NEW YORK -- On a Sunday morning in late May, Taylor left her Harlem apartment and boarded a train for Greenwich, Conn. She planned on spending the day with a man she had met online, but not in person.
Taylor, a 22-year-old student at Hunter College, had confided in her roommate about the trip and they agreed to swap text messages during the day to make sure she was safe.
Once in Greenwich, a man who appeared significantly older than his advertised age of 42 greeted Taylor at the train station and then drove her to the largest house she had ever seen. He changed into his swimming trunks, she put on a skimpy bathing suit, and then, by the side of his pool, she rubbed sunscreen into the folds of his sagging back -- bracing herself to endure an afternoon of sex with someone she suspected was actually about 30 years her senior.
Taylor doubted that her client could relate to someone who had grown up black and poor in the South Bronx. While he summered on Martha's Vineyard, she'd likely pass another July and August working retail in Times Square.
A love match it wasn't. But then again, this was no ordinary date.
A month prior, faced with about $15,000 in unpaid tuition and overdue bills, Taylor and her roommate typed "tuition," "debt," and "money for school" into Google. A website called SeekingArrangement.com popped up. Intrigued by the promise of what the site billed as a "college tuition sugar daddy," Taylor created a "sugar baby" profile and eventually connected with the man from Greenwich. ("Taylor" is the pseudonym she uses with men she meets online. Neither she nor any of the other women interviewed for this article permitted their real names be used.)
In her profile on the site, Taylor describes herself as "a full-time college student studying psychology and looking to meet someone to help pay the bills." Photos on the site show her in revealing outfits, a mane of caramel-colored hair framing her face. But unlike other dating sites, where a user might also list preferred hobbies or desired traits, Taylor instead indicates preferences for a "sugar daddy" and an "arrangement" in the range of $1,000 to $3,000 a month.
Saddled with piles of student debt and a job-scarce, lackluster economy, current college students and recent graduates are selling themselves to pursue a diploma or pay down their loans. An increasing number, according to the owners of websites that broker such hook-ups, have taken to the web in search of online suitors or wealthy benefactors who, in exchange for sex, companionship, or both, might help with the bills.
The past few years have taken an especially brutal toll on the plans and expectations of 20-somethings. As unemployment rates tick steadily higher, starting salaries have plummeted. Meanwhile, according to Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University, about 85 percent of the class of 2011 will likely move back in with their parents during some period of their post-college years, compared with 40 percent a decade ago.
Besides moving back home, many 20-somethings are beginning their adult lives shouldering substantial amounts of student loan debt. According to Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the financial aid websites Fastweb.com and Finaid.org, while the average 2011 graduate finished school with about $27,200 in debt, many are straining to pay off significantly greater loans.
Enter the sugar daddy, sugar baby phenomenon. This particular dynamic preceded the economic meltdown, of course. Rich guys well past their prime have been plunking down money for thousands of years in search of a tryst or something more with women half their age -- and women, willingly or not, have made themselves available. With the whole process going digital, women passing through a system of higher education that fosters indebtedness are using the anonymity of the web to sell their wares and pay down their college loans.
"Over the past few years, the number of college students using our site has exploded," says Brandon Wade, the 41-year-old founder of Seeking Arrangement. Of the site's approximately 800,000 members, Wade estimates that 35 percent are students. "College students are one of the biggest segments of our sugar babies and the numbers are growing all the time."
Wade rewards students who use a .edu email address to register on Seeking Arrangement by automatically upgrading their free, basic membership to a premium membership, allowing them to send unlimited free messages and granting them exclusive access to the site's cadre of VIP sugar daddies. The site also includes a complimentary stamp on student profiles, certifying them as a "college sugar baby."
Wade sees his company as providing a unique service, a chance for "men and women living through tough economic times to afford college." He bristles at the notion that he's merely running a thinly veiled, digital bordello, choosing instead to describe his site as one that facilitates "mutually beneficial relationships."
Taylor doesn't explicitly refer to what she was doing in Greenwich as prostitution, but she now allows that her primary motivation was, indeed, money. She and her host ended up in his bedroom, where he peeled off her bikini.
"I just wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible," recalls Taylor, forcing out a nervous smile. "I just wanted to get out of that situation as safely as possible, pay off my debt, and move on."
While she and her host hadn't agreed to a set amount of money, on the drive back to the train station in Greenwich he handed her $350 in cash. She pocketed the envelope, seeing it as decent money for half a day's work. But once on the train and no longer worried for her safety, she started to agonize over what she had just done.
