What I learned at a Sugar Daddy/ Sugar Baby Party

20thOct. × ’11

The last guy bought Tia a car. He also paid rent, bought clothes and gave her thousands of dollars here and there. She was 19 and in school; he was 45 and owned a construction company. “He told me, ‘You got what it takes to take what I got.’ And I took him for all he had!” says Tia. She is here to try to find someone to replace this ex. I’m here undercover for Time Out New York, posing as someone like Tia, to figure out how the world of sugar daddies works.

This sugar daddy/sugar baby ball is hosted by SeekingArrangement.com, a dating site for those looking for “mutually beneficial relationships.” The party is at the Copacabana, a Times Square bar that might look glamorous to tourists. Tonight, women who sparkle under the club’s neon lights fawn over men who are drab in comparison.

Tia smooths her hair, which is swept to the side, prom-style, revealing one glittery earring. She asks what kind of guys I’ve talked with. “Two hedge-fund managers,” I reply. She’s talked with a lawyer and a business owner. The men in the crowd range in age from their thirties to eighties.

Mel, the first hedge-fund manager, is on the younger side, with a baby face and a briefcase. When I ask if the nature of the sugar relationship is freeing, he sneers. “I don’t like it when the girls get really transactional. I’m busy, and it’s a low-key way to meet women. But it can be trashy,” he says. I ask him to clarify. “Here—” he gives me his phone and tells me to put my number in. “You ask too many questions, but I’ll talk to you about it later. Somewhere not so loud.” I lift his arm from my shoulder and politely move on.

Among the women, there were lots of tall heels, hair extensions and accents—local ones from Queens, Long Island and Jersey, and more newly local, from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Latin America. The women were friendly to one and other—we were in this together, after all. I chat with Christina, a J-Woww lookalike who’s planning to leave the sugar-baby lifestyle; she’s starting her own business and has great investors. She didn’t go to college but has learned a lot through her older friends. Later, I bond with Arielle, an artist with auburn hair and tattooed arms. She lives in Bushwick with her artist boyfriend. “What does he think?” I ask. “If I can get a second stream of income out of this dating site, why not?” she says.

Thanks to several websites like SeekingArrangement, recession-trend stories have been sparked about college girls using the site to help with tuition. In New York, there is now an entire “sugar culture.” According to researchers from the Sugar Project, a study on sugar-daddy culture funded by George Washington University, there is always a negotiation moment in these relationships where each party names their price. “Say, she only wants to see him once a month and she wants $5,000. He counters, fine, but he wants to be able to call her to come to events,” says researcher Elizabeth Nistico. If this agreement isn’t made in the first few dates, it often takes a more passive route. For instance, perhaps every time she meets him, the woman will find $500 in her purse afterward. Without that money, she would stop seeing him.

My new sugar-baby friends offer me tips on how to set this up. Candy, a 22-year-old with bubbly cleavage and a gap between her front teeth, advises that I negotiate before the men so much as touch. The first time she did this, a guy gave her $2,000—all she had to do in return was go to a nice dinner and give him a hand job: “A hand job! How easy is that?” As we talk, Tia comes over. She’s upset because the guy flirting with her asked, point blank, how much? While Nistico says many women negotiate up-front—by e-mail or phone before meeting– Tia, like Mel, prefers a little more illusion. “He was an investment banker,” Tia tells us. “You should have asked for $5,000!” Candy replies.

According to employees of SeekingArrangement, there are seven women for every man on the site. At the party, there seem to be two to three women for every guy. The men seem happily dazed, sitting back as women in mini dresses form lines to sit at bottle service with them. As the night wears on, the women arriving seem to grow more beautiful and more aggressive. “Listen to his problems, let him talk about his family or work,” I’m advised by my new friends. I watch as brazen Arielle and Candy suddenly become coy and demure around men.

When I ask Nistico what findings are the most surprising, she says it’s how much the men can be hurt by the sugar relationship, “The role reversal is what is so interesting to me. The women are manipulating the men, and if the relationship takes a turn for the worse, the man often ends up being victimized—not the woman,” she says.

