When Victoria was 15, her father took her to the Red Light District in Amsterdam.
"Vicky," he said, pointing to the women dancing behind the glass of a shop window, "if you don't go to college, you'll end up like this."
More than a decade later, Victoria sits in a dimly lit booth at the Cheesecake Factory in Tucson Mall on a Tuesday night, a year away from getting a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the University of Arizona.
At 28, she's older than most students. And with surgically plumped lips, veneer-capped teeth, and Ugg boots covered in red rhinestones, she doesn't look like them, either.
She was early today, early enough to have already ordered and finished a salad by the time her slightly late dinner date arrived, so she sips lemonade from a sugar-rimmed glass while talking about the classes she's taking this semester: two studio art classes, art history, and a digital communications course.
But she doesn't want to talk about school. She'd rather discuss her plan to become a photographer for a luxury lifestyle magazine or her favorite hobby: shopping.
She describes her closet full of clothes from "Bloomies" and Victoria's Secret and gushes about the chocolatey perfume she's obsessed with these days. It costs $375 a bottle.
At some point, she mentions that she grew up poor in Virginia — her father was in the U.S. Marines and her mother was a hairdresser — but not in a defensive way, just to highlight that her life wasn't always like this. In fact, just two semesters ago, she felt like a lot of college students: uncertain she'd graduate because she couldn't afford tuition.
But money isn't an issue anymore because Victoria has a sugar daddy — three, to be precise.
She met them through Seeking Arrangement, the leading matchmaking website for sugar daddies (usually older wealthy men) and sugar babies (usually young attractive women) looking to connect for "mutually beneficial arrangements." She says she's romantically involved with two of the men (one is 57 and the other is 62) but just friends with the third. He's 81.
Victoria — who like all sugar babies interviewed for this article, asked that her last name not be used — says that before she discovered the website, she'd had some experience dating older men who lavished her with gifts and the occasional wad of cash, but she never imagined she could finance her entire life and education that way.
"I realized I needed that kind of support, love, and assistance. And I missed shopping and all that good stuff," she says, explaining her decision to become a sugar baby.
In some ways, the life she's living features a timeless dynamic: an older wealthy man and younger attractive woman dating for reasons having a lot to do with virility and financial security, respectively.
But what makes it new and different is the sheer number of college students like her who can — and who do — get, with the click of a mouse, nearly unlimited access to men offering to help them graduate debt-free.
And in return, these men get unprecedented access to thousands of college girls offering "companionship," a loose term that purportedly is defined on a case-by-case basis by each couple.
Seeking Arrangement estimates that at least 1.34 million people, about a third of the site's active users, are students or were students when they joined. Hundreds of them live in Arizona.
"It's a lot more common here than [most people] think," Victoria says before pausing, as she often does, to remove a small compact mirror from her purse and check her eye makeup.
She smiles, squinting. "I want to popularize this lifestyle, make it more open [and accepted, so] maybe it will save someone else's life like it saved mine," she says.
"I pray every night before I go to sleep and thank the Almighty for sharing the abundances of the world through my sugar daddies."
Victoria is far from alone when it comes to being a sugar baby in Arizona. Consider Emily, a freshman at ASU who says she's tired of dating guys her own age because they can't afford to take her out to a nice restaurant. Or Ashlie, a sophomore at ASU who signed up for Seeking Arrangement at the beginning of the semester because her part-time job wasn't cutting it, and a friend — also a sugar baby — suggested she give it a try.
No one should be surprised that these sites are so popular, says Julie Spira, an online dating expert and founder of www.cyberdatingexpert.com.
"The cost of college has become exorbitant, and kids are looking at debt that will be with them for years, even decades," Spira says. "They look at the cost of tuition and their bank balances, and this starts to look enticing. [Plus], they see other people are doing it so they know they're not alone."
The increasing cost of higher education during the past few decades is staggering. A recent analysis by Bloomberg Business found that the average tuition price has increased 1,120 percent since 1978. To put that in perspective, that's a rate of growth four times higher than the consumer price index, the standard measure of price changes for most consumer goods and services.
Private colleges and universities account for much of that increase, but students attending public schools are bearing a lot of the burden, too.
Data from the College Board shows that even after adjusting for inflation, the annual price of in-state tuition at a four-year public university in Arizona has nearly doubled in the past decade: from $5,138 in 2004-05 to $10,646 this academic year.