"I never thought it would come to this. I got on the train and I felt dirty. I mean, I had just gotten money for having sex," says Taylor, who never heard from the guy in Greenwich again. "I guess I accomplished what I needed to do. I needed the money for school. I just did what needed to be done."
And she's still doing what needs to be done. With tuition due in September to pay for her last semester of college, Taylor's back on the hunt for other, more lucrative online hookups.
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
"It's a very expensive job," says Jack, a 70-year-old sugar daddy, who describes himself as a "humanitarian" interested in helping young women in financial need. Jack isn't the name that appears on his American Express black card, but an identity he uses when shopping online for companionship and sex.
Jack says he meets up twice a week with a young woman from Seeking Arrangement. He typically forks over about $500 a night -- and that's not including lavish dinners at Daniel or shopping excursions on Madison Avenue.
"Unlike a traditional escort service, I was surprised to find such an educated, smart population," says Jack, during cocktail hour recently at the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan. He said he lives next door in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park South and pays $22,000 a month in rent.
In his profile on Seeking Arrangement, Jack describes himself as a 67-year-old with a bachelor's degree. Prior to retiring, the divorced Charleston, S.C., native says he founded four financial services companies. But after taking a big hit in the financial crisis and being forced to downsize, Jack says he had to part ways with his private jet due to what he describes as "reduced circumstances." On the site, he lists his annual income as $1 million and his net worth as something between $50 and $100 million.
While sugar babies can create profiles on Seeking Arrangement free of charge and a regular sugar daddy membership costs $50 each month, Jack pays $2,400 a year to belong to the Diamond Club. For a sugar daddy willing to pay up, the site says it verifies his identity, annual income, and net worth and then ensures his profile gets the most traction by continually allowing it to pop up in the top tier of search results.
Educated, debt-ridden 20-somethings happen to be an age demographic that intersects nicely with Jack's preferences. "I only go out with girls 25 and under," says Jack, whose thick head of white hair and bushy eyebrows form a halo around a red, flushed face. "But I can't walk into a bar and go up to a 25-year-old. They'd think I'm a pervert. So, this is how I go about meeting them."
As he continues, he repeatedly glances over his shoulder to make sure no one is listening.
"Most of these young women have debt from school," says Jack, who finds most young women also carry an average of $8,000 in credit-card debt. "I guess I like the college girls more because I think of their student debt as good debt. At least it seems like I'm helping them out, like I'm helping them to get a better life."
"By the way, how old are you?" he asks, inching closer.
"Older than 25," I respond.
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."
"I was thinking about going on Match but I needed help financially," says a 25-year-old student at a trade school in New York. When meeting men online, she sometimes goes by the name of Suzanne. "I guess what finally pushed me over the edge was that I needed help to pay off my loans from school."
Earlier this spring, after Suzanne got fired from her job as a waitress at a diner on the Upper East Side, a girlfriend suggested she create a profile on Seeking Arrangement. Suzanne had grown desperate after falling behind on rent. She also needed to come up with $3,000 for a trimester's worth of paralegal classes.
Suzanne already has an associate's degree in elementary education from a community college in New Jersey. Unable to find a job as a teacher's aide, she decided to enroll in paralegal classes at night. But after losing her job, the extra debt proved more than she could afford. She took out $10,000 in loans to pay for a year of school and promptly went on the hunt for a sugar daddy.
Over the past few months, Suzanne says she's gone on more than 40 dates with men from the site. She's not interested in getting wined and dined every single time. At a minimum, she hopes for at least a modicum of attraction. She's already turned down a man who weighed 400 pounds, as well as the advances of countless married men. Though desperate, Suzanne says a homewrecker she is not.
Following numerous emails and chats on the phone, Suzanne generally schedules a first meeting with a man in a public place -- a crowded restaurant, cafe or bar.
After nearly giving up on finding an arrangement, Suzanne recently met a 39-year-old college professor from Dover, N.J. So far, the two have gone on three dates. They typically meet at his house, where he usually cooks her dinner. Afterwards, they have sex.
"After all the assholes I've met, this guy's a real gentleman," says Suzanne, during a break before class. "At the end of the night, he usually gives me $400 or $500 bucks. It's not bad money for a night." While the men typically pay per meeting, Suzanne is hoping to set up an ongoing hookup. Mostly, she doesn't want the men thinking she's only seeing dollar signs, pegged to when her rent or tuition money is due.
