“I want romance,” the online dating profile begins, with all the sentimentality of a Hallmark card. “I am in search of deep conversation. I’m in search of a great kisser.”
Positioned beside the words are two photos of a 40-something man wearing a white shirt and a newsboy hat who goes by the online handle “Long Term Guy.”
“I WILL NOT GIVE YOU A DEPOSIT BEFORE WE MEET, NOR PER DATE,” the profile goes on to say. “I will pay your bills . . . You appreciate me with your words, affection, time and your gaze.”
These are the first of many overt hints that this has little to do with old-school chivalry.
Posted on the coyly named seekingarrangement.com, the profile belongs to a Toronto man who represents an emerging archetype in the online dating world: the self-styled sugar daddy in search of sugar babies.
Aaron, who asked that his real name not be published for fear of reprisals in his strict Jewish community, has turned to one of dozens of mushrooming websites catering to those who wish to date based on clearly negotiated financial terms.
With their emergence as a cultural phenomenon, “sugar daddy” websites have been characterized by some as a digital age reimagining of the oldest profession.
“I absolutely think this is prostitution,” says Laura Killinger, a professor at the William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law in Virginia and a former prosecutor in Texas. “They have sugar-coated this type of prostitution so that it seems so much more socially acceptable, which is why we’re seeing this kind of growth. But I don’t think it’s dating.”
Aaron calls the sugar daddy dating trend an expression of the stark realities of modern dating and sex.
“I strongly believe that our culture has moved away from traditional values of sex,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of women who believe in the traditional sex for love.”
Sex for money, gifts, trips and clothes, however, seems to be going gangbusters.
Aaron is one of growing number of singles and marrieds alike who have adopted the rules of sugar-dating engagement: generally older, financially secure men pay monthly allowances ($4,800 is the average paid by Toronto sugar daddies, according to seekingarrangment.com) or provide other perks to generally younger, attractive women who agree to date them.
And by date, we mean have sex, according to interviews with eight self-proclaimed sugar daddies and sugar babies with profiles on three different sites that facilitate money-based unions.
“There’s no way I’d date most of the men on these sites if I’d met them in a bar or in the grocery store,” says Maggie, a 26-year-old Natalie Portman doppelganger from Toronto whose social calendar is dominated by two sugar daddies currently in rotation.
“If I’m going to date anyway, it makes sense to spend that time and effort on men who are going to give me something in return.”
She expects at least $3,500 a month plus expenses, dinners and some travel. In return, she says, “I give them what they want — a hot girl to accompany them to events and no-strings-attached sex. I understand the game. They’re men. They want sex. And I want their money.”
It’s not exactly the stuff of Shakespearean love sonnets.
But it has become common vernacular for the growing ranks of dating mercenaries.
Las Vegas-based seekingarrangement.com reported a 240-per-cent increase in member sign-ups during Valentine’s Day week, which coincided with the release of the sultry film Fifty Shades of Grey.
While the film’s characters don’t have a meaningful age difference, the dynamics of male wealth and influence alongside youthful female beauty fit nicely inside the sugar daddy/sugar baby narrative.
Double the number of profiles last week referenced terms such as “Fifty Shades” (40,105) and “Christian Grey” (35,402), the site reported.
Seekingarrangement.com claims to have four million members — three million of them “sugar babies” — including nearly 250,000 in Canada. About 50,000 of those are in Toronto, of which all but 7,000 are women.
Members pay a range of fees, from $70 (U.S.) a month up to $210 a month for a “diamond” membership, which elevates their profiles on the sites and promises to generate “hundreds of messages weekly.”
They can also pay another $50 for a “background screening” conducted by a third-party firm that promises to verify a member’s identity to “increase trust and attract serious members.”
Diamond members must submit tax information to prove their income. All other members self-report their income, including those who submit background checks.
Seekingarrangement.com is part of a burgeoning marketplace matching the typically older and self-identifying wealthy with the young and beautiful.
Witness a sampling of the growing supply and demand: sugardaddyclub.ca, sugardaddie.com, establishedmen.com, meetsuccessfulmen.com, millionairematch.com, sugardaddyfinder.com, mutualarrangements.com, wealthymen.com and dateamillionaire.com.
That growth has triggered the interest of prosecutors and law enforcement across North America.
