The Resurgence of Sugar Daddy Culture Is Not Progress — It's a Big Step Backwards

Be careful what you wish for.
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Vanessa Blakeslee
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Be careful what you wish for.

This I read the other day: one of the fastest-growing websites, namely among college-age women and recent grads, is "Seeking Arrangement," which pairs women in need of financial help and "mentorship" ("sugar babies") with older men of means ("sugar daddies") who are willing to provide their "babies" with the "sugar lifestyle" in exchange for companionship or intimacy. The site lays out the difference between its "mutually beneficial" matchmaking services and prostitution, describing its approach as a "new way for relationships to form and grow" and distinguishing itself from other dating sites like Tinder.

"A new approach?"

I nearly choked, the laugh that emerged was so hysterical with disbelief and outrage. "This is the oldest arrangement in the history of mankind — the kept woman! This is a leap backward, not progress."

I was spouting this to Mark, my much-adored significant other who has also had the rarer experience of having been a "kept man" of sorts by his ex-wife, who acted as breadwinner of their household while he raised her son. He also happens to be twenty years my senior. But since he's a jazz musician and classical composer, and only slightly less broke than I am, he's clear of any sugar-daddy status.

"Maybe you better get on there and look for the both of us," he joked. Ours is a love between kindred spirits: harmonious, nurturing, and hard-to-find.

As I gleefully perused the "sugar lifestyle" site, I felt a strange sort of kinship with these young, eager women on Seeking Arrangement. In my twenties, I had landed myself in similar situations, albeit unconsciously—pandering to the affections of older men who, without question, would pick up the check, the flight, and sometimes, the rent. Experience leads me to believe that despite the brazen honesty "Seeking Arrangement" prides itself on, such "sugary" dynamics can often turn sour in unexpected ways.

A decade ago, sugary men of means swept down with such breathless regularity that I had to wonder if the next mid-forties bachelor or divorcee bestowing his affections had been merely biding his time across the room of the party, waiting to pounce. Probably not too much of a shock: these men who were so ready and willing to pay my way turned out to be not sugar daddies but sugar scoundrels, with only their own interest in mind.

Recently my longtime friend, Robin, and I were visiting and reminiscing about an incident involving a sugar scoundrel I'll refer to as Steve. Steve was a real estate developer in his early forties who had also started his own private airline (probably illegal, definitely short-lived). In appropriate narcissistic fashion, he'd named the airline "AirSteve." I'd only been dating him for a few weeks when my twenty-fifth birthday arrived, and he decided to fly me and some friends to the Bahamas for the weekend to celebrate. I was flattered, and had never flown in a private plane before. What was the problem? I couldn't see one.

A few hours into the flight, the pilot's wife, Robin and I were getting suspicious (unless you're in a hot air balloon, flying from Orlando to Nassau shouldn't take that long). We touched down only to discover—surprise!—Steve had flown us to Cancun instead. The captain's wife threw a silent-stared fit; Robin had a mini-meltdown, saying she needed to call her boyfriend right away and let him know she was in a different country than the one she'd told him. I tried my best to smooth things over, pretending the trick was all good fun, and Steve flying us to Mexico instead of the Bahamas without our knowledge or consent was no big deal.

Additional Image TitleSurprise!—My sugar daddy/scoundrel had flown us to Cancun instead.

Additional Image TitleSurprise!—My sugar daddy/scoundrel had flown us to Cancun instead.

The festivities commenced that evening with an awkwardly romantic group dinner on the beach. Servers descended with Dom Perignon and steak; the pilot and his wife now acquiescent, they politely smiled and played along. The next day, we sunbathed upon the Gulf's soft sands. Steve tore along the shore, jet-ski slamming the waves while Robin and I parasailed above. Far below, the coast gleamed, the turquoise water brilliant. Our adrenaline rushed on the wind. A margarita-infused lunch followed, everything paid for by Steve. Which might have been enjoyable except that our host never passed up a chance to booze from sun-up to sundown, and cajoled the rest of us into keeping up with him. The only thing that rivaled egomania in my new admirer was apparently his well-entrenched alcoholism.

At our recent reunion, Robin and I laughed heartily over these anecdotes, except for one. After exclaiming over the fact that we'd been technically kidnapped and taken to a foreign country, Robin said, "What really got me about what a jerk Steve was happened in the lobby. He was waiting for you to come back from the room, and I said something about how nice this was for him to treat you to this trip. Guess what he said? 'Oh, well, I've been really wanting to see how far the new plane would fly anyway, and I've been wanting to take it to Mexico for a while.' I mean, what an asshole!" Frowning, she shook her head. "At least that whole romance was short-lived."

