We were all playing parts. Maybe that’s why we forwent the masks. The party was marketed as a “luxury masquerade,” but as I was escorted upstairs, into the pomp of Hollywood’s Bardot nightclub, I noticed only a few faces were covered. The women wore makeup, of course. And the first man I spoke to put on such a front, playing the good, nice, normal guy bit. Or, I don’t know. I’ve been thinking that reading people may be violent. How much of interpretation is projection? Manipulation? Organized by my desire? I wanted a good story, but a true one — not to lead anyone on. So I made my role known: I’m not at this party solely as a prospective sugar baby, a member of the website Seeking Arrangement, I disclosed: I’m a reporter. Scott, the wingman date of a VIP-ticketed “daddy,” was fine with that. He reminded me of a fey Robin Williams and asked me if I’d ever get a phone again; he’d like to call me. The young Jodie Foster type from North Carolina didn’t seem to care, either. She wanted to know what I wanted to drink.
The part of the reporter is meant to be neutral, which is why I love to play her. She seeks clarity, to observe what is, wise to biases. What I observed on Friday, May 20, 2016 — from 10 p.m. to midnight at the Bardot, and earlier, from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., a flight of stairs lower, in the Avalon theatre, on Vine Street in Hollywood — were hundreds of human forms, most of them coded female and young, listening to speakers who looked a lot like them. I saw a stage with a screen playing video commercials and pink-toned slideshows — the words sugar, baby, daddy, cash, allowance, and confidence oft-repeated. On adjacent screens, the words “Sugar Baby Summit” streamed. That was the name of the event I’d petitioned to cover — the second annual conference put on by the online “dating” network Seeking Arrangement, ostensibly to serve their “community.” I listened to nine 30-minute “classes” on subjects such as “Online Safety” and “Deserving an Allowance.” I tasted cucumber water and watery drip coffee. I heard Destiny’s Child’s Bills, Bills, Bills; Justin Bieber’s Sorry; and Rihanna’s Work, Diamonds, Pour It Up, and Bitch Better Have My Money. And I smelled, in the ladies, a vital eau de piss, shit, menstrual blood and persimmon-scented soap. Then there was the afterparty.
In that ladies room, I heard three prolonged snorts coming from the locked side of a single stall door. Outside, I saw belly dancers. Pink lightbulbs. Bottle service. A reclining nude painting. And suits with no ties, top buttons undone. I felt hands on my sacrum. Men acting entitled to women’s bodies — the party was full of them. Middle-aged men. Mostly Caucasian. Dancing, kissing, groping, cheek-grazing, thigh-stroking, hair-behind-the-ear-tucking. There were five femmes for every one man. There was a banquet of sweets. Cupcakes, lip-shaped chocolates, twisted black lollipops, and “Sugar Babies” brand candies. I thought to myself: This looks like a Gossip Girl set. I heard myself say: “I love not having a phone.” I felt my instincts jolt: Should I go after her? A waif in wedges stumbled out of the club, one arm hooked on a man. Tugging at her minidress, she lost her balance. So I pursued. Outside, on Groucho Marx’s Walk of Fame star, I decided she was okay. The way she held her purse told me the woman could hold her own. As I watched her be escorted into an Uber, I simply prayed: I hope she gets paid.
In the 10 years since its founding, Seeking Arrangement has enabled millions of “sugar babies” (younger, hotter, poorer) to make money, acquire gifts, and/or experience luxuries like travel and dining from a smaller pool of “sugar daddies” and “mommas” (older, wealthier, occasionally more bored, awkward and/or married). At present, SA estimates it hosts 1.17 million daddy users and 400K mommas to 4 million babies (3,497,000 of them female). Sugar relationships are transactional per founder, 46-year-old Singaporean-American MIT graduate, Brandon Wade. Not sex work, per se, though the company’s insistence that it’s not sex work seems to have more to do with the legal status of prostitution in America (it’s illegal, except for in the state of Nevada) than with the personal opinions of SA’s staff and founder. When I told him that I see “sugaring” as part of a continuum of sex work, he nodded, “Yes, yes, yes.” Still, SA reverse-searches all pictures and phone numbers uploaded to their site; if yours is found to be related to an official escort service, you’re out. “We want to make it really clear that this is a relationship,” Wade explains. “This is not $300 an hour. We don’t allow that.”