With the national student loan debt surpassing $1.1 trillion, it's perhaps no wonder sites like Seeking Arrangement are booming.
People "sign up for this lifestyle" for all sorts of reasons, says Brook Urick, a spokeswoman for Seeking Arrangement, but it's certainly "a magnet for students."
All three public universities in the state made Seeking Arrangement's list of the 50 most popular schools for sugar babies — ASU actually comes in at number two in the country, just behind New York University, with well over 1,100 sugar babies.
When asked about the growing number of Arizona students resorting to sugar dating, Jay Heiler, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, writes in an e-mail that he isn't familiar with the trend, but "any incidence of such decisions by students, no matter how small, saddens me."
Yet while experts agree that the rising cost of college is directly fueling the growth in sugar dating, there's ample disagreement about what, exactly, sugar dating is and whether sites like Seeking Arrangement are legitimately helping needy college students or pimping them out under the guise of a dating website.
In interviews and on the many blogs and online forums devoted to sugar dating, women often say they feel empowered by taking their education and future into their own hands. Brandon Wade, founder and CEO of Seeking Arrangement, says this is what sugar dating is all about:
"A Sugar Baby is an empowered woman who is tired of dating losers that contribute nothing to her life. She has made a commitment to only date men who will help her to achieve her goals."
(Wade is the same man who likes to say, "Love is a concept invented by poor people," and who, as a self-described nerdy MIT graduate with zero skills in meeting women, started the site in 2006 so he could get a girlfriend.)
Through surveys of its users, Wade's company has learned that sugar babies receive an average of $3,000 a month. Emily says she's usually slipped a few hundred dollars during a date, and Victoria says she was gifted $2,595 in cash or direct deposits during January but says it's probably closer to $5,000 if shopping trips, meals, and other expenditures are counted.
"This isn't a site for escorting or prostitution," Seeking Arrangement's Urick says, adding that sugar dating is "a way to finance your education [and] meet people who can help you get ahead in life."
But many, including Dr. Melissa Farley, an internationally recognized clinical psychologist and researcher who has studied the sex work industry for more than two decades, thinks sugar dating websites exploit young women, not empower them.
"Seeking Arrangement is online prostitution," she says without a trace of doubt in her voice. "Sex is expected and I think anyone is naive, or ignoring the obvious, to believe this hustle is about pleasant intellectual conversation between a nice guy and a cute girl."
They don't call it the oldest profession for nothing. From the ancient Sumerians and Greeks to the Mayans and earliest Chinese dynasties, there's evidence of people exchanging sex for some sort of payment everywhere throughout history.
Sometimes it occurred for religious reasons and took on a spiritual meaning, and sometimes the deals were much more of a business transaction. In some places, female (or male) prostitutes were revered figures in society, while in others they were literal slaves, or at least treated as such.
In the Western world, brothels in ancient Greece were usually regulated by local governments, and throughout much of the Roman Empire, prostitutes had to be licensed and pay taxes on their income.
But then during the Middle Ages, as the Catholic Church gained prominence in much of Europe, the selling of sex became an underground market. Yet while church leaders vilified it publicly, they often turned a blind eye, letting it happen in private because it was thought to prevent worse sins like sodomy.
"If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts," Saint Augustine famously declared.
In the centuries that followed, most European kings and governments outlawed prostitution formally and persecuted perpetrators.
Meanwhile, despite having puritanical origins, the U.S. turned out to be relatively tolerant of the practice. In fact, it was legal in most states until the early 20th century, when the same political pressures that led to Prohibition also fomented a move to outlaw sex work.
But as with alcohol consumption, declaring prostitution illegal doesn't make it go away. It just makes it go underground.
"For decades, sex work continued in the shadows," writes Maggie McNeill, an author and expert on sex work. It could be purchased at massage parlors, bars and hotels, and on the street corners, and "those who provided outstanding service drew referrals by word of mouth, just as other businesses do."
And then the Internet changed everything. The sex work industry was one of the first to successfully use online marketing and sales, and according to Farley, continues to adapt to new technology every year.
The vast majority of people find prostitutes or escorts online these days, she says, reiterating her firm stance that websites like Seeking Arrangement are pimping out vulnerable women for profit. A spokeswoman for the company confirms that it brings in more than $30 million each year.
