As we sit outside on a bar patio in downtown Salt Lake City in mid-July, Ron’s wedding band keeps a rhythm as he taps his fingers against his glass of Diet Coke. Staring down at his drink, he struggles to explain why he’s been cheating on his wife of 30 years.
“I’ve been married a long, long time, a really long time.”
Ron (not his real name), who’s in his early 60s, owns a local business, from which he says he makes roughly $300,000 a year, and currently dates a pair of sisters in their early 20s. He is what popular culture has dubbed a sugar daddy, and here in Utah, Ron is not a singularity. In fact, the sugar industry is booming in Utah.
In April 2011, SeekingArrangment.com, the world’s largest sugar-daddy website, released a slew of data ranking the nation’s top cities for sugar-daddy activity. According to information from its user profiles and the 2010 U.S. Census, Salt Lake City’s sugar daddies spend an average of $54,760 annually on mistresses, which places Salt Lake City eighth in the nation among generous sugar daddies. On top of that, Salt Lake City is also ranked 17th in sugar-daddy density, with 1.5 sugar daddies per 1,000 men. That’s a lot of sugar.
You can call it whatever you want: a mutually beneficial arrangement, friends with benefits or even prostitution. A sugar-daddy relationship is, at its core, fundamentally simple. Typically, a lonely guy will meet a young woman on a website (like SeekingArrangement.com) and arrange to meet in a public place. There, they’ll discuss how much money the “sugar baby” expects for an allowance. If they like each other, they’ll go on dates and, in the end, the woman is financially stable and Mr. Moneybags gets companionship and, usually, discreet sex.
“It’s prostitution just as much as being married is prostitution,” argues Ron. “If a woman is married, isn’t working and is being supported by her husband, there’s a trade-off. A long-term arrangement with a mistress isn’t a lot different than a marriage, except you don’t fight as much.”
Believe it or not, Ron’s feelings on monogamy are actually pretty normal. “That’s what men are hard-wired to do. They’re genetically hard-wired to get their seed out to as many places as they can,” says Gary Klein,* a Salt Lake City clinical social worker and licensed therapist. “Now, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to get married and fool around; I’m not saying that at all. But I will say I think that lifelong monogamy is unnatural. I don’t think humans are designed for that, and there’s a fair amount of research that backs that up. It’s a societal-imposed institution.”
Ron has a more direct take: “Let me put it this way,” he says, leaning across the table, “if you can fuck it, fly it or float it—rent it, don’t buy it.”
Ron’s been dating his two sugar babies for almost a year now. He buys them gifts, dinners, a foreign car and gives them an allowance of $24,000 a year ($12,000 each). In return, he dates each sister—separately—a couple of times a month.
To the average person who doesn’t pay for sex, $24,000 is an insane amount of money. So why purchase something that people can get for free? For sugar daddies, it’s not so much about the sex as it is the power.
“Men who are economically or politically powerful are often interested in engaging in these kinds of sexual-exchange relationships,” says Elizabeth Clement, an associate professor of history at the University of Utah. Clement’s book Love For Sale focuses on turn-of-the-century prostitution and how American’s views on morality and sexuality have changed over time. “They don’t just want to have a wife; they want to have a wife and a mistress. It’s not like powerful men couldn’t get sex for free, but there’s something that they like about the encounter. Perhaps … expressing sexuality through money.”
For Clement, these types of relationships aren’t surprising. “Men are attracted to the physical attributes of youth. And women are attracted to power—and in particular, economic power,” she says. “What makes [sugar daddies in Utah] different is how invested they are in keeping it from their wives while maintaining this facade of respectability within the church and politically. There’s a cost to having a mistress here in Utah that you may not see in other places.”
According to Seeking Arrangement’s data, 71 percent of the site’s users in Utah are Mormon. And, like our man Ron, 52.1 percent of sugar daddies in Salt Lake City are married. This statistic makes Salt Lake City the second-highest in the country for having cheating sugar daddies, right behind Birmingham, Ala., at 58.2 percent.
“10 Girls to Every Guy”
To be fair, not all sugar daddies are philandering husbands like Ron. Many sugar daddies on websites like SeekingArrangement.com are just single guys looking for hassle-free dates. Worldwide, just under 40 percent of sugar daddies are married and, according to SeekingArrangement founder and CEO Brandon Wade, that number is steadily declining.
Wade heads up a modern-day sugar empire and is a firm believer in his own work. In addition to SeekingArrangement, he owns two other websites of a similar nature and has written two books, one on “sugar dating” and the other on networking with the wealthy. His real name is actually Brandon Wey—Wade is a pseudonym. “It’s not legally changed, but when I started SeekingArrangement I wanted a more Hugh Heffnerish name,” he says.
