Feb. 13, 2013 - Issue #904: The Sugar Trade
The sugar trade
Edmonton students see being a sugar baby as an easy way to make some cash
'From all over the world guys are messaging you. Some guys would just be like, 'Yeah, I just want to have sex with you and I'll give you an allowance for each month and it will be thousands of dollars.' But I'm just not into that so I'm like, 'No. Next,'" says 21-year-old sugar baby Mikayla (she asked that her name be changed for this article.) "Some of them want you to be their mistress if they're married and they would just fly you to wherever they live." These horny, high-rollin' guys are the sugar daddies Mikayla has met on the controversial dating website seekingarrangement.com.
"My friend told me about it last year and we were like, 'Oh yeah, we'll try it out because we're so sick of guys our age. They have no money or anything.' And we were kind of broke so we both signed up," says the fourth-year U of A psychology student.
"We always meet up for dinner, so of course dinner's on them and I always get to choose where to go. I went to Ruth's Chris with one of them, or the Chop or whatever," Mikayla says. "One guy that I went to dinner with was in his 60s and he thought he was so cool, but I had to read the menu for him because he couldn't even read it properly. And later he was talking about hooking up and I don't understand how he thinks that if he can't even see I'm going to hook up with this old guy."
Some have compared the website to young women and men prostituting themselves for dinners, shopping trips and vacations. Daddies and mommas state in their profile how much they're willing to spend on a baby each month in return for companionship and babies state whether or not they require a monthly allowance. Mikayla welcomes trips to the mall in place of a monthly allowance.
"Our second date is usually a shopping spree. For example, I met one guy at the Earl's on campus last Thursday and then that night we went to West Edmonton Mall and he spent $1600 on me just in one shopping spree. And we went to all my stores—he never even stopped me—I just felt bad after a while so I stopped myself. One guy paid for my hair appointment, my nails. Basically they just take care of you."
The U of A ranked fifth on Seeking Arrangement's top-20 list of Canadian universities that babies attend (125 sugar babies signed up from the U of A in 2012). But Seeking Arrangement's public relations manager Jennifer Gwynn says they don't target university and college students, despite the fact that students can upgrade to the premier membership for free.
"We didn't recruit anybody. We don't target anybody. I actually don't like that word because it seems like we're preying on somebody when, really, that's just the trend we noticed on our website," Gwynn says about the high number of post-secondary students now accessing the site. "The sugar-daddy idea is not a new idea. It's kind of an urban legend, a myth that people hear about. They think about Mr Big from Sex and the City and Christian Grey (from Fifty Shades of Grey) and they don't think that it's a real thing. And then they talk to people who are in this lifestyle and they realize that this actually does exist and they search Google for the website and they find us or they see us on TV or in a college newspaper."
Eighteen-year-old Georgia heard about the site on an episode of Dr Phil when he was talking to sugar babies and Seeking Arrangement's CEO Brandon Wade. She didn't take the doctor's advice—he condemed the practice—but instead signed up for the site in late December. The U of A freshman says she's now dating a 30-something-year-old engineer, but doesn't know or even care if he's seeing other girls.
"After I met him for the first time he actually deleted his account and I see him about once every two weeks, depending on how much time we both have. For the most part we just go out for dinner dates and that kind of thing."
Georgia went on a date with one other daddy but rejected him when he suggested a once-a-week hookup. So far she's only met for dates in public places. "It's going to take time before I'm willing to [go back to a daddy's place.] I completely have to be the one to initiate [physical contact] and I have to be the one to want it because otherwise it's not going to feel appropriate at all. ... I get the vibe that a lot of people in university get it as a way of getting tuition paid for and for me it's more of a fun thing. I'd rather just go out and have someone buy me dinner and buy me gifts. I don't ask for an allowance. It's not like that for me. It seems like a lot of other people use it for more necessity than I do."
All of Georgia's friends know what she's up to, but she hasn't told her family. "I feel like they might be a bit freaked out. It's nothing creepy or anything like that, I just feel like they would find it strange that I'm dating someone in their 30s."
Mikayla's friends know about the men she sees, too—a lot of them are also using the site—but her parents only know that she goes for dinners and chats online with older men.
"My dad thinks it's so funny," she says. "He's like, 'These guys are so stupid. Why would they waste money without even meeting you?'"
Mikayla admits she doesn't tell her parents what else she does for a few hundred dollars. "Sometimes I'll even just send pictures of myself and they'll send me money by email transfer so I don't even have to meet up with the guys and I get money sent to my account. I'll just do lingerie ones, no nudes. And I cut out my face so no one will even know [it's me]."
Not everyone is quite as nonchalant about the benefits of the service. Detective Dave Schening with Edmonton Police Service's Vice Section draws parallels between this sort of relationship and the way women are often treated by the men they service as prostitutes and escorts. He says prostitution is the most dangerous profession there is and this site is not that far off.
