It's probably never been easier to become a sugar daddy.
Dating site SeekingArrangement, which advertises that it pairs the "successful" and "generous" with "attractive people looking for the finer things in life," says it has 1 million active sugar daddy and mama users—and 2.6 million "sugar babies" for them to meet.
Sugar mamas are, by most accounts, a tiny fraction of the site's users, and that only adds to the power imbalances that already exist between wealthy, experienced men, and the younger women they're looking to date.
But many of those women aren't just using the internet to find men—they're also using social networking sites and blogs to share experiences with others in the sugar dating scene. On Tumblr in particular, sugar babies—mostly women, along with some gay men—post tips on everything from internet safety to picking out makeup to depositing cash allowances without drawing the attention of the IRS.
They offer each other support in sticky situations and give each other an outlet to talk about relationships many don't feel comfortable discussing with friends and family.
"We try to help each other out, give advice, learn from other people," wrote Sarah Marie, the 21-year-old college student who writes the blog Confessions of a Sugar Baby, in an email. "If there is a guy who is an absolute asshole, warnings will be put out about him."
They share photos of presents from sugar daddies and vacations they've been treated to, celebrate good dates and console each other about less-than-generous matches. The sugar babies even have their own slang, mostly based around sugar puns: women active on the scene are "in the bowl;" potential sugar daddies are pots, for short; men without sufficient funds or who are too thrifty to be proper sugar daddies are dubbed Splendas; manipulative and abusive men are angrily denounced as salts.
If there is a guy who is an absolute asshole, warnings will be put out about him
"It's incredibly rewarding to see how supportive so many girls are, as well as how protective they are when one of our own is assaulted or hurt by a man in the sugar bowl," wrote "Katie," the 24-year-old author of the Tumblr blog Stripping and Sugaring, in an email. "Many are also more than willing to answer questions or give advice to those with less experience."
Many bloggers say they consider it especially important to share what they've learned with women just entering the bowl.
"You're not gonna expect what the sugar daddy dating world brings you," the author of the Blonde Angel Baby blog told me she tells potential sugar babies. "You never do."
Angel, as she refers to herself on the blog, is reluctant to share too much personal information, though she said she's 21, living in the South and raising a child while attending college. She said sugar daddies—she's had a few, and usually has more than one at a time—have helped her manage financially.
"I was able to quit two of my jobs, which gives me more time to focus on school and my child," she wrote in an email, after our initial phone conversation. "I was almost instantly relieved of that constant pressure of bills and the restraint of living paycheck to paycheck."
She estimates that most of Tumblr's sugar babies are between 18 and 25. Some are looking for help with tuition, rent or family expenses; some are interested in luxuries like travel and designer clothes; some enjoy their sugar daddies' business connections and access to elite circles or exclusive events.
"One of the biggest rewards is being an escape from reality for the guys who I go on dates with, and also myself," wrote Sarah Marie. "For a little while, I can pretend that I live a life of luxury."
But whatever their goals, there's always a learning curve for young women transitioning from dating men their own age to courting older, successful men.
"They're used to guys their own age: teenagers," Angel said. "In a relationship with these powerful men, it kind of knocks them off their feet."
Angel regularly fields questions from other sugar babies on her blog, which includes an FAQ section for women new to the scene, with sections on topics from crafting online profiles to building a sugar-appropriate wardrobe to staying safe.
"Once again, be aware of your situation and don't allow yourself to fall for the scam of having to sexually 'audition' for a POT before an allowance is in place," Angel writes in a post on negotiating relationship terms. "He does not need a test run or private time to see if you 'click.' Don't let yourself be impressed with stories of how many houses, boats and cars they own to get you in bed."
Like many sugar baby bloggers, Angel advises women to set terms early on and be firm about their expectations.
"A lot of girls will just start going out with guys who are creepy, or want sex on the first date, and they'll give it to them because they don't understand that they have power too and they can set expectations," said an 18-year-old Bay Area college student and sugar baby who asked that I refer to her as "Ellie."
Ellie said she first stumbled upon the sugar community when she was still in high school, and came across a viral Tumblr-posted "money shot," which in the sugar world refers quite literally to a photo of cash from a sugar daddy. She started reading sugar baby blogs and, once she got to college, decided to try creating a sugar dating account for herself.
"I was just bombarded with messages before I finished even setting up my profile," she said. "I think it has to do with San Francisco just sort of crawling with rich guys."
Studying Tumblr definitely helped prepare her, but it still took a few tries before she was fully comfortable on a sugar date, she said.
"You have to go on those crappy few dates to learn how to talk to a guy with an established career," she said. "There is a definite advantage they have."
