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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Sex in the city: Is the economic boom a boon to sex workers?


At first glance, websites like Seeking Arrangement.com and SugarDaddy.com might look a lot like ordinary online dating sites. They promise to match “successful, beautiful people” with each other. But in one big way, they’re very different.

A young woman we’ll call Adrian to protect her privacy says she’s what’s called a Sugar Baby. She gets paid by a man she met online, called a Sugar Daddy, to act as his girlfriend. Or maybe be his girlfriend. It’s not always so clear.

These sites have exploded in the Bay Area. The site SugarDaddyForMe.com claims that its membership in San Francisco is growing 50 percent faster than in any other metropolitan area.

SeekingArrangement.com reports about 54,000 local users. The site reports that it’s sugar daddies typically pay more than $4000 a month to their sugar babies. Both parties are promised a “mutually beneficial relationship.”

These services exist as an under-the-radar part of the Bay Area’s booming economy, where some people benefit and others suffer. And the role of the law isn’t always clear cut.

Adrian's story

Adrian’s been reading Sugar Daddy profiles for a few years. She says typical guys on these sites say things like: “I really want a girl to show off to my friends, who I can dress up and dress in designer clothes.”

“For me, I’m like, that doesn’t interest me at all,” Adrian says.

She’s 21 years old and a student at UC Berkeley. On campus, she’d blend right in with the other English majors. She’s got a messy ponytail, no makeup really, a backpack, sundress, and black leather boots. She’s girly, with a big smile. Definitely pretty.

We meet in a big oak-paneled library, with skylights up high. When we walk in, she rushes around touching the spines of the books and kind of swooning. She into poetry, and studying. And she’s very earnest.

“I believe in true love and I’m such a romantic,” she admits.


She thinks a lot of Sugar Daddies are just looking for sex, but she’s not comfortable with that role.

“I’m so different than that that. For me it was very much... kind of turned into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, essentially,” she says.

A “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is a trope – a type of girl who sneaks in and out of a man’s life trailing sparkles. She’s girlishly unpredictable, she makes you feel alive. Adrian likes playing that role, making guys with monotonous lives “feel excited.”

Blurry legal lines

Excitement, adventure – this is what the websites say they’re all about. Adrian uses SeekingArrangement.com. According to their press department, the average Sugar Daddy is 43 years old and makes over $400,000 a year.

The average Sugar Baby is 24 years old. Many are students. They outnumber Sugar Daddies six to one.

Paying someone for a date might sound like prostitution. But the services that make this kind of transaction possible exist in a legal grey area because there’s no immediate exchange of cash for sex.

Brandon Wade, founder of Sugar Babies, a site that connects women with wealthy men, says there are plenty of romantic relationships where the breadwinner basically pays for the other person. And that people looking for that shouldn’t have to be coy.

“It’s not a prostitution website. It’s a website where women can meet wealthy men who can spoil you and pamper you. And what’s wrong with that?” Wade recently asked on the TV show “Dr. Drew On Call.”

Doing it for the money?

Adrian grew up in California with a single mom. Money wasn’t an issue; she describes herself as middle class. She originally joined the site because she wanted to do an art project about transgression and playing with taboos. But sugar dating worked for her. She could find guys that weren’t creepy to her, guys who felt like “I wanna give money to someone who I really think it’s great what they’re doing with their life.”

Two years later, she’s gone from one, semi-long-term Sugar Daddy to the next. It’s not always straightforward. Her first relationship...

“Well, he was married,” Adrian says. “He was the only Sugar Daddy I had that was married – and i learned my lesson on that one, just because I wound up creating this genuine relationship with him and it crossed into the boundaries of, oh wait, this could hurt his marriage. It just worried me, I didn’t want to ruin his marriage and he didn’t either.”

Adrian says her current Sugar Daddy gives her a $3,000 allowance every month. She says she was making twice that in another arrangement, but the guy was a jerk so she ended it.

“If I weren’t in this relationship, I would be very stressed. If I wasn’t in an arrangement, I would be spending a lot of time working in order to pay for school, in order to pay for rent, and I’m just so grateful,” she says.

She doesn’t calculate the number of hours she spends with her Sugar Daddy, because she says it doesn’t feel like sex work or work at all.

“I never faked wanting to be around them. Sex was never expected, it just happened,” she says.

Adrian doesn’t want to be a Sugar Baby forever. She’s planning to go to graduate school and she figures she won’t have the time. And eventually, she wants to have a romantic relationship that’s not with a Sugar Daddy, but she doesn’t want a boyfriend just for the sake of having one

“I’m trying to be in this place where I know I’m not filling a hole with someone, so I can tell if I actually love someone or not,” she says. “And I know it sounds like, well maybe you’re filling it with the sugar daddy, but it’s not like that.”

For now, Adrian enjoys the time she spends with her Sugar Daddies.

“It doesn’t feel like sex work,” she says. “It feels like a modern, 21st century relationship with clearly defined lines.”


Liza got her start in radio with KALW's Audio Academy. Now, she is KALW's econmy reporter and a mentor for in the KALW Audio Academy.