Perhaps oddly for an entire lifestyle built around wealth, advocates of sugar dating often get defensive when asked about men exchanging money for a woman's companionship:
"Just because money is exchanged in a relationship doesn't make it prostitution. My mother stayed at home and she got an allowance from my dad. Others pamper their girlfriends with gifts and shopping and spa treatments," Wade told a reporter for Business Insider.
Wade maintains that his company is no different than any other online dating site and is doing nothing illegal. Technically, experts say, he's correct.
"Since the 1970s, courts have agreed that sexual acts are not deemed to fall within the realm of prostitution if there is something accompanying the sex, such as companionship, dinner, or even cleaning the house," attorney Jacqueline Motyl wrote in an article about the legality of sugar dating websites for the Penn State Law Review.
Meanwhile, sugar babies tend to speak proudly of their independence and ingenuity, often pointing out that there's a transactional aspect to every relationship.
On blogs and in interviews, they also mention that there have always been women who date or marry rich older men. Like it or not, they say, since the 1950s, when courting became a commercial enterprise and the modern date was conceived, men have been expected to pay for dates and women have been expected to give something in return.
But critics still say there's a big difference, and that it comes down to coercion.
"The money is the coercion in sugar dating," Farley says. "The tuition is being held over her head. Most prostitutes don't have a gun to their head — that's only in Hollywood. Most prostitutes deal with next month's rent, a mom's need for a minor surgery not covered by insurance, a kid's need for new school clothes."
"The money is the coercion," she repeats. "If they could get it any other way, they would not be turning to Seeking Arrangement."
Emily, the ASU freshman, learned about Seeking Arrangement last November. She and a few other girls were drinking in a dorm room and one of the girls mentioned that a high school friend was using a website to find rich men to wine and dine her and give her money for school.
"We were all, like, 'Best idea ever!'" Emily says, "but only me and this one other girl signed up. The others backed out."
Part of the appeal was money, but part of the appeal was also the chance to find a slightly older, classier man who would treat her to nice dinners and take her out on dates. ASU guys don't do that; they just take girls to frat parties, she says.
In the months since signing up on the website, Emily's received more than 150 messages but has responded to only a few of them.
"Most guys say things like, 'Hi, how are you?' or they mention something from your profile," she says. "But some guys get really creepy," writing things like, "I'll give you $300 to come to my house and have sex with me," or sexually graphic things she doesn't feel comfortable repeating.
Though she's never had sex with any of the men she's dated and thinks it's probably true that a lot of men see the website "as an actual prostitution-like thing," Emily also believes there are sugar daddies out there who are on the site for other reasons.
And while she's yet to find one of those guys, she's still looking.
The first man she went on a date with certainly seemed promising. In his mid-30s and attractive, he invited her to meet him at an upscale sushi restaurant in Scottsdale.
"He was really upfront and handed me a menu with $120 in it," she says, which she thought was pretty slick. But then the date quickly turned sour.
"He was really rude, very entitled because he was paying for me to be there," she says, but the deal-breaker was finding out he was married. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she remembers learning that a man her mother was dating had cheated on her. "So that guy I was done with."
The second guy she went out with, though in his 40s and not as attractive as he looked in pictures, was at least single and seemed polite. He came across as very respectful, so she said yes when he invited her to come over and watch a movie at his house.
"I wasn't honestly thinking when I agreed, but I felt safe, though," she says, mentioning that Seeking Arrangement verifies the identities, backgrounds, and net worth of the men who pay extra to be Diamond Club members.
Since it was a casual date, Emily wore leggings and a nice top but still straightened her long strawberry blond hair because she knows looking pretty is an important part of being a sugar baby. Only a handful of her friends know she sugar dates, and she made sure to tell at least one of them where she'd be that night. You know, she says, just in case.
The date went well. The man owned an engineering company and he began the night by taking her on a tour of his huge Scottsdale home.
After the tour, they watched a movie and had some pleasant conversation. He gave her $200 and paid for her cab home. All in all, it was a pretty good night, she says, which is why she agreed to a second movie date.
Like the first time, they made small talk after she arrived and he poured her a glass of wine (she's 19), but instead of starting the movie, he got down to business.
"I'm not going to pay someone to hang out with me," he said bluntly, explaining that he expected her to sleep with him.
Emily was shocked by the abruptness of it all — he didn't make any sexual advances, just blurted out his expectations — and she decided to leave.
