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Seeking Arrangement: College Students Using 'Sugar Daddies' To Pay Off Loan Debt

First Posted: 07/31/2011 10:51 pm Updated: 04/30/2012 1:01 pm

Wade, who started Seeking Arrangement back in 2006, can easily identify with the Jacks of the world. He created the site for fellow high-net-worth individuals who "possess high standards but don't have a lot of time to date the traditional way."

Wade, whose legal name is Brandon Wey, says he changed his name to better appeal to his clientele. "They're more familiar with Hugh Hefner than with some Asian guy from Singapore," he explains. Wade got the idea for Seeking Arrangement more than 20 years ago, while in college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Watching from the sidelines as his beautiful dorm mates pursued significantly older, moneyed men, Wade fantasized about someday becoming one such man. After business school at MIT and stints at General Electric and Microsoft, Wade dabbled in various start-ups before finally creating his own.

Awkward and shy, he started Seeking Arrangement in part because of his own inability to attract younger women. "To get the attention of the girl I really wanted to meet, I was kind of at the mercy of the statistics of traditional dating sites. I'd write hundreds of emails and only get one or two replies," says Wade, who is now divorced. He says married men account for at least 40 percent of the site's sugar daddies. Sugar babies outnumber sugar daddies by a ratio of nearly 10 to 1. Wade declined to disclose how much money he makes from the site. With more than 115,000 sugar daddies averaging $50 a month in membership fees, and some paying more to belong to the exclusive Diamond Club, it's safe to assume Wade's investment has more than paid off -- and that's not even including advertising revenue.

Debt-strapped college graduates weren't included in his original business plan. But once the recession hit and more and more students were among the growing list of new site users, Wade began to target them. The company, which is headquartered in Las Vegas, now places strategic pop-up ads that appear whenever someone types "tuition help" or "financial aid" into a search engine. And over the past five years, Wade says he's seen a 350 percent increase in college sugar baby membership -- from 38,303 college sugar babies in 2007 to 179,906 college sugar babies by July of this year. The site identifies clients who might be students by the presence of a .edu email address, which the site verifies before it will allow a profile to become active. Although, it should be noted that individuals without .edu email addresses can identify as students as well.

At The Huffington Post's request, Seeking Arrangement listed the top 20 universities attended by sugar babies on the site. They compiled the list according to the number of sugar babies who registered using their .edu email addresses or listed schools' names on their profiles. New York University tops the list with 498 sugar babies, while UCLA comes in at No. 8 with 253, and Harvard University ranks at No. 9 with 231. The University of California at Berkeley ranks at No. 13 with 193, the University of Southern California ranks at No. 15 with 183, and Tulane University ranks at No. 20 with 163 college sugar babies.

Seeking Arrangement is hardly the only website with a business model that revolves around the promotion of sugar daddy and sugar baby relationships. More than half a dozen websites advertise such services.

For instance, SeekingTuition.com offers college students "who need that special education from wealthy benefactors. Find that special someone to help you with books, dorm, rent or tuition today!" Meanwhile, SugarDaddyMeet.com defines a sugar baby as an "attractive and young woman. Beautiful, intelligent, and classy college students, aspiring actresses or models."

While more conventional dating site Match.com claims 20 million members and OkCupid.com claims 3.5 million members, "sugar websites" generally contend with more modest, though growing, user bases. According to online dating entrepreneur Noel Biderman, unlike conventional dating sites, "arrangement-seeking" websites are the only ones where women consistently outnumber men. Biderman says the lone exception to this rule is eHarmony.com, where far fewer men ultimately complete its lengthy, required questionnaire.

Biderman, the 39-year-old founder and CEO of Avid Life Media, runs a number of arrangement-seeking sites. He's also the creator of AshleyMadison.com, which is a website for married people looking to have affairs.

Currently, Avid Life Media operates two websites that promote what the company calls "mutually beneficial relationships." Over the past year in particular, Biderman says he's seen college-educated women signing up in droves.

On one such site, EstablishedMen.com, Biderman estimates that 47 percent of its 1.3 million members are women currently enrolled in college. And on ArrangementSeekers.com, he says 31 percent of its 387,000 members are female college students.

Much like Seeking Arrangement's Google ads, Biderman advertises his arrangement-seeking websites on MTV and VH1, since both television stations appeal to the demographic he covets.

After sampling the profiles of some of the women on his sites, Biderman concludes their debt, combined with a weak economy, has many clamoring for a sugar daddy to call their own. Their search makes sense to Biderman, who volunteers that, while now married, he would have made for an excellent sugar daddy in his younger days.

"Let's say you're a recent graduate, with $80,000 in debt and a job that pays $35,000 a year. It's tough to pay that amount of debt down, live in a decent city and still be able to socialize and do fun things. At some point, you'll have to start making major sacrifices," he says. "But what if all of a sudden, the only sacrifice is the age or success level of your boyfriend or some guy you occasionally hang out with? That becomes a real game-changer in how you get to live your life."

Biderman finds some women seek arrangements to help get them through a particularly difficult week or month, while others saddled with significantly more debt might search for a longer-term, more lucrative hookup. Either way, Biderman sees men wanting "young, vivacious arm candy while women want a guy who can take them out for a Michelin two-star dinner, take them on the trip of their dreams, or who knows, maybe they'll even find some guy to pay off their debt."

IS IT PROSTITUTION?

When Barb Brents, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, conducts research in various legal brothels in the state, she finds women hailing from a variety of different backgrounds. "The women tend to be from working-class or middle-class backgrounds, but a good number are from upper-class families, too," she says. Brents often finds that women turn to sex work when, in their professional lives, they're unable to make ends meet.

Brents equated modern-day college students seeking online sugar daddies to a phenomenon among young, working women nearly a century ago. During the 1910s and 1920s, some young women who worked at minimum-wage jobs during the day would supplement their meager paychecks by meeting up with male suitors at night. They'd swap companionship and sex in exchange for either a clothing allowance or rent money. Such women, explains Brents, never referred to themselves as prostitutes.

"When people think about sex work, they think of a poor, drug-addicted woman living in the street with a pimp, down on their luck," says Brents, who co-authored "The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland." "In reality, the culture is exceedingly diverse and college students using these sites are but another example of this kind of diversity."

With the exception of women who consider sex work their profession, Brents finds that nearly all the women she encounters in her research describe it as a temporary, part-time, stopgap kind of measure.

"These college women didn't see themselves as sex workers, but women doing straight-up prostitution often don't see themselves that way either," says Brents. "Drawing that line and making that distinction may be necessary psychologically, but in material facts it's quite a blurry line."


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