Tuesday, Mar 6, 2012 4:59 AM UTC

The Sugar Daddy recession

The economic downturn has forced some women into arrangements with unsavory men, and made desperation into a fetish

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 (Credit: Victoria Andreas via Shutterstock)

In the loneliest corner of the internet, a man named Rian is offering a “monthly allowance” for a “sweet and caring [girl] who appreciates all I do for her.” He’s in his 30s, works in IT and earns good money — so how about $1,000 dollars a month if the sex works out?

He’s not looking for a “professional.” Liam wants to pay for “cuddles” and “fun” from a “hard-up” student. Call it what you like — an arrangement, a delicate excuse for sex work or modern love at its most upfront — there are hundreds of thousands of men all over the world looking for it, and as the job market explodes, more and more women are desperate enough to take them up on it. The women call themselves sugar babies; men like Rian are known as sugar daddies.

For me, it all started with an innocent bit of apartment hunting. Scrolling through online listings for only slightly bedbug-infested sublets in the Bronx last year, I noticed several offers of free room and board “for the right girl.” Wealthy, professional middle-aged men — or people pretending to be wealthy middle-aged professionals — were advertising rooms in their houses for “students” or other young women “having difficulty meeting their costs.” In exchange for free rent, an appropriately pretty and poor girl would need to offer sex, affection — and perhaps a little housework.

In the investigative spirit, I decided to reply to some of these “sugar daddies.” Using a dummy email address and the handle gigglesandsparkles86, I pretended to be a hard-up student, and painted a broad-brushstroke picture of a naive, bookish, ingenue, the sort of girl who likes kittens and bubbles and walks in the rain — and exists mostly in the imaginations of lonely men on the Internet or Zooey Deschanel sitcoms. I kept the details brief — “Amy” was 25, like me, a literature student finding it hard to make ends meet, and interested in more details about the arrangement. I had her respond to every ‘”sugar daddy” ad on Craigslist New York and Craigslist London on three separate days. When necessary, I sent a picture loaned by one of my prettiest and furthest-away friends, explicitly asking her for a shot in which all trace of human complexity would be hidden behind hair and sunglasses. It took approximately three minutes for the emails to start flooding in.

Amy was a hit. Some of her suitors were rather brusque: “400 for oral, tonight.” Others bordered on the downright rude — “your tits aren’t to my taste.” A few were likely to be pimps on the hunt for vulnerable new meat, according to several sex workers I contacted. Many, however, played the gentleman — at least at first. “She should be able to share fun times and expect to be treated like the lady she should be,” specified Gregory from New Jersey.

A quick Internet search revealed that Gregory, an overweight man in his 60s, has been posting plaintive little messages like this on dating websites over the past eight years. His fantasy, as with many of those who replied to Amy, seemed to be as much about cartoonish male protectionism as it was about dominance. It’s a modern vision of the bold knight rescuing the helpless damsel, with a black Amex card instead of a white charger. “Older financially secure white gentleman seeks to sponsor a young co-ed,” wrote Gregory. “I’m looking for my princess to take care of.”

Frantic ads like this did not begin with the global downturn, nor with the Internet. You can find them in the back pages of newspapers, scrawled on toilet walls, probably even etched on stones flung into rivers by anguished Romans centuries before Christ was born. The Internet has made the process less furtive, formalizing it within the antiseptic human catalog of online dating. And the current crisis of capitalism is altering gender and sexual relations further, not only by obliging more poor men and women to sell sex to survive, but by bringing financial desperation into our most intimate socio-erotic fantasies.

The sweaty underbelly of the human psyche often mimics the anxieties of the age. We don’t need Freud to tell us that proscription eroticizes the social desires that are deemed unacceptable in polite society, whatever that polite society is. Politicians roll out of bed with nubile individuals to whom they are not married and still preach family values. Husbands and boyfriends who would never raise a hand to their partners masturbate to online videos of anonymous women being throttled and raped with champagne bottles. Peace activists dress up as soldiers and police officers to beat willing participants with fake rubber truncheons. What does it say about the world we live in when desperation itself has become a fetish?

