In 2008, both of Julia’s* parents lost their jobs during the Recession. She was 13 at the time and remembers her family monitoring how much they were spending, even on food.
When she came to the University of Miami from New Jersey and began to realize how the cost of Uber rides and weekend outings add up, she needed extra money. So she turned to what her friends were using, something she was “very morally against” but now considers a worthwhile opportunity: sugar dating.
Julia was just one of over a million college students in the United States seeking sugar daddies on SeekingArrangement.com (SA) – the most popular site for finding this kind of relationship – as of January 2016, according to data from SA.
Florida has one of the highest concentrations of “sugar babies” in the country. The state sits at No. 5 nationally, with about 21 sugar baby females for every 1,000 adult females. The concentration of sugar people is especially high in South Florida, where the lure of wealthy men appeals to debt-ridden college students, such as those at UM.
However, at a university known for its work-hard-play-hard attitude and rich kid culture – 13 percent of UM students come from the top 1 percent of wealthiest households, according to a recent study by The Equality of Opportunity Project – some students have taken to finding sugar daddies in order to maintain a certain appearance.
SA gained visibility in connection with college students around the same time that it was featured on “The View” in February 2014, when it featured two college-aged sugar babies, including one from UM, alongside SA founder Brandon Wade.
Katherine, a bright-eyed 20-year-old who went by her first name on the show, hadn’t told her friends back at UM what she was up to, but she had been using SA for years to pay for her expenses.
When approached by The Miami Hurricane, Katherine said she was not a sugar baby and did not want to be interviewed.
As for Julia, SA was a way to afford the expensive habits of her new college friends.
“One of my attractions to using the app was keeping up with those people who come from very well-off families,” she said.
Julia’s first job was at an ice cream parlor when she was 14 and she worked up to three jobs at a time throughout high school. After seeing her family struggle through the Recession, she made sure to earn disposable income for herself.
“I had a lot of money to spend and not really thinking about it and then coming here and having to cut back my lifestyle so much, that was probably the most difficult transition into college for me,” she said.
Over the summer before college, Julia said she saved money, but “it’s not really lasting me all that long.” She already cut back on luxuries she used to enjoy at home – fresh acrylic nails, professional full-body waxes, shopping sprees, expensive makeup – but money was still tight because of the constant partying and social expenses that filled her weekend.
A typical Friday night may involve a walk to nearby fraternity houses for free beer and entertainment, or it may involve a pricey Uber ride to a South Beach club, a $20 tip for the bouncer to let her in without a hassle and drunken food runs in the early-morning hours.
“Then, the next morning, it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s go get food again,’ or ‘Oh, let’s go to the beach,’” Julia said.
One night, she was lying in bed and realized, “Wow, I’m really broke, I need to do this.” She immediately downloaded the app her close friends had been using on and off for months to make money.
“I feel like girls are a lot more accepting here, so for that reason they are pretty open about it,” she said.
One friend told her she was earning $500 to $1,000 per date. Julia was sold.
She filled out each required field to create a profile: screen name, location, age, ethnicity and “lifestyle,” the word sugar people use to set the financial precedent before they even get involved.
Julia set hers at “moderate.” For sugar daddies (and mommies, though less common overall), the lifestyle field asks instead for their net worth. Daddies and mommies have to pay a membership fee to join and those who pay more boost their visibility on the “service.” Babies join for free and even when SA was charging them, the site offered discounts to those who registered with university email addresses.
“I basically wanted to make it so that my profile was the least sexual as possible,” Julia said. “I was looking for the men that I could just finesse their money and not sleep with them.”
On her profile, she put a photo of her face and shoulders, modest, smiling. Members also have the option to set private images. These two photos of Julia were slightly sexier, showed more skin, gave off more of a sugar-baby feel.
“Seeking someone I can get to know and enjoy my time with. Love going out for nice dinners and having intellectual conversation,” she wrote as her description.
Her inbox, she said, was immediately flooded with messages.
“You get so many messages all the time and I haven’t used the app recently, but if I opened it right now, I’d probably have so many messages in there,” she said. When she did open the app, she had 19 unread messages.
“It’s empowering in that way, but also kind of does the opposite when you realize men will pay that much just for the sexual pleasure you can provide for them,” she said.