In the ladies’ room, Christina is giving a speech from the stall. “Get yours! Ask up-front. Don’t date if they don’t own that business. Network! Is that cocaine on the floor? Someone sniff it up!” It is another illusion unraveling: While the girls play submissive in the club, here in the greenish light of the bathroom, it is clear that it is the guys who are betas.

Toward the end of the night, I see one man slip a wedding band back on as he leaves the club. Some men and women leave together, but many depart alone. The sugar babies want money for a date, not a one-night stand, and the competition is tough. “I’ve got a date for every night this week!” a blond guy in his forties exclaims.

The next day, I receive a text from Mel. He wants to know if I’d like to “rendezvous to see if we are in sync” [wink face]. I consider forwarding the text to Arielle or Candy, but I don’t have their numbers, and I’m certain they’ll get what they need eventually. Given all the girls last night, surely, Mel will find what he’s searching for as well.

In Part Two a male writer, posing as a Sugar Daddy, hilariously tries his luck at the same party. Read the rest here! I recommend it.

What do you think of “Sugar Culture”? Do you support people who sign up for these sites?

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  1. Posted 2011-10-20 at 13:02 | Permalink

    I read both and felt it was harder for a man to ‘pass’ as a sugar daddy if he wasn’t one. A young attractive woman could mingle with the girls but he did not have the air of status and wealth required to be a sugar daddy.

    Fascinating posts!

  2. Posted 2011-10-20 at 13:07 | Permalink

    Totally. I spotted Drew that night as well, and figured he was the fellow Time Out writer because he just did not belong. It wasn’t that he was too young, it was that he was too hipsterfied– too cool or even “hot” in the Williamsburg/Brooklyn way.

    For me, I didn’t necessarily fit in either. I was wearing a retro polka dot dress while everyone else was in Bebe, but the fact that I was clearly young and made up was more than enough. What is also interesting is that it wasn’t just all young women– there were plenty in their 30s, 40s and even 50s who were also working it. And no one batted an eye at them, after-all I suppose they were still offering themselves as dates?

  3. Posted 2011-10-20 at 15:27 | Permalink

    Yes maybe sugar daddies are not supposed to seem like ‘objects’ of desire – they are the pursuers…. But it may partly be the overt nature of the event. I mean I think a lot of wealthy people- women and men, seek out ‘arm candy’ and probably pay for it in a variety of ways. I just expect some people find it easier to procure than others.

  4. Posted 2011-10-20 at 19:21 | Permalink

    Certainly there are women who look for “arm candy” as well, but it just seems as though it’s not as established–not as formalized or socially acceptable. Although I did briefly look into the “cougar dating” scene when I was living in Chicago and interviewed some women who self identified as cougars. Of course, “cougars” end up being more of a media joke than anything else.

  5. Posted 2011-10-20 at 22:33 | Permalink

    I alwaaaays love your posts. This one was cool. I remember reading about this over the summer, back when I was jobless and volunteering at the LGBT center with money I barely had.

    I don’t support what’s going on – sugar daddies/babies. But, I suspect that thing sort of thing has been happening for as long as there have been people with goods that other people wanted. The recession just provides an easy way to highlight alternative ways of getting money, if you’re having a hard time getting a job.

    Honestly, I can see the appeal. I have student loans like woah, and I don’t really see THAT changing any time too soon. And if you’re living in NY, rent is high, food is expensive, and even commuting via mass transit starts to accumulate. This isn’t even including “fun money” – where even going to a movie costs $13. So, I can see WHY girls are doing it. And men get something out of it too: women throwing themselves at them. The sugar babies probably wouldn’t refer to it as “throwing”, but if the men are the ones wielding all the power (they have the money you need) then there’s a type of imbalance there. You can probably argue that the women are more in control, since they’re using the men, but that kind of victimization can only take place if the men don’t know that the women only want them for money. For a guy to go to a place like that, looking for a genuine connection, is pure naivete.