Desperation is the great unspoken truth of modern life. It does not do to admit to poverty, to panic, to being needy enough to submit to being exploited by another human being — particularly in America, where everyone is supposed to be go-getting and independent, whatever the economic realities of our lives. Our darkest social secrets often crop up in collective sexual fantasy before they ooze into public consciousness. “Casting Couch,” for example, is a long-running pornographic meme whereby young women who need money pretend to be other young women who need the money, role-playing poor college grads and modeling hopefuls who will “do anything” for the cash, including have dirty sex on camera. In these clips, watched by hundreds of millions of sticky-fingered cyberspace surfers, the story is always the same: The woman sits on the “casting couch,” and the “casting director” persuades her to perform successively exhausting sexual gymnastics in exchange for money or a job — which at the end, is never forthcoming.

The same story seemed to be working for the ‘”sugar daddy” wannabes that I spoke to online: The idea of having a financial hold over another creature has become a fantasy on its own merit. The key to that fantasy is the idea that the young people willing to offer their physical and personal affections in exchange for hard cash are not “pros” or professional sex workers — they are “ordinary.” Students and single mothers were particularly in demand, as women who were assumed by definition to be financially abject.

The fantasy of the hard-up student or struggling single mom, of course, is hard reality for many people. There is no shortage of desperate students and lone parents out there, and the trend of students in particular turning to sex work to fund their college and university fees has been well-publicized over the past few years.

“We have seen the number increase,” says Brandon Wade, the CEO of SeekingArrangement.com, the world’s No. 1 site for sugar daddy hookups. Since the global economy began to circle the drain in 2008, SeekingArrangement has seen its membership triple to over a million — and two-fifths of prospective sugar babies are students. “Students used to be 25 percent of all sugar baby signups in 2006,” says Wade, who is clinically dispassionate when we speak, like many of the sugar daddies themselves. Single mothers are the second biggest demographic, while those offering money for sex and affection are largely white collar workers — those who emailed Amy were disproportionately employed in the computer services industries. Wade claims that SeekingArrangement.com has two members of the Forbes top-10 richest Americans on its list, although he will not say which ones.

What about sugar mommies? Wade says that only a tiny fraction of his “generous” clientele are female –  in fact, the sugar daddy dynamic seems to be almost exclusively a heterosexual fantasy of male dominance, at least as it is played out online. Both on the “official” websites and on Craigslist, there are few women looking for sugar babies, and few men looking to buy a young boyfriend. One thing that crops up time and again, however, is these men’s desire to be considered “normal” — where ‘normal’ means not the kind of guys who’d buy sex. Or at least, not just sex. As I scrolled through more and more offers of cash for sloppy fellatio and walks in the rain, it became clear that some of these men were looking to pay thousands of dollars a month for something approaching love. It was love, at least, as far as the concept is understood by the sort of movies and magazines that treat women as projects rather than people. Could this, then, be love-work?

Sunil, in his 40s, proposes that “we would meet once or so a week, for lunch or dinner or just a drink, followed by some clean adult fun. I not into dressing or bondage, just normal clean (sic).” Rian, meanwhile, is definitely “not interested in a professional -looking for a normal girl…would love to buy you little presents and watch movies together,” he says — before asking for a detailed description of Amy’s physical measurements.

Professional sex workers who offer “the girlfriend experience” recognize the anxiety not to see the sugar daddy transaction as prostitution, and the feeling that additional kisses and cuddles lessen the social stigma of purchasing intimacy. “Molly,” 26, who asked not to give her real name, says “It can feel better like that. Obviously there’s a lot of stigma around this kind of work, and you feel it, too, when you’re doing it. But in real life, I wouldn’t ever want a boyfriend or partner who paid.”

Thierry Schaffauser, a sex worker and trade union activist, told me that the sugar daddy arrangement should be considered sex work, but that due to the stigma against prostitution, “it’s maybe easier for both the sex workers and the clients to find other ways to describe their relationship. I have had some clients who felt reassured to know I was a student so they could think they were just “helping” me for my studies,” said Thierry.

“It’s not for me to decide how people want to call themselves and their relationship. The main concern I have is more what kind of relationship is built with the sugar daddy,” he said. “If the clients don’t want to see themselves as clients but more as boyfriends or protectors, they may impose conditions as if they were entitled to something. Hiding the fact that it is work may make the contract less clear and more difficult for the worker to say no.”

If there was ever a time when love wasn’t for sale, it existed before Craigslist met the credit crunch. With enforced austerity refashioning gender relations, human affection, and particularly female affection, is becoming a commodity like any other — and if it could be packaged and sold off in chunks on late-night television, this is how it would be advertised. “If you are stressed out and can use someone to talk to, feel free to reach out,” says Sugar Daddy, 32, East Village. “The right girl will be rewarded.”