But people do use SA to trick. I’ve known women who’ve met men on there, and a day later, they’re walking out of a Tribeca hotel, $1,000 cash in hand. ($300–500 is more common, as are dick sucks — more than full fucks.) One girl I know only kisses her daddy. They fine dine in Manhattan, at his expense. He also gives her a cash allowance. This young woman is arm candy — so beautiful, and she knows it. She needn’t, and doesn’t want to, take “the relationship” any farther. Her boundaries are confident.
Not so for many young women. Some end up with what SA brands a “Splenda daddy” (a well-meaning man lacking the means to be a real daddy) or a “salt daddy” (a manipulative fuck, or worse), like the man my friend Laura met. She was the first person to tell me about trying out Seeking Arrangement, after she had closely followed the Tumblr sugaring community for years. (Tag search “sugaring,” “sugar baby,” “sugar bowl” or “seeking arrangement” on Tumblr, and you’ll discover an infinite scroll of vocabulary lists, tips and tricks, diary entries, memes, a Miranda Warning, screenshots of text conversations and daddy profiles, some of them predator warnings, plus pics of cash and luxury goodies, and the rare selfie; those are usually body shots, faces cut for anonymity). An indebted college student from Springfield, Missouri, Laura wanted to pursue an internship in New York and thought an arrangement might help pay her way. Unsure of her worth, she agreed to a whole weekend with a “daddy” for $500, room and board at the Springfield Super 8 included. A few hours in, Laura wanted out, but she’d already agreed. And she wanted the money, and all these cool girls online were doing it, and maybe this daddy would soon tire (he fucked her for hours and hours and hours), and she did get wet, so she guessed she liked it, and so, not knowing her body would reject sex for a year after, Laura bore through it. She was 20.
Twenty-six-year-old Jordan Taylor, a speaker at the Sugar Baby Summit, told me she’s gotten up to $1,400 for a first date — no sex. “This man had just come out of a verbally abusive relationship,” she explained. They talked about this and made out. “He said I helped him repair his confidence.”
“What you are, you attract,” Summit speaker JeaneMarie Almulla (@xjeanemariex) told her audience. A “motivational speaker, singer, entertainer and author” (“her guide” is titled Footsteps to Confidence), Almulla advised babies to be confident, be natural, be yourself. “The more you love yourself,” she said, “the more he will want you.” She also recommended women use, at all times, “this special gift that was given to us — intuition. Trust your gut.” Listening to Almulla, I thought of Laura. Applied to her Super 8 date, Almulla’s counsel could easily twist into a victim-blaming mentality. Did Laura experience what she did because of what she is? Was it her lack of self-love that got and kept her in the motel? Or maybe, she loved herself too much? This man certainly wanted her.
While Seeking Arrangement has specific applications, like allowing users to filter matches via “ethnicity,” “body type” and “net worth,” it, like all tools, is ultimately determined by its users. The company may boot off escorts, but that doesn’t stop many “daddies” from propositioning young women with “Friends With Benefits,” “mutually beneficial,” “intimate,” “physical,” “sexual,” “sexy,” “s&m,” “no strings attached,” “quid pro quo,” “pay-per-meet,” or “allowance-based” “arrangements.” This is common lingo on SA. Now I’ll let you know — I’ve had three different profiles on the site over the last three years. In that time, I’ve been on five dates with three men. I kissed one, and got $600 from another. Mostly, I’ve studied the language that circulates on and around the site. I love language as truly I do pretty boys, which is why my friend Jane says SA doesn’t work for me — I’m not into it sexually. Jane is genuinely hot for older men, hot for their needy eyes on her awesome body. “I get soooo wet,” she told me once. “What do you think about that, Fi? Tell me. Tell me.”
