Concerned about cash flow, Kenny, a closeted gay man and football player at a public Minnesota college, about a year ago signed up for Seeking Arrangement.
It's a website that promotes relationships between a younger, cash-strapped individual, a sugar baby -- stereotypically envisioned as an attractive woman -- and a wealthier, older man (or woman), a sugar daddy or sugar mommy. Sugar babies may be showered with cash or gifts and are spoiled and pampered in exchange for their company -- or more, depending on the circumstances.
Such an arrangement does perhaps appeal to the penniless college student, who may be weighed down by debt or trying to avoid debt. Data provided by Seeking Arrangement show that of its 3.2 million users in the United States, about 1.2 million, or a little less than 40 percent, identify as students. In the United States, the site’s roughly 2.3 million female sugar babies outnumber the 484,695 sugar daddies.
Recently, the website gained notoriety for its ties to a case at Coastal Carolina University. The entire cheerleading team was suspended, and an investigation by the South Carolina university unearthed evidence that team members participated in an escort service set up on Seeking Arrangement.
Cheerleaders were paid between $100 and $1,500 per "date" and collected shoes, clothes and designer handbags as compensation, the investigation found. The university was tipped off to the operation through a letter from someone described as a concerned parent, who alleged that team members were engaging in prostitution.
Coastal Carolina spokeswoman Mona Prufer responded to request for comment with an emailed statement: “Coastal Carolina University is still conducting an investigation. The cheerleading team remains suspended from cheer activities. The university, as an institution, has an interest in upholding its educational mission and its Code of Ethical Conduct.”
The cheerleaders interviewed for the investigation said they didn’t have sex with the men, and Seeking Arrangement has fought back against the characterization that the team members were prostitutes. But even the founder and chief executive of the website, Brandon Wade, has admitted previously, in an opinion piece on CNN's website in 2014, that his creation toes a line between empowering mutually beneficial relationships and facilitating the world’s oldest profession.
"Accusations of prostitution have clouded Seeking Arrangement since its inception, and I'll admit there is a fine line. But my intentions are pure. Why must we define a lifestyle we don't understand as unsavory?" Wade wrote.
The mission of Seeking Arrangement seems closer to the purpose of an escort service, which tends to be pricier than street prostitutes and provides a degree of emotional support and affection, like nonsexual massages, per a description of escorts included in a 2008 study published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies. One of the authors of that study, Tammy Castle, an associate professor of justice studies at James Madison University, was quoted in an Atlantic article calling sugar babies "escorts." Castle said Seeking Arrangement was attempting to avoid the negative stereotypes associated with prostitution, but sometimes money was exchanged for sex.
Wade launched the site in 2006 amid his own frustrations wooing women. Though the wealthy Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus found success in business, he still found he lacked confidence to approach women, and spawned the website to give them financial motives to date men like him.
As the site expanded, students flocked there, said Brook Urick, a Seeking Arrangement spokeswoman. The website’s leaders decided to offer free premium memberships for students, which grants additional search features to anyone registered with an “.edu” email.
Part of the draw for students can come from being able to dodge debt and pay for tuition, Urick said, but the appeal extends much deeper.
“Sugar daddies, sugar mommies, they’re businesspeople, they’re CEOs and entrepreneurs,” Urick said. “They have life experience, a wealth of experience, and they can mentor sugar babies who are in college. Sugar babies in college may not be finding satisfying relationships with the men, or women, with the people their age. College graduates will buy you a $1 beer; a sugar daddy, sugar mommy will buy you a $20 martini at a high-rise location or whatever. It’s an elevated dating experience.”
Such incentives are advertised through the site's Sugar Baby University page, specifically for college students, that describes "crippling" loans and a way to help through "alternative means."
Seeking Arrangement released a list of the colleges and universities that were the fastest growing on the website in 2016. The top three were Temple University, with 296 new sign-ups, New York University, with 244, and Arizona State University, with 163.
Temple’s website states it enrolls a little more than 38,200 students -- as of Jan. 27, when Seeking Arrangement published its list of popular colleges, 1,068 Temple students had registered on the site, a little less than 3 percent of its overall student body.
Urick attributes growth on the site to more people rejecting the stigma surrounding sugar relationships, a conquering of philosophical barriers for the site.
Asked about the Coastal Carolina case, Urick dismissed the notion that the cheerleaders are prostitutes and called the controversy “ridiculous.”