Still, there’s been no flood of cases in Canadian or American courts involving sugar daddy solicitations — a sign of the difficulty in proving these cases beyond a doubt, she says.
“As a prosecutor, I wanted to take legal action against this activity and we talked about it, but it would take tremendous resources,” law professor Killinger says. “You’d have to have an undercover police officer who would sign up on a website, agree to meet and, at some point, make an agreement to exchange $3,000 a month for sex. That would take so much time and investment for a police officer to make what is generally a misdemeanour case.”
Allegations of prostitution are even being levelled at the sugar baby industry by those who know it best: prostitutes.
This week, a legal Nevada brothel and “sex resort” called Sheri’s Ranch issued a public statement decrying “sugar dating” — and specifically seekingarrangement.com — for promoting an “illegitimate, unregulated sex industry” that can “exploit young women, invite human trafficking and allow for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.”
Brook Urick, the U.S.-based spokesperson for seekingarrangement.com, stresses her site is anything but an online brothel; it is, she says, a meeting place for consenting adults to find mutual benefits that reach beyond sex and money.
“These girls aren’t just looking to wear Christian Louboutin shoes,” says Urick. “They’re doing it smartly and finding someone who can help them advance their lives rather than pull them back, like a college guy would.”
Shae, a 20-year-old Toronto single mother and sugar baby, says that while she accepts about $200 every time she meets with her steady sugar daddy — outings that often include sex — she’s no prostitute.
“I’m not going out meeting these guys and saying, ‘OK, for 30 minutes this is my price. If you want a BJ, this is how much it costs.’ That’s prostitution.”
This, she says, is closer to a friends-with-benefits arrangement.
“Like when you’re in high school or college and you see a guy and like, ‘Oh, I might like you. I don’t want to date you. I just want to have sex with you.’ ”
Experts agree a key driver of sugar baby growth in recent years is economic.
The financial realities for young people — from spiking tuition rates to skyrocketing youth unemployment and unpaid internships — have given birth to the sugar baby bulge, says Emily van der Meulen, an associate professor in the department of criminology at Ryerson University who specializes in sex industry labour organizing.
“It’s not at all surprising that young people, especially young women, are looking to find other ways to make money.”
American psychiatrist and author Dr. Carole Lieberman’s assessment of the dating phenomenon is blunt, and less than kind.
“The girls who list themselves on these websites are gold diggers, and the men are older and insecure,” she told the Star. “Although they convince themselves that the girls really love them for them — and not their money — deep down, they know that their balding head or pot belly is not really attractive, and feel as though they need to pay a girl to be with them.”
Add to that a need to protect themselves from emotional vulnerability, says psychologist, author and international relationship expert Gail Gross.
“Men who seek romantic satisfaction from a financially based dating arrangement are using money to replace intimacy,” she says. “By controlling the purse strings, men step into a fantasy relationship not very different from prostitution.”
Aaron, who is weary of the dead ends he’s hit with women on regular dating sites and those he faces in the real world, says he’s met close to 500 sugar babies in the past four years.
There’s much he likes about searching online for women who meet his unique demands.
Aaron’s “perfect” mate, according to his profile, “loves wearing bold fashions.” He continues: “I LOVE FUR, I love shiny tights, leg warmers, and thigh high boots on a lady.”
He’s purchased some of his dates lingerie and gifts. He’s slept with several.
But while he may appear from his profile to be a high roller, his practical ability to provide financing to prospective sugar babies is another matter.
While he introduced himself to the Star and on seekingarrangement.com as a banking industry executive assistant, he is actually looking for a steady job now while doing paralegal work.
A visit to his north Toronto home revealed a small, spartan apartment littered with boxes, stacks of old newspapers and strewn clothing.
He was managing his online dating profile from his cellphone because his computer needed a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of repairs.
There’s another problem. His pursuit of young beauties continues amid deep inner conflict.
“I’m a religious man. Yes, it goes against my morals and values.”
Last week, a glimmer of hope arrived: he met for coffee with a 25-year-old mother of two from the website.
“It went well,” he says. “I’m hopeful.”
While she was raised Catholic, she told him she’s willing to convert to Judaism. She’s thrown out all the pork products she had at home. She wants to start going to temple.
It’s not a fairy tale, exactly.
“She’s behind on her rent, lonely, probably some self-esteem issues,” says Aaron. “I don’t think she’s ever had real love or respect before.”
“But she’s head over heels.”