It is 12:30pm, and a 23-year old French woman who asked to be called Agathe is getting ready to leave her rather messy, 200 square-foot apartment. She shaved her legs in the bath earlier, and is now drying her straight brown hair. Agathe is not getting ready to meet her boyfriend. At 1pm, she has a lunch date with a potential sugar daddy in his forties.
Agatha, who requested VICE News not use her real name in order to protect her identity, moved to Paris from the south of France a year ago to study to become a paramedic. Her school costs 9,000 euros ($10,145) a year. So when her bank loan ran out back in October, Agathe signed up to SeekingArrangement, a dating site founded by MIT graduate and billionaire entrepreneur Brandon Wade.
Described as a platform where "Beautiful, successful people [can] fuel mutually beneficial relationships," the site launched in France two years ago, and soon boasted 40,000 new French female recruits. The site acts as an intermediary between sugar babies — usually young, female students who need extra income — with sugar daddies, older men looking for company.
But while the arrangement may seem simple enough, critics say that sites like SeekingArrangement are encouraging a new form of prostitution, where sex is neither compulsory nor tariffed, but implicitly rewarded. According to France's newly approved anti-prostitution law, Internet service providers are required to monitor content and flag "fraudulent" sites to the authorities. However, sites like SeekingArrangement have always denied encouraging or facilitating prostitution, and have so far stayed on the right side of the law.
French Green Party Deputy Sergio Coronado, one of the people who helped draft the new legislation, said that the section relating to Internet prostitution "wouldn't change anything." You can't lift the anonymity on private conversations," he said, adding that he wasn't sure how to effectively combat such sites.
Critics have also argued that the new law — which goes after johns, not sex workers — will encourage clients to use sites like SeekingArrangement or sugardaddy.fr, to stay off the streets and away from cops.
SeekingArrangement has 2.7 million users worldwide. For some of its users, sleeping with a sugar daddy to help fund their studies is as normal as getting a match on Tinder. But SeekingArrangement denies being a prostitution service, and a disclaimer on its website seeks to remind users that, "An arrangement is not an escort service." The company also stipulates that it "in no way, shape or form supports escorts or prostitutes using our website for personal gain."
"Sleeping with someone for money has been a fantasy of mine since high school," said Agathe, lighting up a Lucky Strike. "I figured I needed around 800 euros ($900) a month. I make around 500 euros ($560) seeing seven to eight guys a month, but I'd like to find a long-term sugar daddy, so I can keep just one."
Agathe explained that she doesn't have expensive taste, but that she does love shopping. Shoes are piled up in a corner of the room, and the table has long disappeared under her impressive cosmetics collection.
There is a lot at stake in this lunch date, which is more like a business lunch. "We met once for a drink, but the guy wants us to get to know each other, because he's looking for a real relationship," says Agathe. "He says he wants a girl who's in love, and he wants to pay for her rent and studies. I hope he likes me." The man in question is 20 years her senior.
Agathe slips into some blue-grey lingerie. She decides it looks wrong — the straps are visible under her sleeveless dress. "It doesn't look good, and I can't find my grey stockings," she says, rummaging through her drawers. She trades it for a lacy black ensemble she says will match her stockings. She lays out her beauty products on the sofa bed and applies her makeup. Since she's running late, she decides to call a car.
Before slamming the door shut, she chews on a clove — "better than chewing-gum" — slips on a pair of royal blue pumps, and throws some wet wipes into a purse. Downstairs, the Uber is waiting.
Agathe hasn't informed her parents about the new gig, but she has told some of her friends.
"Whenever I'm meeting someone, there's always somebody who knows where I am," she explains. Agathe tells us that she's always had a penchant for one-night stands with strangers. "I went from being a slut to a whore," she jokes.
"Yes, it is prostitution — but luxury prostitution," she explains. The difference between her and a streetwalker? "I can choose guys according to their profile. I only pick those who post a picture of themselves," she says. "Once, a guy tried to piss in my mouth for 3,000 euros ($3,380). Even for a million, I wouldn't have done it."
On SeekingArrangement, Agathe uses an alias. Beneath her profile — which describes her height, measurements, hair and eye color — Agathe has included a quote: "Women… False, jealous, imperious, coquettish or devoted… The husbands, perfidious, inconsistent, cruel or despotic, there you have, summed up, all the individuals on earth." Signed: the Marquis de Sade.
