me a little bit to cover that.”
Being a sugar baby requires impersonally assessing one’s value in the sexual marketplace. It’s demeaning, but it’s nothing new (a “seven” in the city might feel like a “ten” in the suburbs). Sugaring promises to let women freely capitalize on this value, what sociologist Catherine Hakim would call their erotic capital. In her controversial 2010 book, Erotic Capital, Hakim argued that—like economic, social, or cultural capital—a person’s beauty, sex appeal, and social skills could be a boon to one’s career as much as one’s love life. This Helen Gurley Brown-style, “sleep your way to the top” advice feels outdated. Hakim argues that’s because “a central feature of patriarchy has been the construction of ‘moral’ ideologies that inhibit women from exploiting their erotic capital to achieve economic and social benefits.” After all, she points out, women tend to have more erotic capital than men.
Hakim’s work has drawn plenty of criticism. Women are already overvalued for their sex appeal, at the expense of their intelligence, creativity and work ethic. Erotic capital depreciates with age and other life circumstances, making it a questionable asset to rely on. Plus, valuing erotic capital hurts women who can’t or don’t want to play the game. Ideally, nobody should need to get a second job hanging out with a banker to pay their rent. But what if, for some women, leveraging their erotic capital is the best option for getting ahead in a broken system?
At the very least, Hakim’s notion that women have been sitting on an untapped resource explains the cheerfully expedient mood of sugar babying 101. I ask Joy if she thinks that sugaring could be a way of leveling the playing field between men and women, a sneaky way to reclaim what has been lost in the persistent wage gap. “It’s like reparations,” she says, laughing.
Repeatedly throughout the night, Urick and Germany return to one point: A good sugar baby always builds a genuine bond with her sugar daddy. Not necessarily for any sentimental reason, but because stirring deep emotions is good for business. “You’re going to have to put in the time and the work, to see if you actually like someone,” says Brook. “Once you do actually like someone, they can feel that…and then they’ll want to buy you things.”
Such authentic connections keep Seeking on the right side of the law. Exchanging sex for money is illegal; having a mentor/friend with benefits whose love language is trips to Brazil is all gravy. That said, many of the sugar babies I spoke with felt that the romantic excitement and emotional support they offered were more important to their sugar daddies than sex. “I guarantee you the number one reason why men are on this site is because they weren’t asked how their day was,” says Ashley Sharpe, 25. Already a successful sugar baby, Sharpe has come to the Seeking class to support the site, quaff a few free drinks, and mentor the newer sugar babies. She has been seeing her primary sugar daddy for four years now: He is 35 and recently engaged to another woman. “He tells me about their problems a lot of the time, which is fine. I think it’s therapeutic for him,” she says.
A 2016 survey commissioned by the U.K.’s Mental Health Foundation showed that men are far less likely to seek mental health than women, have fewer close friends than women, and are less likely to confide in those friends. As wives, mothers, and girlfriends, women have long served as the primary emotional conduit for the men in their lives—what we now call emotional labor. Feminists have used the term, originally coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, to describe what they see as the uneven burden women bear managing men’s emotions. (“Be positive, bright and uplifting.”) As with erotic capital, emotional labor is at once revered as a supposedly natural trait of the “fairer, kinder sex” and devalued as serious, worthwhile work. Sugar daddies are willing to pay for it.
Rachel, the 49-year-old sugar baby, sees her primary role as “being a sounding board and a sympathetic ear and giving him a kick in the pants when he needs it.” Her niche is men over sixty, whose wives’ deteriorating physical and cognitive health make intimacy impossible, but who feel it would be unfair to begin a full-blown affair. On the day one sugar daddy moved his wife into an assisted living facility, Rachel went over to his house and played Scrabble. “We ate popcorn and drank coke,” she recalls. “He was in no shape for anything else.”
Chosen for their erotic appeal, relied upon for their emotional labor and celebrated with gifts and material support, sugar babies sometimes sound a lot like run-of-the-mill girlfriends. When I told one sugar baby that I would be worried about falling in love with my sugar daddy, she laughed. “Yeah, then it’s not for you,” she says.
She was one of many sugar babies who said they were in it for “relationships that benefit me.” For some of these women, sugaring is an appealing alternative to the Tinder swipes and stop-and-start relationships of their early twenties. Why invest your emotional labor in an immature guy, the thinking goes, when you could be spending those years getting taken on fabulous trips and paying off your student debt? “Guys my age don’t know what they want and they don’t know how to treat a woman yet,” says Sharpe. “I like a man who knows what he wants, and is already there and established, or working towards it.” It doesn’t hurt that he helps cover some of her living costs. “There are no blurred lines” she adds. “The boundaries are clear and up-front.”
There’s an admirable deliberateness to the beginning of most sugar relationships: a frank discussion about each other’s expectations and limitations, including how many days a week they are willing or able to see one another and how often they are available to speak by phone. A price is named. Negotiations begin. If one party doesn’t feel his or her needs will be met, both parties move on, drama-free. (As for sex with a much older man, most of the sugar babies I spoke with don’t want to get into details. Only Rachel admits that “the sex is not my favorite part.” She adds, “there’s a degree of tenderness that makes it not a bad thing, but let’s just say it’s not a slam-me-up-against-the-wall-why-don’t-you situation.”)
If sugaring sound grimly transactional, it’s worth remembering that marriage was once a way for families to form alliances and guarantee bloodlines. It wasn’t until the last hundred or so years that women had any way of owning property outside of marriage. In Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, writer Moira Weigel describes how early daters at the turn of the twentieth century were arrested by vice squads who saw little difference between a woman accepting a dinner with a potential suitor and a prostitute soliciting a john. “Ever since the invention of dating, the line between sex work and ‘legitimate’ dating has remained difficult to draw and impossible to police,” she writes. Partnering up is still financially advantageous—wage stagnation has made middle class life all but impossible without two earners. So long as economic and political power remains unevenly distributed, relationships between men and women may always have a whiff of negotiation.
As people delay marriage, daters and sugar babies alike are opting for short-term or part-time engagements that require less commitment. Sugar babies are making sure they earn marriage-like benefits from it. To hear it from them, they have hacked an age-old exchange between rich men and beautiful women to suit their current lifestyle. When I ask Sharpe if she ever feels jealous of her sugar daddy’s fiancé she says: “It’s funny because I’ve gotten that question from my friends: Aren’t you upset you didn’t get the ring? And I’m like no, because you know why? I don’t have to clean that house, I don’t have to do this, or that, or sit on the edge of my seat and wonder where he is.”