Lure of tuition aid, gifts draw college students to 'sugar daddy' sites
“Don't judge me,” the Pittsburgh university student said nervously to a close friend as she prepared to answer a question she had suspected was coming.
After almost dropping out of college because of money problems, the student, 21, suddenly was flush with cash, her tuition and rent bills paid on time, her collection of designer clothes and shoes growing.
“Where do you get all your money?” the friend asked.
To explain, she revealed her other identity: “Jasmine,” a so-called “sugar baby” dating website user who is paid to go out with wealthy older men.
Millions of people in the United States and abroad have joined “sugar daddy” dating sites, which charge male users — and the occasional “sugar mommy” — monthly fees or purchased credits to message attractive younger users seeking money, gifts or access to a financially elite lifestyle.
“It isn't about hourly rates,” said Noel Biderman, CEO of Avid Life Media, which owns ArrangementFinders.com, a site promoting “mutually beneficial relationships,” as well as AshleyMadison.com, a site for those seeking to have affairs. “It is an exchange of intimacy for access to mentorship, someone who can open doors for them.”
A rapidly growing demographic on several pay-for-dating sites is college students, just as student debt tops $1 trillion and tuition keeps climbing.
Among SeekingArrangement.com's fastest-growing sugar baby schools in 2014: University of Texas, Arizona State, New York University, Columbia University, Kent State, Penn State and Temple.
“Attending college means you have a choice: take out loans and eat ramen,” says SeekingArrangement.com's promotional video, featuring cleavage-baring women in pigtails sucking on lollipops. “Or get a sugar daddy and live the life you've always wanted.”
The lure of free financial aid drew Jasmine to join SeekingArrangement.com's “Sugar Baby University.” She's among 1.4 million college students on the site, which claims 3.5 million users worldwide and 22,025 in Pennsylvania. In 2014, sugar babies received “allowances” ranging from $4,587 in Seattle to $5,874 in New York, for an average of about $3,000 a month nationally, the website reports.
“I tell (the men) straight-up — I started this because I don't have the money to pay for college; my parents won't help me pay for anything,” Jasmine told the Tribune-Review. She did not want her real name published for fear of repercussions from her parents, school officials and potential employers.
In her third “arrangement” since the spring, Jasmine says she has not had sex with any of the men, although she's not opposed to a relationship getting to that point. She said she knows plenty of other arrangements get there quickly.
Of 25 to 30 introductory meetings with potential sugar daddies, Jasmine recalls several times feeling like she didn't live up to the man's expectations, “mainly because I wasn't going to have sex with them on the first date.”
“I don't want to be paid for sex,” she said firmly.
‘A business transaction'
The sites reject criticisms that liken their services to prostitution. They say their administrators regularly delete profiles of users seeking explicit exchanges for sex, as well as men flagged by other users for being too aggressive and women using the site to promote their adult webcams.
“It's a problem for the dating industry as a whole,” said A.J. Perkins, chief marketing officer of Arrangement Finders.
This particular type of online niche dating dates to 2002, when former Wall Street commodities trader Steven Asternack started SugarDaddie.com. Its 2 million users include 40,000 in Pennsylvania and 3,400 in Pittsburgh.
Asternack, 50, got the idea when he moved to Miami and came across women having trouble in finding successful men who could afford to take them to fancy restaurants and spoil them with gifts. He said he does not market to college women, although they are on his site.
“Generally, everybody always imagines Anna Nicole Smith with an 80-year-old man in a wheelchair — that's not what this website is about,” Asternack said.
In fact, Asternack said he thinks some marketing approaches by newer sites take the money element too far. Some sites, for example, list what a man is willing to pay monthly or per date and his net worth.
“Once you start negotiating, that's a business transaction,” Asternack said.
‘Looking for love'
WhatsYourPrice.com, billed as a date auction site, has grown to 800,000 members in 203 countries since starting in 2011, the website reports. It has nearly 20,000 Pennsylvania members, including 1,101 “generous males” in Pittsburgh, and 1,376 “attractive females” and 123 “attractive males.” Most users are 25 to 35 years old; 37 percent are in college.
One user, an unmarried, 48-year-old health care salesman from Hershey who uses the pseudonym “Randy,” said he enjoys bidding for dates as a way to cut out the weeks of messaging it took him to arrange a date on more traditional dating websites.
He estimates he spent about $10,000 over the past year on five women.
“I really like the concept that you can meet people from pretty much all over and get to a date pretty quickly,” said Randy, noting he travels for work, including to Pittsburgh.
Randy said he has never offered a woman an allowance, although he has paid an occasional phone or cable bill. He said some relationships evolved to the point he no longer pays for dates. He hopes his connection with a Miami woman becomes a monogamous relationship.
“I really am looking for love,” he said.
ArrangementFinders.com reports it has 3.6 million users worldwide, including more than 45,000 in Pennsylvania and 10,500 in Pittsburgh. Roughly 46 percent of users are college students, and membership in Pittsburgh grew by 20 percent over the past year.
“The women, believe it or not, have so much power in these sorts of arrangements,” Perkins said. “They call the shots of what they want to do and what they don't want to do, and money's only part of it.”
Empowered or exploited?
Critics question the notion that young women are “empowered” while using these sites.
“More often than not, these are highly exploitative arrangements,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, who studies sexual coercion and sex trafficking, and heads the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
Women have been “bought and sold sexually” for centuries, said Mary Burke, director of the doctoral program of counseling psychology at Carlow University. The institutionalizing of such arrangements through sugar daddy websites underscores that women are socialized to please men by using sex appeal, she said.
“We're taught to behave in ways that are feminine and sexy,” Burke said. “We're used to seeing our bodies viewed as commodities.”
During the second half of 2014, Jasmine's willingness to offer arm candy and companionship to two men in their 50s and 60s netted her roughly $14,000 — enough to cover a semester of tuition and housing and have more time to study than she did as a waitress.
The first guy turned out to be married, and the arrangement ended with Jasmine fielding calls from his angry wife.
The second arrangement fell apart when she went home for winter break and the man found a sugar baby willing to do things Jasmine was not.
Jasmine follows a few self-imposed rules, including not exchanging her phone number, address or name through the first few dates.
She starts off by communicating through an extra email address and a random phone number generated by an app. She refuses to get in a man's car or let him pick her up at her place until at least the fourth or fifth date.
Jasmine's third steady sugar daddy is an oil industry man she has been seeing for about a month.
“My current guy, I really do like being with him,” Jasmine said. “We get along great; we have a lot of fun talking.”
He just agreed to give Jasmine a $3,000 monthly allowance — the highest she's gotten.
That's on top of gifts and shopping sprees, such as a recent weekend's impromptu trip to the mall, where he bought her Lucky jeans, Ugg boots and Kate Spade leather gloves.
She's apprehensive about going on a trip with him.
“Here, I feel safe because I can call around and anyone can come get me,” she said, “but like, in Florida? All bets are off at that point.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514.