I think it’s cool. There’s this scene in the show Weeds, after Nancy Botwin gets out of prison — she’s in a halfway house, and she overhears another woman’s lover on the phone talking dirty about kitchenware, and Nancy goes, “Whatever gets you there.” That line comes to mind every time I sense sex shame or guilt. “Whatever gets you there,” I think, given consent.
Consent is perilously ambiguous, though, because of power. Because of subtle coercions like the complex matrix that kept 20-year-old Laura in the Super 8 and because of obvious discrepancies like — look around you. Look at a list of the world’s wealthiest, look at who holds political office, look at who ambitions to build the world’s future, like tech leaders; they’re predominantly male, and, in North America, generally, generically white. Look at the demographic skew of Seeking Arrangement. The site is literally patriarchal. It’s mostly Boomer and Gen-X age men seeking to touch girls young enough to be their daughters, presenting as, if not a “daddy,” how about a “mentor,” a “patron” or a “benefactor”? Seeking Arrangement offers a variety of niceties with which they sugar-coat what’s actually up, which is entitled dicks.
Remember what I said about the violence of interpretation? How it’s organized by fear and desire? I tried explaining this to Brandon Wade at the Summit. I told him I’d made a Seeking Arrangement account, but that I’d deleted it because didn’t feel it would help me find what I’m looking for, because what I’m looking for — in love, work, life — is to be surprised. It is to experience the stillness of destiny and chemistry, or others as they really are. I told Wade that I’m wary of desire. Maybe because, as a girl, I’m not practiced in knowing what I desire? I often find myself performing what others desire of me… Admittedly, this came out loopy. Wade replied that it sounded like what I was looking for was a “deep connection.” He recommended I put that on my profile.
“The best way to form an arrangement is be honest,” he said. “If you want a guy to pay for your boob job, then say it. If you want someone to help you pay for your school, then say it. If you want someone who’s kinky in the bedroom, say it. Whatever it is, just say it. Once you’re honest, you’ll find there are people out there who are willing to accept you for who you are, and from honesty comes real communication, real understanding and real happiness, so why not?”
Why not? How about because today’s youth are socially and economically disadvantaged such that it’s easy to take advantage of us? Institutional racism, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, generalized anxiety disorders, depression, joblessness, unpaid internships, inflated college tuition and, of course, student debt — Wade knows about this. His company actively courts American college students, via membership discounts for anyone registering with an .edu email, and campaigns like Sugar Baby University. (“College tuition is on the rise,” the ad copy reads, “and more students have discovered the new way to avoid student loan debt. College Sugar Babies receive an average $3,000 per month allowances and gifts from Sugar Daddies. Don’t waste precious study hours at a minimum wage job… Join today and get your education paid for by a generous sponsor.”)
Or how about because girls, especially girly girls, which is what most men on SA want, often have epically low self-esteem? We want to feel beautiful, loved and valued — to feel like we exist. Girls like us have been cultured to believe that our value — how we exist — is in being beautiful in someone else’s eyes, and so we’ll go to great lengths — sucking short dicks, for instance — just to feel a loving I’m real! gaze on us. Sugar arrangements have the potential to exploit this — not to mention the first cut is the deepest: our daddy issues.
If Seeking Arrangement had a reality TV show, which Wade, I gather: by his swagger, his publicity-seeking (he’s eager to interview and organizes stunts, like the Summit, where there were as many media makers as there were babies present) and the style of the women he hires to surround him (his staff looks like a season-opening Bachelor cast) — is gunning for, the Sugar Baby Summit would’ve made a good first episode.
Follow rebel reporter Fiona Duncan into the Avalon theater. Duncan is 28 years old and at a career crossroads. She eats off food stamps and can no longer afford a phone. Her biological daddy and cool mom bail her out periodically (they’re great), but, having inherited stubbornness from her father and an aversion to interdependence from mom, Duncan is determined to make her own way. She has considered seeking an arrangement. Many of her friends have had them, like Anarchia, 21, who’s there with her. An autodidactic student of branding and code, Anarchia has made several SA profiles over the years. She studies which profiles are responded to, and how. She’s even created a fake daddy account to see how other babies are “in the game.”