    But I don’t want to turn it into a men vs women power struggle, feminist debacle. Times are hard for a lot of people, and isn’t sex work the oldest form of occupation around? But I guess it’s not really sex work if no one is having sex, right? So what do the women give the men in exchange? They just listen to them talk? (Sounds like therapy!).

    Generally, I think it’s really interesting and I wonder if there’s a same-sex situation that’s taking place too, or if self-identified lesbians/queer women approach hetero men at these parties in hopes of getting some bills paid too.

    So curious!

  6. Posted 2011-10-21 at 08:32 | Permalink

    sugar daddies are common on the gay scene but in a way they are more ‘normalised’ – the older man/younger man dynamic is well established in M/m relationships.

  7. Posted 2011-10-21 at 10:35 | Permalink

    Tatiana, That is the question– is this sex work?

    I would consider this sex work, which is also why I fully support it! According to the Sugar researchers, 15% of the women report never having any physical intimate contact– which sounds slim but is kind of a lot considering we are looking at romantic sorts of relationships. Most of the women do have some sort of physical or sexual contact with these men, but usually it’s negotiated ahead of time how often, or what she will do and what she gets in return.

    Once I started seeing it as sex work, I totally stopped seeing it as I originally had– as people just okay with playing outdated gender roles and each taking advantage of the other. As sex work, it seems really smart. Like a possibly easier more freelance version of escorting. But it takes some hustle to make a living from it, from what I’ve gathered.

    Also this is safe and legal! So more power to the women there. I honestly feel, a sort of comfort knowing something like this is there. It’s not something I would pursue, but in another lifetime, if I needed to? It is sort of comforting.

    QRG, Yes– chickenhawks are what I believe the younger men are called! In Chicago there is this iconic old gay bar that is known solely as a place for chickenhawks to find daddies and vice versa. My editor at Gapers Block, a Chicago publication, told me about it and we discussed the potential of a story but it never came together.

    Also the researchers from the Sugar Project are looking at m/m “sugar” relationships too. From their website: “In the end to survive in this city, you need to be the best and the best is not poor. Money is the key to everything; to live, to eat. I’m not money hungry but money driven” — John, Sugar Baby, 36.

    Interesting that he describes it as more of way to get essential needs (like being fed) rather than luxuries. (Though perhaps he isn’t young enough for the latter.)

    QRG, why do you think this is more normalized in gay culture than among hetero pairings? Is there a lesson we could learn from the way it is handled in gay culture?

  8. J
    Posted 2011-10-21 at 12:01 | Permalink

    I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with these arrangements. I hesistate slightly because of the things I would guess could happen if a girl hooked up with the wrong kind of guy. But that can happen in any arrangement. If I was single, living in the city and needed a little help, I don’t think I would have a problem doing it myself.

  9. Posted 2011-10-21 at 16:11 | Permalink

    Actually J, it seems to me using a site like this would be safer than sex work (legal for one) but perhaps less safe than dating via match.com.

    Now I just equated something I above described as sex work (these sites) with dating, and I think this is the very reason this concept is so uncomfortable, it points out the transactional nature of just dating! I guess I wonder where is the line crossed? When does a mutually beneficial relationship become sex work? What if I stopped dating a partner because they no longer paid for our dates? Is this the same, is it a gray area?

    The new book on ‘erotic capital’ titled honey money comes to mind. I’ve not read it but I know the author argues that the rich ladies who lunch are just as powerful as the men they married for their money.

  10. J
    Posted 2011-10-22 at 01:15 | Permalink

    Rachel, I completely agree with that. Where is the line? There is a ‘give and take’ in any relationship. And most of the time there is money involved. I remember a line from a tv show, “Just because you order the lobster, you don’t owe him anything.” I personally would never feel like I owed a man something because he bought me something. But- in my relationship, sometimes I give even when I rather wouldn’t, because it is what makes him happy. And he does the same for me.