In order to research this article, VICE News signed up to SeekingArrangement as a sugar baby. Requests for dates soon started pouring in. We then set up a "date" with a 54-year-old banker, at a café on the Champs-Élysées, and informed him that he would meeting with journalists. He agreed to speak with us on the condition that we did not use his name.
"I take complete responsibility for what I am doing," said the man, picking a table away from the busy street and other customers. The man spoke in hushed tones, almost shielding his face from view with his hand. On his finger, a wedding ring. On his profile, the man described himself as "5.7 for 14 stone, the years have been kind to me. People don't run away when they see me." In front of us is a short, balding, heavy-set man in a suede jacket, with three-day stubble creeping up his jowls.
Unlike other sugar daddies, who play the role of the good Samaritan to expiate their guilt, this one does not sugar-coat his activities. "It would be indecent to say that I do it to pay for their studies," he told us. "I do it to spice up my sex life, because I'm not satisfied at home. In fact, I'm not looking for long-term relationships — just one-night stands."
We ask him why he picked SeekingArrangement over a more traditional website offering the services of sex workers. He explained that he had started out on a site called Wannonce, a classified ads site with an adult section.
"Professional prostitutes are too mechanical, there's no exchange, no communication, and the girls experience no pleasure. Sometimes I'd meet them and not even want to go any further," he said. "I'm looking for someone who chose this, who likes this. I don't ask for anything eccentric, just french kissing."
He takes a gulp from his coffee and explains that, on a site like SeekingArrangement, his "satisfaction rate is higher." The girls that make his satisfaction rate soar are those who pass the test of the first meeting. "Some girls want to go straight to the bedroom," he says, adding that he prefers to break the ice over a drink. "To see if we're on the same wave length." A mutual attraction — or at least the illusion of a mutual attraction — is part of the deal.
He explains that he doesn't want the girls to feel like they owe him anything. "I want us to be on the same level, for it to be pleasurable for her, too. Everyone is free to do as they please." Nevertheless, he concedes that, "from a Judeo-Christian point of view, it still compares to prostitution."
The man tells us that he will frequently pay up to 250 euros ($280) for two hours of "pleasure," often at a fancy hotel in the capital. On top of the money that goes to the girl, he spends around 40 euros ($45) a month on his membership. Some sugar daddies pay more for their membership, for more services.
Before, he says, he sometimes got stood up after pre-paying for a hotel room. Today he uses Dayuse, a site that allows individuals to book rooms for short periods of time, and lets clients pay on checkout. The rooms are rented for a minimum of two hours and up to a night.
The man admits that he has no intention of giving up being a sugar daddy just yet. This month, he has already met up with eight girls. He is worried that, "The guy who hosts SeekingArrangement will be charged with pimping." But he remains philosophical. "If the site is shut down, another one will pop up. Escorts have always been around — they just became democratized."
That night, Agathe, the student searching for a sugar daddy, arrived home around 11pm. The lunch dragged on until 3:30pm, at which point she followed the sugar daddy back to his apartment.
"But in fact, we didn't fuck until 8:30pm," she tells us. The man is interested in becoming her long-term sugar daddy, and has said he will pay for her rent and Internet connection. "He offered to have me sign a fake contract with his real estate agency, so that he could wire me money."
For now, sites like SeekingArrangement and Sugardaddy.fr exist in a bit of a legal grey area. In April 2014, French anti-pimping group ECAP (Équipes d'Action Contre le Proxénétisme) filed a complaint against Sugardaddy.fr, accusing the site of acting as a pimp.
"These sites are illegal because they put clients in touch with individuals who provide sexual services," says Paris-based attorney Henri de Beauregard.
The sites' insistence that they do not encourage prostitution is, to him, hypocritical.
"It's like a pimp who organizes a meeting between a prostitute and a client and then says, 'I don't know what they do in the bedroom'," he said.
In the case of Sugardaddy.fr, the prosecutor eventually dismissed the complaint.
"Young women looking for a rich old man to make ends meet is not a new phenomenon," said de Beauregard. "What is new is that this concept has been institutionalized by dating sites. People are making a profit from it and that's the problem."
"In a way, these sites exploit hardship: Financial hardship, emotional hardship… But in no way is it about pleasure," he concluded.
Agathe closed the front door, and removed her heels. For her, regular help from a sugar daddy is akin to a full-time work contract. She flops down onto her foldout couch, and smiles, relieved. "Since I started doing this, I'm much more confident. Now I know I'm hot."
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