Wade created the site in 2006, initially for his own use after a string of bad luck with typical online-dating sites. “I saw that there was a problem. Very attractive woman were getting bombarded [with messages] by all these men, and that’s where the idea for SeekingArrangement came about. I wanted a website where there would be more women than men. So, on SA the men pay and the women join for free. There’s roughly 10 girls to every guy on my website.”
In the past couple of years, the 42-year-old entrepreneur has appeared on shows such as Dr. Phil, 20/20 and Dr. Drew and is extremely comfortable defending attacks against the morality of his website. “Listen, wealthy men like Donald Trump, they’ve protected themselves over the years with prenuptial agreements, and I believe that when a couple meets for the first time, they ought to discuss everything in sort of an agreement form. You should really talk about what you can offer and what you expect if things don’t work out. When this happens, then the relationship goes extremely well. You don’t have the feeling of being ripped off or lied to or cheated on.”
In February 2012, Wade officially retired from the sugar-daddy life and married a sugar baby he’d met via SeekingArrangement.
How to Be a Sugar Baby
Back at the streetside patio, Ron takes a sip from his Diet Coke. “Is all this perplexing to you?” he asks.
“I guess not,” I tell him. “But why would anyone agree to do this?”
He puts down his glass. “These girls, they don’t have the money and they don’t see it as something shameful. I don’t know why in SLC it’s so big, but there are a lot of girls on that site who are looking for guys like me to help them out. It’s real easy. If I were to look again, I’d probably have a dozen local girls contacting me.”
Our waitress stopped by our table to check up on us. “Are you guys doing all right?” she asks with a smile.
“Yeah, we’re doing fine. Thank you,” I say.
When she walks away, Ron looks over at me and whispers, “She’s on the website.”
I probably could have spit out my drink in a massive spray but was able to compose myself.
With a weak job market, a bad economy and rising personal debt, the popularity of the sugar scene makes sense. There are almost 12,000 registered women in the Salt Lake area who are currently “seeking arrangements.” Roughly 31 percent of these women are single moms, and 37 percent claim to be students.
“What we’re talking about here isn’t anything new,” Clement points out. “Women have always taken advantage … to get what they wanted. Women who aren’t interested in a sugar daddy still let men pay for drinks and entertainment, typically saying things like, ‘Oh no, that’s not what I meant, I thought you were just being nice.’ ”
Klein explains why it’s becoming a bigger, more accepted way of life. “We’re becoming more and more about instant gratification. It’s a lot harder to pay for college these days. It’s a whole different world. People have a hard time dialing in their values. ... I don’t think it’s a great leap for young women to realize they can get paid for sex.”
Olympia, a sugar baby who is currently studying broadcasting at a college in Denver, agrees. “It’s hard out here!” she says. “No, honestly, it really is. It’s so expensive these days. You can go to school, but who knows if you’ll get a job.”
Olympia, who’s 24, got into the sugar game five years ago when an A-list actor was shooting a movie in her hometown. “We started dating, and he was like, ‘Well, if we date for this amount of time, I’ll help you out.’ And that was my first sugar daddy, and it lasted for a few years. I guess it sort of catapulted me into this lifestyle. I liked it, I liked the situation. And shortly after, I got on [SeekingArrangement] because it’s where everyone goes.”
It was almost impossible to interview any women in Salt Lake City. One local sugar baby, whom I’ll call Sandra, did agree to talk. She’s a 29-year-old waitress, a Mormon and a student at the University of Utah. Typical sugar dates for Sandra include the occasional Jazz game, Utah football games, dinners and lots of shopping. Currently, she has one steady sugar daddy whom she met via Seeking Arrangement, and a few whom she’s talking to from out of state.
She doesn’t refer to them as sugar daddies; she calls them clients. “You have to separate yourself a little bit, so I try not to get too attached to these men,” she says over the phone. “You have to remind yourself that this person is married, and you have to put your emotions aside. Honestly, I don’t see what the problem is. I get to have things I never thought I’d have. Yeah, sex is usually involved, but I get about a $1,000 to $1,500 a month.”
Sandra’s sugar daddy also gifted her with a new BMW but, unfortunately, she wrecked it.
A Sugar Baby by Any Other Name
OK, so if everything is roses when it comes to sugar hookups, then why isn’t everyone jumping on the sugar train? Well, for one, if you’re a guy, you’re (figuratively) screwed. Unfortunately, there are no sugar mommas in the Salt Lake area registered at SeekingArrangements.com. To test this theory, I created two accounts on Seeking Arrangements a couple of months of ago—one was me posing as a sugar daddy and the other was me posing as a sugar baby looking for a sugar momma. My sugar-daddy account had roughly 17 girls trying to get in my pockets. My sugar-momma-seeking page: zero.