    Just like when reading “Sex at Dawn”, realizing that part of the reason monogamy became so prevalent was because men didn’t want to “pay” for other mens’ children. And- in one of the cultures mentioned, where the women were more fluid with their sexual nature, the women were the ones in power. The ‘estates’ were passed down through the women.. So it doesn’t matter as much whose kids they are actually having.

  11. Han
    Posted 2011-10-22 at 09:53 | Permalink

    I noticed that Sugar daddy/sugarbaby is more common in the gay scene as well. I seldom hear of it for a male-female relationship unless it’s actually, well, a real relationship where the two get married and genuinely want more than just a fling.

    This was a great article! I’m not sure what to think. The way the picture was painted here, it made the whole scene look kinda sad for both parties. It also seems a bit of an anachronism considering the amount of opportunities for women these days. More and more women are marrying slightly younger men and women college graduates are making more than their male counterparts. And of course, considering how there are so many single young women these days due to the marriage decline, these guys can get a young gal to date them without having to pay them. Gone are the days of “town talk”…especially in a depersonalized city like NY. Of course, it is still a man’s world in some ways, but parties such as these seem kind of out of place, almost like it’s out of an art deco film from the 1970s. From reading the counterpart article to this, I got the feeling that a lot of the guests at this party, like you, are partially just to the party to see what going to one is like.

  12. Posted 2011-10-22 at 11:00 | Permalink

    Han, the party was indeed very strange. I like that you said “almost out of an art deco film from the 70′s” this seems on. I would say most people were there to work the party, but there were a lot of people there just “trying their luck” who had maybe signed up for the site but hadn’t really used it. The vibe of the party was what was so strange, there was a lot of acting, a lot of illusion, and at times it looked totally glamorous and other wordly.

    As far as a sad picture painted, I think maybe that’s the nature of the meat market party rather then the relationships themselves. I walked away from this totally respecting the sugar babies and feeling like they were smart women. How I feel towards the men though, is a little more complex… Anyone else have thoughts on the men?

  13. Posted 2011-10-22 at 11:24 | Permalink

    I think Han touched on why there are more sugar/baby relationships in gay culture – till recently gay men were less known for settling down and getting married than straights well they still are less monogamous than straights on the whole. SO the economic side of gay relationships is not hidden behind e.g. marriage.

    also gay culture has been more open about ‘power’ in relationships e.g. ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ ‘daddy’ and ‘twink’ etc…

  14. BK
    Posted 2011-10-22 at 17:46 | Permalink

    I only have one experience with a sugar daddy/sugar baby relationship. I knew this girl in college who lived a couple doors down from me in our dorm (we had men and women living right next to each other…pretty progressive), and she met a guy while working at Hooters. He lived in Chicago, which was a couple hours south of us, and he came up everyday to take her shopping in Madison or Milwaukee. She claims she never touched him. He bought her breast implants. He bought her tons of clothes. He bought her an expensive laser teeth-whitening procedure. He bought her a Jeep. And when he finally admitted to having feelings for her, she ran away. And he apologized, and she accepted his apology because it came with more money and expensive things.

    They were both damaged. I agree with Tatiana that these men do this for some sort of therapy. I’m sure you could make the point that many men prefer it this way, but I’d like to know if these men would still pay these women to hang out with them if they could just get it for free. I have nothing against sex work, but I would much rather fuck a woman who wants to have sex with me than one I pay to. I think these are men who never got laid in high school and could barely talk to a woman in college without her pulling out her rape whistle. These are men like me, which is why I think I know them so well. They graduated and made a lot of money and realized they could get the women who turned them down in high school and college. They can now get the women that everyone else wants. It’s like renting a nice car to go to a high school reunion. You want to show everyone how much better you are, and they should all feel like assholes for treating you badly. I know exactly what these men are feeling; I know exactly what it feels like to want to get revenge. However, I think more than the normal person, and I believe I have a better understanding of life, so you’ll never see me throwing money at women for attention.

