NEW YORK — On a Sunday morning in late May, Taylor left her Harlem apartment and boarded a train for Greenwich, Conn. She planned on spending the day with a man she had met online, but not in person.
Taylor, a 22-year-old student at Hunter College, had confided in her roommate about the trip and they agreed to swap text messages during the day to make sure she was safe.
Once in Greenwich, a man who appeared significantly older than his advertised age of 42 greeted Taylor at the train station and then drove her to the largest house she had ever seen. He changed into his swimming trunks, she put on a skimpy bathing suit, and then, by the side of his pool, she rubbed sunscreen into the folds of his sagging back — bracing herself to endure an afternoon of sex with someone she suspected was actually about 30 years her senior.
Taylor doubted that her client could relate to someone who had grown up black and poor in the South Bronx. While he summered on Martha’s Vineyard, she’d likely pass another July and August working retail in Times Square.
A love match it wasn’t. But then again, this was no ordinary date.
A month prior, faced with about $15,000 in unpaid tuition and overdue bills, Taylor and her roommate typed “tuition,” “debt,” and “money for school” into Google. A website called SeekingArrangement.com popped up. Intrigued by the promise of what the site billed as a “college tuition sugar daddy,” Taylor created a “sugar baby” profile and eventually connected with the man from Greenwich. (“Taylor” is the pseudonym she uses with men she meets online. Neither she nor any of the other women interviewed for this article permitted their real names be used.)
In her profile on the site, Taylor describes herself as “a full-time college student studying psychology and looking to meet someone to help pay the bills.” Photos on the site show her in revealing outfits, a mane of caramel-colored hair framing her face. But unlike other dating sites, where a user might also list preferred hobbies or desired traits, Taylor instead indicates preferences for a “sugar daddy” and an “arrangement” in the range of $1,000 to $3,000 a month.
Saddled with piles of student debt and a job-scarce, lackluster economy, current college students and recent graduates are selling themselves to pursue a diploma or pay down their loans. An increasing number, according to the the owners of websites that broker such hook-ups, have taken to the web in search of online suitors or wealthy benefactors who, in exchange for sex, companionship, or both, might help with the bills.
The past few years have taken an especially brutal toll on the plans and expectations of 20-somethings. As unemployment rates tick steadily higher, starting salaries have plummeted. Meanwhile, according to Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University, about 85 percent of the class of 2011 will likely move back in with their parents during some period of their post-college years, compared with 40 percent a decade ago.
Besides moving back home, many 20-somethings are beginning their adult lives shouldering substantial amounts of student loan debt. According to Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the financial aid websites Fastweb.com and Finaid.org, while the average 2011 graduate finished school with about $27,200 in debt, many are straining to pay off significantly greater loans.
Enter the sugar daddy, sugar baby phenomenon. This particular dynamic preceded the economic meltdown, of course. Rich guys well past their prime have been plunking down money for thousands of years in search of a tryst or something more with women half their age — and women, willingly or not, have made themselves available. With the whole process going digital, women passing through a system of higher education that fosters indebtedness are using the anonymity of the web to sell their wares and pay down their college loans.
“Over the past few years, the number of college students using our site has exploded,” says Brandon Wade, the 41-year-old founder of Seeking Arrangement. Of the site’s approximately 800,000 members, Wade estimates that 35 percent are students. “College students are one of the biggest segments of our sugar babies and the numbers are growing all the time.”
Wade rewards students who use a .edu email address to register on Seeking Arrangement by automatically upgrading their free, basic membership to a premium membership, allowing them to send unlimited free messages and granting them exclusive access to the site’s cadre of VIP sugar daddies. The site also includes a complimentary stamp on student profiles, certifying them as a “college sugar baby.”
Wade sees his company as providing a unique service, a chance for “men and women living through tough economic times to afford college.” He bristles at the notion that he’s merely running a thinly veiled, digital bordello, choosing instead to describe his site as one that facilitates “mutually beneficial relationships.”
Taylor doesn’t explicitly refer to what she was doing in Greenwich as prostitution, but she now allows that her primary motivation was, indeed, money. She and her host ended up in his bedroom, where he peeled off her bikini.
“I just wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible,” recalls Taylor, forcing out a nervous smile. “I just wanted to get out of that situation as safely as possible, pay off my debt, and move on.”
While she and her host hadn’t agreed to a set amount of money, on the drive back to the train station in Greenwich he handed her $350 in cash. She pocketed the envelope, seeing it as decent money for half a day’s work. But once on the train and no longer worried for her safety, she started to agonize over what she had just done.
“I never thought it would come to this. I got on the train and I felt dirty. I mean, I had just gotten money for having sex,” says Taylor, who never heard from the guy in Greenwich again. “I guess I accomplished what I needed to do. I needed the money for school. I just did what needed to be done.”
And she’s still doing what needs to be done. With tuition due in September to pay for her last semester of college, Taylor’s back on the hunt for other, more lucrative online hookups.
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
“It’s a very expensive job,” says Jack, a 70-year-old sugar daddy, who describes himself as a “humanitarian” interested in helping young women in financial need. Jack isn’t the name that appears on his American Express black card, but an identity he uses when shopping online for companionship and sex.
Jack says he meets up twice a week with a young woman from Seeking Arrangement. He typically forks over about $500 a night — and that’s not including lavish dinners at Daniel or shopping excursions on Madison Avenue.
“Unlike a traditional escort service, I was surprised to find such an educated, smart population,” says Jack, during cocktail hour recently at the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan. He said he lives next door in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park South and pays $22,000 a month in rent.
In his profile on Seeking Arrangement, Jack describes himself as a 67-year-old with a bachelor’s degree. Prior to retiring, the divorced Charleston, S.C., native says he founded four financial services companies. But after taking a big hit in the financial crisis and being forced to downsize, Jack says he had to part ways with his private jet due to what he describes as “reduced circumstances.” On the site, he lists his annual income as $1 million and his net worth as something between $50 and $100 million.
While sugar babies can create profiles on Seeking Arrangement free of charge and a regular sugar daddy membership costs $50 each month, Jack pays $2,400 a year to belong to the Diamond Club. For a sugar daddy willing to pay up, the site says it verifies his identity, annual income, and net worth and then ensures his profile gets the most traction by continually allowing it to pop up in the top tier of search results.
Educated, debt-ridden 20-somethings happen to be an age demographic that intersects nicely with Jack’s preferences. “I only go out with girls 25 and under,” says Jack, whose thick head of white hair and bushy eyebrows form a halo around a red, flushed face. “But I can’t walk into a bar and go up to a 25-year-old. They’d think I’m a pervert. So, this is how I go about meeting them.”
As he continues, he repeatedly glances over his shoulder to make sure no one is listening.
“Most of these young women have debt from school,” says Jack, who finds most young women also carry an average of $8,000 in credit-card debt. “I guess I like the college girls more because I think of their student debt as good debt. At least it seems like I’m helping them out, like I’m helping them to get a better life.”
“By the way, how old are you?” he asks, inching closer.
“Older than 25,” I respond.