"There's so many ideas that these guys will have and they expect the girl to carry them out. They're the piece of meat. They're the commodity and 'I'll do with you as I please because you're mine,' for whatever time slot they have and how much they've agreed to pay."
But Gwynn is adamant that Seeking Arrangement is not an escort service at all. She says it's a dating site like any other and the almost one percent of Canadians using the site—330 000 babies, daddies and mommas—are not their responsibility to check in on.
"If you're a prostitute or an escort, you're conducting a transaction. You're not selective of who you're sleeping with," Gwynn says. "In our website, this is a relationship. People join up like any other website. They look for a relationship, but it just happens to have a financial component involved. They're completely different. One's a job, one's a lifestyle."
Gwynn says the relationships arranged on Seeking Arrangement are not ironclad contracts and to the contrary, are more traditional. "For a lot of them, there's an allowance involved and the average allowance is about $3000 per month for sugar babies. In regards of expectations, most of the relationships resemble any other type of boyfriend-girlfriend relationship; sex is not a requirement. In other relationships I'm sure the men aspire to sleep with the women, but it's definitely not an expectation or requirement by any means. If there's a connection, if there's chemistry, then it definitely will go down that road, but it's not something that's required."
By City of Edmonton standards, at least, the "traditional" relationships sound a lot like an escorting service.
"These ads in themselves are not illegal. They're just chatting about companionship. 'Give me some money and I'll hang out with you.' The City of Edmonton licences escorts. At face value escorts are when one person sells her time to be company," Schening says about the profiles on Seeking Arrangement and the ads they place. "I think these girls are making uneducated, uninformed, naïve decisions. They think, 'All I have to do is hang out with this guy, maybe service him once in a while, and make some money.' They're not realizing the fallout and the dangers. The risks outweigh the profits in my opinion."
But the profit is hard to resist for Mikayla, who is considering leaving the country to meet one of her daddies.
"I just had a guy messaging me from New York and he wants to fly me down there whenever I can come," she says. "I said, 'Yeah, maybe next weekend. But I want to bring a friend so that I feel more comfortable.' And he's going to fly her down too."
Mikayla adds that she's not nervous about it like she was when he first suggested it, because her friend will be with her. She wants to have fun with this money while she can.
"Right now I have a student loan so I won't be worrying about paying it back until I graduate, so probably [won't use any money for tuition] because otherwise I'd have to save and I'm just using it for shopping or clothes and I'm also going on a vacation for spring break, so this guy sent me money for that," Mikayla says. "I love the way I'm getting treated now. They'll even open up the door for me. They treat me like a princess. I love it. It's so different from my real relationships in the past."
Georgia's having fun with her money too, but says she would never fly out of the country to meet a daddy. "I don't use it out of need, I use it out of want. The minute that I don't feel comfortable I'll just end it."
U of A campus club Power To Change's leadership were uneasy when they heard that local students were becoming sugar babies to pay for their education. The club has placed ads in the student newspaper to invite students to a Facebook forum about the subject.
"It's mostly to get people talking. We're not doing it to end this happening on campus, but moreso to talk about it, see what people think, and our hope at the end of it is that through this there may be some people examining their own lives, their own sense of where do they get their purpose and their meaning in their life," says Melanie Dreger, one of the Christian group's advisors. "The discussion is just a healthy thing to get different points-of-view interacting with each other. I think no matter what kind of upbringing you've come from, or what kind of world view you've come from, it's always good to question it."
There are other ways students are paying for their education that EPS Staff Sergeant in the Serious Crimes Branch Jerry Nash has noticed at the 40-plus body rub centres in the city.
"When we do our licence checks with our partners from the City of Edmonton, different body rub centres, there are at times workers that are working at these locations that are registered students and we talk about what they're doing, how they're doing. Our bias is to persuade them to maybe find another line of work."
Nash and Schening don't consider body rub centres as safe employment. "Whether it's exotic dancing or stripping—whatever you want to call it—or it's escorting or it's body rub centres, or it's prostitution-related activities, is usually the woman—if it's a woman, the male if it's a male or transgendered—they're the commodity. We'll be quite candid—at times people will be working for themselves and they're making money for themselves. That's the vast minority, it's not the majority. The majority of times it's some level of sexual exploitation."
But the girls don't think they're being exploited. "The guys that I usually meet up with don't say that they're into the sex or anything," Mikayla says. "They're moreso looking for a companion to go out for dinner dates with or the movies or just fun activities. And a lot of these guys work out of town and will come back maybe twice a month on the weekends. So they don't really know lots of people in the city so they just want a new friend or whatever. My friends always know where I'm going and with who. I always meet up with them in a public place. I'll never go back to their own house or a hotel with them even if they want to. I'll be like, 'Nope, I want to be in a public place.' So I think I'm pretty safe that way. And I always drive and I meet them there, I never let them pick me up. I try to do it in a smart, safe way and I tell them that I'm not down to just hook up and stuff like that. I want to be more of a companion."
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