    And my friend who took this guy’s money was just as fucked up as he was. All these girls are fucked up. If you’re glad something like this exists, and you think these women are smart, then I disagree with your opinion, Rachel. Personally, I think it reflects very poorly on our society. It makes our society look extremely materialistic, and I think it’s sad that these girls are willing to do whatever with a guy they probably don’t find attractive just to get money. I think it shows a lack of worth, and it’s things like this that make me glad I can’t get women because I wouldn’t want to be with someone like that. And I think a lot of women of my generation are like that. It really makes me sad. The goal of these girls is to have the most amount of money and the least amount of work to get the money. It’s not intelligence that leads a girl to be with a man for money. It’s ignorance of life’s real value.

    This is all so ridiculously shallow. I really don’t like people.

  15. Posted 2011-10-22 at 18:28 | Permalink

    BK, I respect sugar babies the same way I respect strippers, or any other sex worker. I do think this is sex work, as I said before, and understanding that is what changed my mind about the whole thing. Sex work (especially on a street level or in the strip club) works by hustling, and this is no different– of course you want the most money for the least work possible, that is the name of the gig here. And I think anyone who can work a hustle like that has some smarts.

    And for the record, the girls at this party were not rich daddies girls looking for play money. There was a class-clash, for sure. I met a lot of women who had just moved to the US from Eastern Europe, places in Latin America, the Carribean. I will also say that outside of a strip club, I’d never seen so many older white men perusing young black women– or vice versa. I met a lot of women who didn’t go to college, were who needed to pay their rent. In other words, they were money hungry because they needed to pay bills, not pay for Louboutins–though surely the bills AND the loubs are a popular goal.

    I am curious if you feel any different about the situation when you think about gay sugar culture? (Which others have pointed out has a long and rich history.)

    In the case of your friend, I agree it is fucked up because it seems like there was some dishonesty. I don’t disrespect sex workers who use manipulative tactics to get the money they need when they are in situations like street level work, etc– this is just their reality. But certainly consent should be key. And one can consent to illusion! Especially in the case of sites like seeking arrangement, where everyone does know what they are getting into.

    As for the men, I think you paint a very real picture of why someone might hire a sex worker for their services, but I do know from interviewing dozens of “johns” that there are a myriad of reasons one might buy time with a sex worker, ranging from debilitating shyness to physical disability to loneliness to sheer getting off on “buying sex”. While I admit I have a hard time figuring out these men’s motivations, if we are looking at it as sex work, I suppose it is not all that different from what I already know to be true. Except they like being thought of as rich “sugar daddies”.

  16. BK
    Posted 2011-10-24 at 11:59 | Permalink

    MTV has a documentary show called True Life, and they ran an episode with sugar babies. I believe there were two women and one man who were trying to be sugar babies. The sugar babies on the show had a lazy attitude. The women didn’t want to touch their sugar daddies and couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just give up his money for free. The man didn’t want to have to take his sugar mama out on dates just to be able to live the workless lifestyle he wanted. Sugar babies know it’s their looks that get them money. And sugar daddies know it’s their money that gets them attention. The attitude of “Hey, I’m good-looking; give me money” is very reflective of our society. We place a tremendous amount of importance on looks and money. These are what we value. But I don’t respect anyone who makes more than a teacher because she’s pretty and uses her looks as a commodity.

    The difference between sex workers and the sugar babies I saw on True Life and the one I knew in real life is sex workers are willing to work for money. Sugar babies want it handed to them. Sure, they’ll do some work if they can’t see a way around it, but they’ll do what they can to get the money with the smallest amount of effort on their part. I understand we all have choices to make, and it’s fine if someone chooses to be a sugar baby or sugar daddy, but I don’t support it nor do I think it takes extra intelligence to be able to do this. All it takes for a sugar daddy is a large inheritance, and all it takes for a sugar baby is tight clothes and knowing how to apply make-up. The feeling that they deserve it was given to them by society.

    I think what sugar daddies pay for is exclusivity, which is different from other sex work. There’s this idea in the relationship that there is one sugar daddy per sugar baby. He’s the one taking care of her, and she doesn’t need anyone else, so she isn’t with anyone else. I doubt it actually works like that, but in other sex work there is definitely the understanding that you’re not the only one that sex worker is seeing. So, I think there’s something behind why a man would want exclusivity from his sugar baby and be willing to pay extra for it. There’s something fragile and almost desperate about these men. I don’t think they’re all wounded, but it’d be interesting to do a psychological study of some sugar daddies.