After a few failed attempts to set up lucrative and non-sexual first dates with several men – none of them would follow through without the promise of “something more,” Julia said – she decided the app wasn’t worth her time.
One man in particular, a man who told Julia to pick any place and he would show up for the date, agreed to pay $400 for a first date. They had planned to make it seem like a job interview – Julia would dress professionally and bring a binder.
She thought she had solidified her platonic approach and would finally earn some cash, but an hour before the date, Julia said the man clarified he would need a sexual incentive to pay her for lunch.
“I can’t give you money for having lunch,” he said to her in a text message. “It has to be more. Have you had an arrangement before?”
This was exactly what she was trying to avoid. She fired back, frustrated and still broke.
“I suggest you go to a corner in South Beach and find a hooker if that’s what you want,” she replied to him.
Because many of the arrangements through the site are sexual in nature, Julia said she didn’t want to “prostitute” her time any longer. She deleted the app shortly thereafter.
“It would probably be easier for me to use it if I was a girl who was willing to have sex with these men, because that is what most of these men are looking for,” she said. “So if that’s the case, then there are plenty of girls like that. They don’t want to stand on a corner and be a prostitute, but they’ll be a prostitute behind closed doors.”
Alex, a 22-year-old who attended UM from his freshman to junior year and asked to be referred to only by his first name, got his start as a “rogue sugar baby” prostituting at nightclubs.
He first learned about SA from his group of friends. One young woman he knew was seeing an older man who flew her out to his home in Colombia every weekend. Another was gifted a $50,000 car from a sugar daddy in his late 70s who died a few months later.
Alex started clubbing at 16 years old and by the time he was 19, he was a club promoter on South Beach – an environment rife with men in search of quick sexual favors. He earned between $50 and $500 during his “short phase” as a prostitute, and he learned the tricks of the trade quickly.
“The older, the more they pay,” he said in a phone interview. “The more desperate they are, the more they pay.”
The only difference between sexual relationships through SA and point-blank prostitution, Alex said, is legality. SA justifies the service by claiming – in the extensive terms of service page – to partner members up for “companionship.”
“The website may be used only for lawful purposes by individuals seeking friendship and love,” the terms and conditions page says.
Alex would also use the gay dating app Grindr to find sugar daddies. The secret code words, well-known by the sugar community, would be on the man’s profile: ‘I’m generou$.’
However, the “boyfriend experience” was not something Alex was interested in. He just wanted money, which he would mostly use on drugs and clothes, he said.
“I didn’t want to wait for the money … I don’t want to even pretend that I was in a relationship with those people,” he said.
In total, Alex said he knew about four women and two gay men at UM with sugar daddies, and the men made more than the girls. But all the sugar babies could make anywhere between $2,000 and $10,000 a month in “allowance,” not including gifts and travel.
Aside from clothes and club money, these sugar babies were using the cash for drugs. Cocaine was particularly popular, he said. Only one woman Alex knew was using the service to pay for her tuition, but she was the one least likely to ever admit using SA.
“At Miami, it’s such a stigma to not have money,” he said.
Alex’s friend Taylor* said she felt the pressure of maintaining an expensive lifestyle at UM, but didn’t experience the stigma she expected – surrounding sex work – when she told close friends about her side job as a sugar baby. She recently told her new boyfriend about it. He didn’t criticize her for it, Taylor said.
“I consider myself a feminist and I’m just working a system,” she said. “I don’t think I would’ve gone into this if I wasn’t already freaky and open-minded.”
Unlike Julia, Taylor started the using the service with the assumption that men would want more than a dinner date in exchange for money, and she was willing to do what she considered sex work.
Although her first sexual experience with a sugar daddy was “easy” – she was drunk, a man in his 60s offered to give her a massage, then took off her clothes and eventually they had sex for about 10 minutes – subsequent arrangements pushed the boundaries of what Taylor was okay with.
She saw one man for a while, a South-American political advisor, who would make her crawl on her knees from the time she got into his apartment at the top of a Brickell high-rise and submit to him and his interest in BDSM, the overlapping of bonding and and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
Given that Taylor is “totally into” BDSM in her regular sex life, she didn’t see a problem with the arrangement until her sugar daddy tried to break her “hard limit,” a boundary set between partners before engaging in BDSM.
