On last night's Black Market: Dispatches, host Tania Rashid investigated the "sugar baby" industry, in which young women provide companionship to wealthy men in exchange for financial remuneration. In the episode, Rashid spent some time going undercover as a sugar baby herself, and what follows is an essay in which she recounts her experience in-depth.
I grew up in a traditional household, where my father was the breadwinner and my mother took care of me and my sister. They encouraged us to be fiercely independent and educated and put us through the best schools. Although I didn't do what would make any South Asian parent proud by becoming a doctor or engineer, they were proud to see me make it as an on-camera journalist.
But I failed them by not conforming to their traditional ideas about what a woman should be. I married once, only to get divorced a few years later, and being in my mid 30s with tattoos and short hair didn't help either. To my South Asian family members, I was "expired goods," and my chance to be a good wife with kids had passed. The fact I also had a substantial amount of debt from attending college didn't help either.
So I had nothing to lose by going on camera and seeing what it was really like to be a sugar baby. Sugar babies are usually young women who give their time to sugar daddies in exchange for money. The "daddies" are rich CEO types; the women are usually young, attractive, and looking for adventure. is the biggest sugar baby dating website and claims to feature more than 3 million women—many of them college students or recent graduates trying to pay for their education or pay off debts. The number of people who are actually using the site to go out on dates is anyone's guess, but nonetheless, the site has become a cultural phenomenon, with coverage in , , the , and scores of other media outlets. But I wanted to see for myself how it worked—and how it would feel—to be paid to date.
We traveled to the site's Las Vegas headquarters where its head of marketing, Angela Bermudo, taught me how to make it as a sugar baby. Angela told me I'd need to update my image if I was going to score a sugar daddy, offering classy dresses, heels, and neutral makeup to appease the ideal daddy figure. But the most important thing to have, she explained, was the right attitude. "As a sugar daddy, you set rules in your relationship life—you can't be fat, you can't be jealous if he decides to date other women, you have to talk about specific topics when you see each other," she explained. "This only works if both of you agree to the terms."
I had to learn to take on the role of a well-mannered, submissive woman who could be taken to high-end events—like a trophy. In exchange, she explained, I would get access to the "daddy"'s money and network, in which my career could benefit by being exposed to the "old white bros club." As long as I "wasn't a brat," as one of Angela's colleague's put it, great things could happen!
Angela helped me pick the user name "exoticivyleague," claiming it would help me stand out. I was advised to not mention my divorce, and I refrained from describing myself as complicated, which Angela pointed out would indicate that I carried baggage.
I went to a conference put on by Seeking Arrangement, where scores of potential sugar babies showed up trying to find a way to cash in with daddies. One woman named Sabine told me, "It's mostly because I wanna experience, I wanna travel, and I wanna be able to go to the ballet, and someone around my age, you can't really do that." Sabine's words made sense to me—who doesn't want those things?—but I wanted someone financially stable that I could share a deep connection with. The men at the conference, on the other hand, seemed more like sharks looking for their next feast; two of them offered a couple grand up front to gang-bang me at a nearby hotel.
The experience was unsettling, but I still was open to explore the sugar baby scene, so I set out looking for a "traditional" man who appreciated my efforts. I spent hours looking through the site and went into an imaginary world where I created my dream man. My expectations were modest—someone not still living at his parents' house, a successful businessman or doctor who would respect my independence and intelligence while he held the fort down like a traditional gentleman.
The guys on Seeking Arrangement, however, had interests that were more nontraditional. One of them asked me if I could get my skin darker—"The darker you can get, the better"—so I hung up abruptly. A few weeks later, I spoke to another man on Skype who wanted me specifically for blowjobs; he said he normally paid a few hundred dollars for it and asked to get a full look at my body. I felt like a piece of meat, something less than a person—not someone with a soul and feelings.
None of the men wanted to get to know me on a deeper level—except for one (or so I thought). His net worth, which he boasted openly about on the site, was $10 million; he claimed he was an executive of a major company and found the fact that I was an educated journalist appealing. But when we met, it went downhill after "hello." To call him awkward would be generous; he controlled what kind of food I ordered and handed me a roll of cash at the end of the meal, insinuating that he wanted me to come back to his place where more cash might be waiting for me. I got in my car and drove away shaken.
Brendon Wade, Seeking Arrangement's CEO, told me the site is empowering to women and allows them to move upward in their lives. But my experiences had led me down an unsettling path. When I went to Las Vegas to meet Chelsea, one of Seeking Arrangement's top earners, she had a luxury apartment, drove a brand-new Mercedes Benz, and managed a dozen sugar daddies. She claimed she could make as much as $30,000 a month, but there were sexual demands that needed to be met in exchange. Men liked to tie her up and choke her, and she had been raped too.
But Chelsea was too hooked on the lifestyle to let go. For her, it was worth it to to go on a cruise with a doctor who forced her to have sex in exchange for a breast augmentation, or to put up with kinky requests she found disgusting—all to live the life she'd always dreamed about while growing up poor in the Midwest. Despite these harrowing stories, Chelsea is one of Seeking Arrangement's celebrities; she even gave a keynote talk at their conference, offering tips on how to get to top of the sugar baby game.
I also met several women who love the #sugarlife, as it's affectionately called. They told me they were having the times of their lives by living financially secure, traveling the world, and living in transparent, bullshit-free relationships where everyone's expectations were clearly understood and respected. But at the end, it all started to feel gross to me—like I was heading down a soulless path where my time with a man was governed by money, all so they could be fulfilled by a tiny, exotic-looking woman. I'm happy to hold my own fort down, and if a dude comes along to sweep my off my feet, it should come from his heart instead of his wallet.
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