    I think gay sugar culture isn’t much different. I think we may look at it differently because our traditional gender roles are man takes care of woman, and there isn’t a woman in this scenario (unless we’re talking about gay women, which I didn’t think we were.) I think sugar babies have to feel as though they deserve the money. And I believe it’s definitely young women who seem to believe they are the most deserving people. I know that’s controversial, but I believe many young women today think a man’s gender role is to make a woman happy. If a man and a woman start the same job at the same time at the same place, they make the same amount of money. Women are legally equal with men. However, women still believe a man should ask them out on a date, make the date, call, pay, walk on the side of the sidewalk closest to the street, hold open doors, pull out chairs, etc. Not all women think this, but I believe a lot of them think it’s the way it’s supposed to be. And I think these social roles combined with how we tell our young girls how beautiful they are and dress them up in princess costumes turns our young women into crazy people. While our young men are told we must make it ourselves. Nobody is going to hand us anything, and most of us are certainly very unattractive. So, I think when a young gay man enters into a sugar baby role, he’s going against his own traditional gender role of being the provider, which makes people feel weird about it. And QRG touched on how the gay community is more open about their different roles, which is something the mainstream heterosexual community doesn’t like to talk about. In gay culture, there’s more of a choice as to your role, but heterosexual culture gives you your role. These are the major differences.

  17. Harold
    Posted 2011-10-25 at 08:16 | Permalink

    BK, do you have a blog or something?

    Just throwing that out there, thanks.

  18. Posted 2011-10-25 at 09:43 | Permalink

    Seconded, I always like BK’s comments.

    Also, BK curious what you think about the role reversal in the cougar/cub phenomenon because it can be very similar. I do know some self-described cougars who will foot bills for their young lovers.

    There is also a sometimes commenter here, Xakudo who sort of identifies as a cub, or at least has pretty solely dated older women. Though I am not sure that he has done it for money, as he describes dating older women who actually found him attractive as doing wonders for his self esteem.

  19. Posted 2011-10-26 at 15:34 | Permalink

    BK said:
    ‘In gay culture, there’s more of a choice as to your role, but heterosexual culture gives you your role. ‘

    I am not sure if that is entirely true. I know what you mean, in hetero culture traditionally the idea is the man is dominant the woman is submissive, at least sexually. Though that is changing now.

    But I have heard gay men talking about being pushed into roles of top or bottom. And men who identify as ‘versatile’ are often treated as really being ‘bottoms’.

  20. Tom
    Posted 2011-10-26 at 16:41 | Permalink

    To give my point of view just up front: Although I cannot agree with this kind of – lets call it – lifestyle, I find it all so interessting!

    I’m not the first to say: The problem of todays society is to want everything right now – or to use businessterms: ASAP! And don’t get me wrong: I’m often enough a victim of this behaviour myself, not willing to wait, not growing a custome to anticipating satisfaction.
    Out of this phenomenon two directions emerged:

    - the so called “Pick Up Artists”, developing skills to work around the system
    - and “sugar daddies”, easily cashing out the system

    Although I find myself in a bit of a dilemma, since I already toke a good look into the first direction – not to mention the miles I walked this way – causing me to question my opinion, I really think things are changing whenever money is finding its way into relationships.
    In retrospective fast relationships or even just fast intercourse can be pretty impassionate as well being comfortable and for those who want that – delivere nice stories to tell to your buddies afterwards – but the one part that is devinitly missing is the intimacy! Leaving me with the question: Are those people really that much afraid of this aspect?

    So summaricing the quintessence I view in those parties: It seems to be a more modern, socially more accepted way of prostitution, which I would not decline in general – altough its nothing for myself – but which is emerging to a different dimmension if taken as a way of life, a ideology!

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