The last time she saw that sugar daddy, he tried to force her to have anal sex with him, she said. That was when she ended it.
“I had already had a threesome, which I didn’t want to do but I just did it,” Taylor said.
She’s been paid for sex by about nine men on the service, she said, and has used the money mostly to buy weed and follow around her favorite band’s tour.
“I don’t need money to pay my bills. My parents help me out with that,” she said. “It’d really just be in times of desperation that I’d go on the site and hit up a bunch of guys and see what was worth my time.”
Taylor’s time on the app came to a halt shortly after she made her account, when her dad found a confirmation email on her computer. Her parents wrote her “a whole 10-page contract” of what they would do to her if she stayed on the service, Taylor said. They would cut her off financially, and sever family ties. Even after she temporarily deleted her account, her parents made her see a therapist before returning to the university.
“They were taking it as a wider thing of me being crazy in general, not just…trying to not make me a slut,” Taylor said.
After using SA for several years behind her family’s back, Taylor said she learned to get more out of her arrangements by asking for a “bottom line” upfront: at least $500 for sex.
“I learned to work it a lot better for myself. I used to get more upset. It would wear on me for a lot longer,” she said.
Taylor has made more than $2,000 from one daddy, a 27-year-old graduate student at Florida State University who she said took the girlfriend experience “above and beyond.” Because he was younger and more tech-savvy, she could get instant transactions through money apps such as Venmo, a major advantage. If she had a bad day, she could pull some money out of him for a treat.
Now Taylor has a boyfriend, so she told all her sugar daddies to stop reaching out to her. She said she hopes she won’t be back on the service, but the draw of easy money is strong.
“I thought of myself and my family as pretty freaking wealthy, and then coming to UM you feel like, ‘Damn, here are heiresses and oil billionaires in class with me and I still have the same laptop from 2009,’” she said.
Yet despite the pressures and the financial benefits of being a sugar baby, Taylor said she would discourage anyone from using the service.
“I want to get off of it. Every time I want to say it’s the last time,” she said. “I don’t know, honestly. I would hope to stop doing it once I graduate.”
The site functions through the “companionship” loophole, but the terms and conditions of SeekingArrangement.com leave users on their own if anything criminal were to happen. No class actions can be brought against SA; users assume all risks “associated with any online or offline interactions;” and SA has perpetual rights to use anything posted on the site.
And at the very end, “Under no circumstances will SeekingArrangement.com be responsible for any loss or damage, including personal injury or death, resulting from anyone’s use of the website or the service.”
Samantha, a UM senior, came face-to-face with the unglamorous side of sugar dating in December 2015, when her sugar daddy, a 36-year-old businessman named Brandon, flew her out to his home in Chicago.
The pair had met virtually two weeks earlier and been texting, but Samantha quickly felt uncomfortable when she saw webcams in the man’s bedroom and he made a sexual advancement, according to a Coral Gables Police Department report.
“She told him she didn’t fly to Chicago to have sex with him,” the police report said. “He got upset at that and said, ‘If we are not going to have sex then I have to listen to happy music to calm my body down.’ When he went to his room, he started talking to himself ‘hysterically.’”
Samantha texted her friend, who booked her a flight back the next morning and ordered her an Uber to leave the apartment. She left around 4 a.m. and received nonstop text messages from Brandon on her way to the airport. When she boarded, she told him she was never interested in having a sexual relationship with him and blocked his number, the report said.
A few days later, however, she said she received threatening text messages from an unknown number.
“You don’t know me but you gotten yourself in a lot of trouble. You have a chance to make it right. My meeting is not something you want. I am not coming your way. I promise I will find you and I promise that you will not like what happens,” the initial text message said, according to the report.
Samantha said she was afraid Brandon was capable of hiring a hitman because he was very wealthy. Coral Gables Police Department put a precautionary watch on her residential building.
When approached by a Miami Hurricane reporter, Samantha threatened legal action. She did not respond to subsequent emails.
For Taylor, it all comes with the territory of sugar dating. She said sugar babies need to be realistic about what they are entering into, because there are potentially serious consequences.
“It’s definitely sex work. Anyone thinking it’s going to be be PG and you’re not going to have to take your clothes off, you’re wrong,” she said. “You can’t really be like, ‘Oh, this old man violated me.’”
*Names have been changed