True, Steve and I only officially dated for two months. But this was followed by a longer, murkier period of running into him at bars and restaurants, being invited to join, have champagne and a fancy dinner, and end up going home together at the end of the night. Finally, I severed it.

I wish I could say this was my last dalliance with The Men of the Sugar-coated Tongues. But I had no sooner ended the sour cycle with Steve when I promptly met my next scoundrel, this one a twice-divorced father in his forties. I became involved with Sugar Scoundrel #2 as a more serious girlfriend, accompanying him to Costa Rica for nearly a year—he'd taken a "marketing job" which ended with him getting arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiracy to commit securities fraud. Because Scoundrel #2 had been supporting me entirely, it took nearly a year for me to disentangle myself from the relationship and reestablish myself financially. By this time the recession had hit, and the university classes that had been so readily available before I left for Costa Rica were not so easy to obtain.

"I was flattered, and had never flown in a private plane before. What was the problem? I couldn't see one."

"I was flattered, and had never flown in a private plane before. What was the problem? I couldn't see one."

The next man I became involved with—a poet and actor only eleven years my senior, whom I was involved with for three years—I was sure didn't fit the troubling pattern, even though he dabbled in gambling and art-dealing. Recently, however, I ran into an old friend of his who informed me that my ex had more in common with his predecessors than I'd known, having allegedly sold this gentleman fake paintings in the amount of five figures. "He's a flim-flam man, a phony," the friend grumbled. "I have nothing to do with him anymore."

Sugar scoundrels, turns out, aren't just limited to manipulating younger women for their own interests.

Why is it so difficult to break the cycle with men of means bearing red flags, who are only half-heartedly supportive of the "sugar babies" they pursue, if that? Scoundrels #2 and #3 sporadically bought me clothes when they sensed I needed them: Lucky jeans, La Perla underwear, Prada frames when my Coke bottle eyeglass prescription needed updating. I've never cared much about brands but these men liked finery, and knew I appreciate quality, so they bought designer label gifts. Initially I'd found all three colorful and amusing, and the perks of being in their company filled in the gaps my feast-or-famine wages as a waitress, university adjunct, tutor, and emerging writer simply couldn't cover. So much so that I didn't realize how much I'd come to rely on their informal, undeclared, but fairly steady "help" until each union inevitably ended. Then I couldn't afford to get my clunker of a car fixed, or buy a new laptop when mine died, or afford a new mattress, or otherwise keep up a middle-class life. A full gas tank and trunk of groceries, a few hundred dollars—sometimes a thousand—makes an enormous difference. Especially to a working class woman striving to become a writer.

These men got me from point A to B. I relied on their help and the security it brought just like millions of other women of limited means around the world who rely on the men in their lives to get by. Some of these men will be of good character and nature in their giving of support. Many will have personality disorders, mistreat and abuse others, especially women and children. The situation isn't limited by gender; many men are "kept" too—often a more invisible phenomenon.

Now, a few years out of the toxic sugar cycle, was catering to the sweet tooth worth it?

Born out of genuine affection and good-humor, arrangements with perks may fill a short-term void, but set up a trap no less insidious in the long run. The "generosity" allows, even encourages, the receiver—whether male or female—to count on that help, and when the relationship ends (as is often the case, since the emotional bond is at the mercy of the "arrangement's" demands), the "baby" is very much in a vulnerable, infantile position. She, or he, is faced with the same dilemma of how to pay the bills. Worse, she may now be older, have lost ground from passing over opportunities for a more genuine love or rewarding career move because of the time spent having fun with, but inevitably investing in, her benefactor, who is only devoted as deeply his whims. The "baby" must now scramble, leaning on parents, siblings, or as I did for so long, anticipate the next "daddy" to sweep down.

Doesn't sound so sweet after all, does it?

Sugar, according to the latest health reports, is more toxic to humans than we thought. Fructose is as hard on the liver as alcohol and processed the exact same way. I've eliminated consuming sugar almost entirely, and I don't drink anymore. My dear significant other has done the same. In the beginning, I felt wary, even afraid, of how difficult adjusting to the non-sugar lifestyle would be. However, when you remove the sugar and skip the cheap high, to begin to notice the true flavor of food again. It's the same with kicking the sugar daddy habit. You feel more clear-headed and vibrant than you can ever remember feeling. You pass up the sugar for the savory.