Baffled by this, I asked Clement why Utah has such a lack of generous cougars. “Well, there’s some evidence that women’s sexuality doesn’t work quite the same as men’s,” she says. “Men are much more interested in multiple partners. That’s not to say that women aren’t particularly, at certain points in their lives. But women are more interested in relationships and men are more interested in sex. It’s just not an identity that’s a comfortable one for women. Buying sex doesn’t make women feel powerful, and for men, buying sex does.”
But isn’t paying for sex ... illegal? The answer is … sort of.
“As a general rule, [such arrangements] are class B misdemeanors,” says Salt Lake City prosecutor Scott Fischer. “More specifically, a class B sexual-solicitation offense, which carries up to six months’ jail and $850 in surcharges. That’s the max. If you look at the state code for solicitation, it’s very specific on this matter.”
Fischer is referring to state code 76-10-1313, which, in a nutshell, states that when a person offers or agrees to commit any sexual activity with another person for a fee, it constitutes sexual solicitation. “I can say, as a prosecutor, if the language that they use is sufficient, then … that’s the sort of the thing that we would be willing to review to see if we could charge them,” Fischer says.
Essentially, the gray area here is in the language. What exactly is considered soliciting sex?
“Certainly a man could say, ‘You know, I just wanted the company of a pretty woman, I’m not seeking a hooker,’ ” says Andrew McCullough, an attorney who specializes in adult-entertainment cases and is currently running as a Libertarian for Utah Attorney General. “If they meet for coffee, and right away he brings up how much money per month he can spend and that he likes such-and-such sex act, then he’s dead. Or vice versa, she’s dead. But if it takes a little coaxing, that’s where the gray line comes in.”
Wade points out that his website does offer optional background checks and routinely flags potential prostitutes. “We provide a meeting place. We tell people what they can and can’t do. We kick off anywhere from 30 or 40 escorts or prostitutes a day. I think we define it very clearly on the website,” he says. “Prostitutes ask for money in exchange for sex. Usually, those arrangements last an hour or two and there are no emotions involved. Sugar babies are very different. They are much more glamorous. They wear Louis Vuitton and Gucci. It’s a difference in lifestyle, and with a sugar daddy, they develop chemistry. It develops into a friendship, and, ultimately, a relationship. If there’s no chemistry, then they walk away. That’s the difference.”
As great as all of this sounds, and just because paying for sex is easy, not all men are interested in dating a sugar baby, even if they could afford it. There’s an allure in going out, meeting people, flirting—you know, traditional dating. Though everything theoretically is put on the table, the facade of the “arranged date” comes across to some as seedy. Could you honestly marry someone who was—at least initially—only interested in you because of your money? Could you ever trust this person? The answer for most men is a resounding, “Hell, no.”
A couple of months ago on social-media website Reddit.com, an anonymous sugar baby hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything survey) asking male users of the site if they would ever date a sugar baby. The overall conclusion was not positive, with responses ranging from, “I dated a girl once who told me she was going to be a sugar baby. I told her to fuck off,” to, “Would you sleep with [a sugar daddy] for a million dollars? Probably. Would you sleep with him for two dollars? Probably not. However, since we’ve already established that you’re a whore, now we are just haggling over price. See? Simple.”
Klein can’t say how the lives and relationships of sugar babies will be affected down the line. “It’s so new,” he says. “No one knows what the ramifications will be for these women 20 years down the road.”
Player or Philanthropist?
As Ron and I finish up our interview, the topic of Ron’s wife begins to surface. “Do you think she cheats on you?” I ask.
“No, I don’t think she cheats on me,” he says. “She may have in the past, but it doesn’t really matter.”
“Do you think any of the sugar babies feel guilty, knowing that you’re married?”
“I know some of them do, but most of them don’t. They like the money. It makes me feel good knowing that if I wasn’t helping these girls, they wouldn’t be able to pay their rent and they would be on the street.”
Our waitress drops off our check, and we sit for a few minutes, both of us keeping quiet.
Ron breaks the silence. “If I get guilt-ridden, it would probably end.”
“Do you feel guilty right now?” I ask.
“I always do a little bit, but I feel that way when I’m not doing it. Let me put it this way: When I’m not in an arrangement, I feel angry. I’m not happy with my own house, so it makes me feel better more than it does guilty. It’s a fine balance, and it teeters back and forth.”
I decide to ask Ron one last question. “So, why did you talk to me today?”
Ron spins his wedding ring on his finger, seemingly unconsciously. “I don’t know, maybe I’m at a cusp where I’m wondering if there are more important things to me. Or maybe I’m just an egotist.”