The website is properly regulated, Urick said, with certain language being flagged for review. She declined to discuss in depth the site algorithms that “keep the water clean.”
At the same time, Urick made clear that Seeking Arrangement can only control the confines of the site; it can’t bar the actions of others in the outside world. She presented a scenario: If two people meet in a bar but have an altercation later, is the bar at fault for providing that space?
In his CNN commentary, Wade wrote that dozens of prostitutes and escorts are kicked off the site every day.
“When you are providing a platform to meet successful and wealthy men, you will not always attract genuine hearts,” Wade wrote. “There are always going to be people in the world who are looking to take advantage of your generosity. But to put all users in one box marked ‘escort’ is simply unjust. Seeking Arrangement is a dating site, which means most of the men here are eventually hoping to have sex. Isn't that the point of dating? But this is not prostitution.”
Inside Higher Ed contacted nearly three dozen sugar babies on the website and offered them anonymity to candidly discuss their experiences. Few responded, and many that did asked to be paid for an interview. Inside Higher Ed declined to pay anyone quoted in this article, but did grant anonymity.
Kenny says he can’t find time to work, between football practice, his double major and caring for his mother, who is fighting stage-four breast cancer. He was adopted and, at age 15, disowned by his adopted father after he learned of Kenny’s sexuality.
An athletic scholarship and federal financial aid covers most of his college expenses, but Kenny’s bank account remains drained and leaves him unable to afford even some basics, like textbooks or food.
“When I first joined, I thought that maybe I could meet a good guy to get to hang with, get to know, have fun with, meet up with, be mentored by, etc., and also have a little help from,” Kenny said in an interview.
But he found little success.
Most of the sugar daddies are after a particular type of man, thin with a model face, Kenny said. Many are married, so their wives would notice large chunks of money being sent to the sugar babies.
Scammers are rampant on the website, Kenny said, and he’s been tricked into wiring money to a sugar daddy, losing about $500.
Urick said just like any other website, Seeking Arrangement sees its share of phishers and scammers, but that the site warns people not to share bank account information. After a certain number of people report an account, it’s automatically suspended, she said.
“We advise common sense,” Urick said. “Not sharing banking information -- common sense -- some of what these people are doing are sharing passwords and usernames. I can’t help you if you’re doing that.”
Another sugar baby, Desmond, was told by one man that he would wire money to Desmond’s account. It never posted to the bank, and the man instructed Desmond to send him some money instead, an attempt to fool him. Desmond refused.
A 23-year-old who previously attended the University of Arizona, Desmond tried Seeking Arrangement to defray school and living expenses. He had also racked up about $25,000 in credit card debt.
He connected with a Philadelphia-based sugar daddy, 55, who would fly Desmond out to Pennsylvania every month and help pay Desmond’s bills. He and Desmond were “intimate” only a couple times in the almost two years they remained in contact.
Eventually, Desmond moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh to enroll in a local college.
“I feel like it's useful but it's also not,” Desmond said about Seeking Arrangement. “It can turn someone into a material person if they aren't already, and I don't know how to change back. It helped and hurt me. I ended up back home because I hated living in Arizona.”
Tammy, 21, a George Mason University student, lives her parents’ basement and works part-time at a research center earning about $400 a month.
That doesn’t come close to covering the $6,000 a semester required for her tuition because her federal loans cover only a little more than half. Her parents chip in too, but her three younger siblings will approach college age soon, so she said she feels guilty.
She tried Seeking Arrangement after her bank account dipped in the negative three times in one week.
“I've always been a sexual person and I'm newly single so the idea of having sex for money is kind of like an easy buck. However, I soon learned sugar daddies (on here at least) aren't into underground prostitution. They want to make a young woman their pet. Like a trophy wife they can show off and spoil, more so than an escort type of thing,” Tammy wrote.
One sugar daddy offered to pay her $2,000 a month to meet just a couple times a month. But she found the fun wore off quickly. They were old like her father, but not in “an endearing way.” The constant compliments about her eyes and her body wore thin.
She applied to be a Lyft driver instead.
“I consider myself sex positive feminist who advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution so we can better protect sex workers like me who would happily have sex with someone for money, but doesn't feel safe or enjoy playing games like the sugar baby/sugar daddy dynamic,” Tammy wrote.
But she still won’t sign off Seeking Arrangement.
She’s not willing to shut the door.