One the way home, he texted her and said she should delete his number from her phone.
"For most guys of any age, it's true that they expect sex. I don't think it's directly correlated to being on this website," she says.
This isn't to say she'd never be intimate with a sugar daddy from Seeking Arrangement.
"I wouldn't rule it out, just like I wouldn't rule it out with someone my age," she says. "If something clicked, I would be open to it."
"People who are pimps and people who are acting as pimps avoid stating that they're promoting prostitution, and this is a case of that," says Melissa Farley, the sex work expert. "But they know where the hunting grounds are: young women who are fiscally vulnerable. That is increasingly 18-year-olds who are trying to pay for their education [and] probably wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for the money."
It scares her to think about what could have happened to Emily ("That girl is so lucky she didn't get raped!" she practically shouts) before wondering aloud how many sugar babies last more than a few dates before deciding they'd rather make $15 an hour and avoid being humiliated, degraded, and possibly assaulted.
"Yes, being a barista at Starbucks is lousy pay and, yes, your boss might suck, but the difference is that [as a barista], you're not expected to smile and say you like it when an ugly, fat man who is the age of your grandparent cums on your face," she says.
"Women don't want to think it's going to be as bad, humiliating, or harmful as it actually is. Women don't want to think it's going to be quite as dehumanizing as it actually is."
Victoria declines to talk in detail about the intimate relationship she has with two of her sugar daddies, except to say, "Older men understand my soul, not just my body."
She will say that she's attracted to the way sugar dating makes her feel — if not necessarily desired, then at least needed. "My sugar daddies get a lot out of it, too. They work hard and I give them moral support and a sense of togetherness they don't get anywhere else," she says.
And in return, they give her what she feels she needs: financial security.
Growing up in a small town in Virginia as the second of four children, Victoria describes feeling lucky to get a new outfit from Salvation Army every September, never mind new shoes or fresh school supplies.
She tells stories of being bullied and teased by other kids for being chubby, wearing thick glasses, and having crooked teeth. And she remembers always feeling different than her classmates because her family spoke Polish and was Jewish. Neighborhood kids threatened to throw a raw pork chop at her once, she says.
But none of that matters anymore, she adds with a huge grin, because now she has sugar daddies to pamper her and treat her well.
Sugar dating is all about "getting what you want on your terms without the hassle of a traditional relationship," she says, aping one of Seeking Arrangement's taglines.
But to Dan Fincke, a former adjunct professor of philosophy at Fordham University who now teaches interactive online ethics and philosophy courses through his website Camels With Hammers, "It just seems like a recipe for potentially hurt feelings."
Fincke became interested in the world of sugar dating a few years ago after he read a news article about it.
"I was a professor at the time so I felt a sort of protective feeling toward my students. It was offensive to me that education was so priced out that people might want to exploit themselves so they could even attend."
But since he doesn't think there's anything "inherently problematic" with sex work if the circumstances are right, he decided to work out the questions he had about sugar dating by writing a fictionalized dialogue between two people on opposite sides of the debate.
"It makes me sick to think that for these girls an education costs their bodies," the first character says.
"Whoa," says the second character, surely this isn't all bad. "This is just about sex and companionship and earning a lot of money. These young women are not anyone's slaves. They are autonomous, sexually liberated women. Many of them come from elite universities. They are smart people making a calculation about what their time and their attention [is] worth."
The two go back and forth, debating the ethics of prostitution and what the motivations of the men involved might be, in many ways echoing the conversations and questions asked for years by TV personalities, journalists, bloggers, and social media users.
But having thought about this for a while, Fincke believes the questions we should be asking are not whether it's prostitution or the latest incarnation of an age-old romantic dynamic. The questions we should be asking are about whether these arrangements really leave either party — but particularly the young women — in a better place emotionally, physically, and psychologically.
If there's a darker side to Victoria's sugar dating lifestyle, she goes out of her way to deny it. She made the decision to be pathologically optimistic a few years ago and tries to be all "smiles" and "positivity" because her goal is "to bring happiness" to everyone around her.
As she approaches 30, she has no regrets, or at least any she'll admit to. She says she's come a long way in life, and that she's worked hard to get where she is.
"I always knew someone would come into my life and save me, turn my whole world around," she says, batting her eyelashes. "It feels so good to be taken care of . . . It's like a miracle."
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