Wade wants the attention. Cut to Duncan’s interview with him. He says, “We don’t want to be secret anymore; we want to be acceptable.” Prompted by Duncan’s questioning, Wade admits that the Summit is part of this bid for visibility, as is the Sugar Baby Calendar he’s working on. “We are beginning to do things like this,” he says, “to make the lifestyle seem more acceptable.” What’s the lifestyle? Duncan then asks. The word has been used repeatedly throughout the day by various representatives of SA. “The likes of the Kardashians,” Wade replies, “have made perhaps this lifestyle more acceptable. I think everyone is trying to keep up with the Kardashians with their Chanel bags and whatever next G wagon they are driving.”
Cut to Duncan a week later watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians for the first time. “It’s relaxing,” she croons. “Like a Klonopin.”
Cut back to the Summit, Duncan repeating her question: But what is the lifestyle? “If I were to summarize the sugar lifestyle,” Wade starts slow, “it’s one where you are upgrading your life. You want luxury. You want comfort. You want… to have… things.”
Cut to: The well-heeled women at the Summit, their handbags and manicures, iPhones and maxi dresses.
Cut to: Piles of red Seeking Arrangement branded tote bags on a folding table, hired female hands stuffing red Seeking Arrangement branded tank tops into them. Close-up on a tank top, it reads: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fund$.”
Cut cut cut: To Summit speaker Candice Kashani (@missxocandice) suggesting babies wear “natural makeup” and “carry pepper spray.” To Wade saying, “This is sort of a woman empowering series that we want to expand.” To a black audience member asking how she should market her “brown sugar” when so many men on the site explicitly say they aren’t into that. (Intercut misc. daddy profiles stating: “No Blacks,” “No Fat,” “size 2–4,” and “European-look only.”) To speaker JeaneMarie — tall, blonde, and body-conned — adding this tip: “Keep it positive. Don’t mention the troubles in your life.” To Anarchia rolling her Russian doll eyes.
Cut to Jordan “Hasty” Taylor (@YaleBulldogBabe), a 26-year-old African-American Yale Divinity School grad student, trained pole fitness instructor, and former White House intern, explaining, during her enlivening Summit speech, her entitlement to men’s money in terms of the “gender pay gap.” Show the line graphs she shared evidencing, “How much less women earn, compared with men, by age, for full-time wage and salary workers.” See her telling Duncan in interview, “Being a sugar baby is one of the most authentic things I’ve done in my life.” And then this:
“After intimate partner violence, domestic violence, a history of trauma and abuse, and overcoming that,” Taylor explains, “I felt like I was at a deficit in terms of my relationships with men. I felt like I was giving, giving, giving, and not getting back, and I understand, you don’t give to give back, but when you’ve given too much, and I think we, as women, we have to start raising consciousness about this, we cannot continue to give our all of ourselves, and not take care of your needs, too.”
Cut to Duncan and Taylor high-fiving.
This reminded me of a favorite line in a favorite book, Notice by Heather Lewis. In it, an unnamed young sex worker narrates: “The cover story of all time, that’s what money is. The excuse of excuses no one will question because they so much need to use it themselves.” She was talking about why women trick: “The reason it’s never just once is the same reason money’s only a part of it. Most anyone can take or leave that, though they don’t think they can.”
Of course, sex work is never just about money, for the worker, just as it’s never just about sex, for the buyer, because we are people, not “workers” or “buyers.” We work and buy to fulfill our animal natures, our familial imprints, media fantasies, death drives, socio-cultural roles, and more. The Sugar Baby Summit was revealing of such entanglements from a female-embodied perspective. Of course, when the men came, the show became a masquerade. Imagine though, behind that scene. Sugar Daddies: Uncut and Uncensored. HBO Late Night. A banker daddy confessing his guilt over signing high-interest student loans to 18-year-olds. Or a recent divorcé admitting he hasn’t had sex in three years. Or a startup bro owning up to his fear that no woman would want to be with him unless something more than him — like money — was in it for them.
Fiona Duncan is a nomadic Canadian-American who writes. She is a frequent contributor at Adult, Sex, and Kaleidoscope magazines.