Inside a sugar-daddy party
Two TONY writers explore a singles mixer with a transactional twist.
Fri Oct 14 2011
The last guy bought Tia a car. He also paid rent, bought clothes and gave her thousands of dollars here and there. She was 19 and in school; he was 45 and owned a construction company. "He told me, 'You got what it takes to take what I got.' And I took him for all he had!" says Tia. She is here to try to find someone to replace this ex. I'm here, posing as someone like Tia, trying to figure out how the world of sugar daddies works.
This sugar daddy/sugar baby ball is hosted by SeekingArrangement (seekingarrangement.com), a dating site for those seeking "mutually beneficial relationships." The party is at the Copacabana, a Times Square bar that might look glamorous to tourists. Tonight, women who sparkle under the club's neon lights fawn over men who look drab in comparison.
Tia smooths her hair, which is swept to the side, prom-style, revealing one glittery earring. She asks what kind of guys I've talked with. "Two hedge-fund managers," I reply. She's talked with a lawyer and a business owner. The men in the crowd range in age from their thirties to eighties.
Mel, the first hedge-fund manager, is on the younger side, with a baby face and a briefcase. When I ask if the nature of the sugar relationship is freeing, he sneers. "I don't like it when the girls get really transactional. I'm busy, and it's a low-key way to meet women. But it can be trashy," he says. I ask him to clarify. "Here—" he gives me his phone and tells me to put my number in. "You ask too many questions, but I'll talk to you about it later. Somewhere not so loud." I lift his arm from my shoulder and politely move on.
Among the women, there were lots of tall heels, hair extensions and accents—local ones from Queens, Long Island and Jersey, and more newly local, from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Latin America. The women were friendly to me—we were in this together, after all. I chat with Christina, a J-Woww lookalike who's planning to leave the sugar-baby lifestyle; she's starting her own business and has great investors. Christina didn't go to college but has learned a lot through her older friends. Later, I bond with Arielle, an artist with auburn hair and tattooed arms. She lives in Bushwick with her artist boyfriend. "What does he think?" I ask. "If I can get a second stream of income out of this dating site, why not?" she says.
Thanks to several websites like SeekingArrangement, recession-trend stories have been sparked about college girls using the site to help with tuition. In New York, there is now an entire "sugar culture." According to researchers from the Sugar Project, a study on sugar-daddy culture funded by George Washington University, there is always a negotiation moment in these relationships where each party names their price. "Say, she only wants to see him once a month and she wants $5,000. He counters, fine, but he wants to be able to call her to come to events," says researcher Elizabeth Nistico. If this agreement isn't made in the first few dates, it often takes a more passive route. For instance, perhaps every time she meets him, the woman will find $500 in her purse afterward. Without that money, she would stop seeing him.
My new sugar-baby friends offer me tips on how to set this up. Candy, a 22-year-old with bubble-shaped cleavage and a gap tooth, advises that I negotiate before the men so much as touch. One guy gave her $2,000—all she had to do in return was go to a nice dinner and give him a hand job: "A hand job! How easy is that?" As we talk, Tia comes over. She's upset because the guy flirting with her asked, point blank, how much? Nistico says many women do negotiate up-front—by e-mail or phone before even meeting. Tia is in the minority; like Mel, she prefers a little illusion. "He was an investment banker," Tia tells us. "You should have asked for $5,000!" Candy replies.
According to employees of SeekingArrangement, there are seven women for every man on the site. At the party, there seem to be two to three women for every guy. The men seem happily dazed, sitting back as women in mini dresses form lines to sit at bottle service with them. As the night wears on, the women arriving seem to grow more beautiful and more aggressive. "Listen to his problems, let him talk about his family or work," I'm advised by my new friends. I watch as brazen Arielle and Candy suddenly become coy and demure around men. When I ask Nistico what findings are the most surprising, she says it's how much the men can be hurt by the sugar relationship, "The role reversal is what is so interesting to me. The women are manipulating the men, and if the relationship takes a turn for the worse, the man often ends up being victimized—not the woman," she says.
In the ladies' room, Christina is giving a speech from the stall. "Get yours! Ask up-front. Don't date if they don't own that business. Network! Is that cocaine on the floor? Someone sniff it up!" It is another illusion unraveling: While the girls play submissive in the club, here in the greenish light of the bathroom, it is clear that the guys are the betas.
Toward the end of the night, I see one man slip a wedding band back on as he leaves the club. Some men and women leave together, but many depart alone. The sugar babies want money for a date, not a one-night stand, and the competition is tough. "I've got a date for every night this week!" a blond guy in his forties exclaims. The next day, I receive a text from Mel. He wants to know if I'd like to "rendezvous to see if we are in sync" [wink face]. I consider forwarding the text to Arielle or Candy, but I don't have their numbers, and I'm certain they'll get what they need eventually. Given all the girls last night, surely, Mel will find what he's searching for as well.—Rachel R. White