Women can come to feel they have to let their sugar daddies dictate the sexual terms of the relationship, said Taylor Jones, who offers Skype-based life coaching, dating profile ghostwriting, a paid-subscription podcast and other resources to her fellow sugar babies.
"The men, the sugar daddies, they control the relationship in a way, because we want what he has and we become disposable because there's another girl who will take our place," she told me. "She becomes that unexpected hooker, because she thinks by sleeping with him she'll secure the relationship."
But it doesn't have to be that way, emphasized Jones, who, at 33, says she's been part of a purely platonic sugar daddy relationship for more than a decade.
"There is no sexual intimacy," she said, explaining they've each dated other people in the time they've known each other. "This particular person has disposable income, and he values my friendship and companionship, because I'm the one in his life that cares about his day."
An entrepreneur, her sugar daddy retired in his early 30s, and he's happy to share his wealth with her and have her there to check in with him and show interest in his life, she said.
"I fill that void, because he doesn't have anybody like that," she said. "He goes to the golf course or the country club or around his friends, and they're just talking about how bad their marriages are."
I fill that void, because he doesn't have anybody like that
The idea of a platonic sugar daddy isn't as unusual as it sounds, said Julie Albright, a University of Southern California lecturer who's studied online dating.
"That's not atypical—there are men that go to strip clubs; there are men who hire prostitutes and just want to talk," she said. "These men are lonely: they want the companionship, and they'll pay for it."
Ellie, the San Francisco-area sugar baby, said once she grew more comfortable in her role, she realized many of the men she was seeing were themselves awkward on dates. After all, as many sugar baby bloggers point out in motivational posts, there's a reason those men are on sugar daddy sites, instead of OKCupid or Match.com.
"No matter how well off they are, they've also demonstrated that they have difficulty talking to attractive women on their own, so you kind of hold power over them," said Ellie, who often goes out with men from startups and tech companies.
"The fact that I read Wired really helps," said Ellie, a science major who said she still prefers somewhat nerdy men with good jobs and life experience to guys her own age.
"I'm so tired of college-aged men," she went on. "I know there are diamonds in the rough, but even the diamonds in the rough don't have money, and you end up going to the same ramen shop dozens of times."
Ellie said some, but not all, of her college friends know about her sugar dating. She still works a retail job to help explain her income and for the work experience, she said.
"You need something for your résumé," she said. "Also, you kind of need something to justify the amount of money that you're making."
Like many in the community, Ellie is very sensitive about protecting her identity, both to protect against creeps and stalkers from dating sites and to safeguard her reputation in the outside world. She asked that I not identify her university or even link to her blog.
"I try to do my best to keep all my social media very secure," she said. "I don't want my shit doxxed because I don't want employers seeing this is what I did in college."
Nor, Albright pointed out, would sugar babies necessarily want future long-term partners finding their old blogs or SeekingArrangement profiles.
Many of the most widely reblogged tips on sugar baby Tumblrs involve anonymity and safety—using tools like Google Voice and Tor to hide real phone numbers and IP addresses, stripping metadata from photos sent to potential daddies and making sure dating profile photos don't appear elsewhere on the Internet, where they can be found by reverse image search tools from Google or TinEye.
"Without reading other girls' experiences, you miss a lot of the safety points that come up," said Ellie. "I know not to use the same profile picture that I use on other social networks. I've ordered myself some self-defense gear. I know to always have somebody else who knows [where I am.]"
Naturally, sugar babies wanting to protect their own safety, and verify that promised allowances are actually realistic, hope sugar daddies aren't savvy enough to take those same steps. Blog posts advise women to reverse image search potential daddies' pictures, look up their phone numbers in reverse directories and verify their financial boasts in public databases.
"Go get you a library card gurl," advised one widely circulated tutorial, which used Comic Sans and doge-meme dialect to explain how to research a sugar daddy using ReferenceUSA. Its author declined to be interviewed for this story.
Particularly nasty sugar daddies can be added to one of several blacklist Tumblr pages, which list dating profiles and even personal information of men alleged to have scammed, abused or assaulted women from the community.
"I want to make it clear that this life is not always easy and glamorous," Katie wrote in an email. "I've been lucky enough to have some incredible experiences, but it also can be very draining. I've had men call me names, insult me, and even threaten to assault me, simply because I turned down their offer of an arrangement."
Still, she said, her experience has overall been positive, a view echoed by many other women, who said they benefitted from sugar dating in ways beyond the purely financial.
"Without sugaring, I wouldn't have the balls to ask a guy for anything," said Ellie, explaining she felt more confident negotiating with the boss at her retail job when she took time off for medical treatment and to visit family.
"It felt exactly like negotiating with a sugar daddy in saying, 'I want to be able to keep this job when I come back from surgery, because I feel that I've put in good work, and I kind of deserve the position that I've been working,'" she said.