While she does not label herself a prostitute, Suzanne's not one to mince words: "If this isn't what prostitution is called, I don't know what is."
"Under the banner of sugar daddy and sugar baby arrangements, a lot of prostitution may be going on," says Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University, where he studies the sex industry.
Weitzer says arrangement websites operate lawfully since simply advertising for a sugar daddy or sugar baby is within the realm of legality. "The only illegal aspect would be if the individual receives some kind of direct payment or material compensation for sex."
Allen Lichtenstein, a private attorney in Las Vegas who specializes in first amendment issues, affirms that in order for an exchange to be classified as prostitution there has to be a clear "meeting of the minds" that the arrangement is a quid pro quo, or exchange of sex for money. Absent an immediate sex-for-pay exchange, the legal waters grow far murkier.
"One could even consider certain marriages where there are unequal financial resources to not be overly dissimilar," says Lichtenstein. "But any relationship that is an ongoing one that's not purely about sex but may have a sexual aspect to it, you can't really classify as prostitution. It would simply cover too much ground."
But Weitzer views more extended, involved relationships -- say, a monthly stipend or dinner and occasionally having sex -- as ways for both "college girls and sex workers to camouflage what's very likely prostitution."
Weitzer sees college women as particularly susceptible to entering such an arrangement, especially during times of economic distress. "I could easily see people who have been in college at an elite university, who are paying a lot of money and racking up a ton of debt -- perhaps law school or medical students -- being more attracted to something like this, rather than someone who went to a state school or someone with little or no debt."
Weitzer also sees a potential danger for young women getting sucked into making large sums of money and later finding it difficult to abandon such a lifestyle. "The more you make, the harder it becomes to transition away from," says Weitzer, "just like high-end sex workers anywhere."
DOUBLE LIVES AND SPLIT PERSONALITIES
A year ago, Dayanara started dating an older, married executive while working as a summer intern at an investment bank in New York. The relationship quickly blossomed into a sugar daddy relationship, with him sending her a monthly allowance of $5,000 when she returned to Florida International University in the fall. The two would meet up once every few weeks, for a night out in Miami or a romantic weekend in the Caribbean.
Dayanara, now 23, would set some of the money aside for school and living expenses, often sending the remainder home to her parents in Puerto Rico. Eventually, the relationship soured. And after graduating in May with $30,000 in student loan debt and another $10,000 in credit card debt, she grew increasingly desperate.
In May, Dayanara moved back to New York. Rather than look for a job on Wall Street, she began an elaborate online hunt for other hookups. She says she's now engaged in three separate sugar daddy relationships, in addition to working part time as a topless masseuse on the Lower East Side. On her profile on Seeking Arrangement, she describes herself as a M.B.A. student from Bahrain.
An entertainment industry executive she met on the site regularly gives her $2,500 for a night of dinner and sex. Meanwhile, she's paying off her debt and saving for her dream graduate school: a Ph.D. in finance from the London School of Economics.
Her biggest fear is that one of these days she'll run into one of the bankers from her former life. "The decision was a hard one to make because if I do this and get found out, I will never have a career in this industry again," says Dayanara, whose dark eyes and tan skin allow her pretend whichever fantasy her client desires, be it a Spanish, Indian or Middle Eastern mistress.
Six of the eight women interviewed for this article mentioned the longer-term psychological toll of pretending to be someone else. Double lives and dual identities are common for both the women and men involved in sugar relationships. Lately, when Dayanara catches her reflection in a storefront window, she says she sometimes doesn't know which version of herself is staring back.
To play it safe, Dayanara and most of the women generally tell one friend where they're going. In the case of Suzanne, neither her father, who works as an emergency room physician, nor her mother, who works as a registered nurse, knows about her new job. Both Suzanne and Dayanara also have to keep their work hidden from most of their friends, fearing the stigma associated with revealing their secret.
"Some people can have difficulty integrating those two lives. You're involved in both a secret world and a public world," says Weitzer. "This type of concealment can create a lot of stress for people involved in these types of relationships. The question becomes how well you can manage this cognitive dissonance."
Besides the stress, Weitzer mentions other challenges for the college student hoping to leave sex work behind and eventually assume a nine-to-five gig. Gaps on resumes notwithstanding, the difference in pay can come as quite a shock. "For someone who's been doing it for a while, it can be difficult to stop doing it and suddenly transition into a normal job or date men without as many resources."
As two enterprising anthropology undergraduates at George Washington University, Elizabeth Nistico and Samuel Schall tackled the phenomenon of sugar daddy culture for a recent school project. Schall studied young, gay sugar babies, and Nistico explored the straight scene. Of their study's 100 participants, more than half said the money they received financed their education. On average, the relationships lasted between three and four months.
Nistico found that some of the sugar babies used the excuse of the economic downturn for behavior she thinks they would still have otherwise condoned. "We concluded that people who say they have a sugar daddy to pay off their loans are people who would already contemplate being in that relationship if the economy was doing just fine," says Nistico, whose subjects frequently mentioned the recession, a bad economy or debt as motivating factors in their decisions.
Outside the U.S., a handful of scholars in the United Kingdom recently examined shifting patterns of sexual behavior among college students tied to rising amounts of debt. Ronald Roberts and Teela Sanders, two social science professors in the U.K., contend that a combination of rising tuition, increased debt, a culture of mass consumption and low-wage work are luring students to the sex industry in greater and greater numbers. They fear that as college costs continue to rise, more students will pursue sex work.
Roberts asked 315 college students at a university in London about their participation in sex work. The findings were stark. Nearly 17 percent said they would be willing to participate in the sex trade in order to pay for their education, while 11 percent indicated a willingness to work directly as escorts. A decade ago, only 3 percent answered in the affirmative. Today's respondents are far more likely to have peers who are working in the industry.
This past spring, two researchers at Berlin's Humboldt University reported somewhat similar findings in other parts of Europe. In Berlin, a city where prostitution is legal, they found that one in three university students would consider sex work as a viable means of financing their studies. Nearly 30 percent of students in Paris similarly responded in the affirmative. Finally, of the 3,200 Berlin students sampled, 30 percent of students working in the sex industry reported being in some amount of education-related debt.
"I attribute it to the rising cost of college and ease of loans, especially in an economy where the buying and selling of emotions and companionship is increasingly easy to afford," says Sanders, who teaches at the University of Leeds.
Roberts fears arrangement-seeking websites are but another invitation for rich men to abuse young, vulnerable women. "It's really the perfect storm of debt and a down economy, not to mention a generation of middle-class women coming of age who were raised to believed that their sexuality isn't something to be afraid of," says Roberts, a professor at Kingston University.
"I'M NOT A WHORE."
"I'm honestly surprised there aren't more college students doing this," says Jennifer, not blinking. She's a 23-year-old recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College.
Fed up with young, unemployed men her own age, Jennifer recently began trawling for a sugar daddy to pay down about $20,000 in student loan debt. She also wouldn't mind a clothing allowance or rent money for her studio apartment in New York's East Village.
A week ago, she boarded a plane to Florida to spend the weekend with a 30-something banker she met on SugarDaddie.com. He told her his house was undergoing a renovation and instead drove her to a nearby hotel, where they spent the night together.
"Yeah, sure, he could have been a psycho, a killer," says Jennifer over breakfast. At nine o'clock in the morning, she's in a full face of makeup. On her profile she describes herself as a yoga teacher and personal trainer. "Barring rape or death, what's the worst thing that could happen to me?"
At the end of the weekend, the man handed her 10 crisp $100 bills. They next plan to rendezvous in Orlando in August.
Jennifer doesn't label what she's doing as prostitution. "I'm not a whore. Whores are paid by the hour, can have a high volume of clients in a given day, and it's based on money, not on who the individual actually is. There's no feeling involved and the entire interaction revolves around a sexual act," says Jennifer, who wears a $300 strapless dress purchased with money from her most recent conquest. The rest of the money, she says, went towards paying down her student loans.
"My situation is different in a number of different ways. First of all, I don't engage with a high volume of people, instead choosing one or two men I actually like spending time with and have decided to develop a friendship with them. And while sex is involved, the focus is on providing friendship. It's not only about getting paid."
Jennifer and many of the other young women realize the clock is ticking -- and it's not ticking in their favor. In these circles, youth and beauty reign supreme, with most men preferring the company of a sugar baby in their early-to-mid twenties.
"I realize I'm not going to have it forever," Jennifer says, brushing her blond, wavy hair off to one side. "While I've still got it, I'm going to milk it for all it's worth. I mean, maybe I'll get swept off my feet. Really, anything could happen."
Andrew Lenoir contributed reporting.