Devoted sex journalist that I am, when I heard that SeekingArrangement.com was hosting its first-ever Sugar Baby Summit, offering an afternoon of seminars for both beginners and masters of the Sugar lifestyle, I eagerly accepted the invitation to attend. Who would pass up on a day of that followed by an evening of people-watching at an awkward dating mixer? But more on that later.
Sugaring, in case you're new to the concept, is a type of relationship/lifestyle in which a Sugar Baby (SB) "provides companionship in exchange for being pampered," while a Sugar Daddy (SD) "pampers Sugar Babies in return for companionship." "Pampering" is obviously a broad term, and can include explicitly negotiated financial compensation — like an allowance, tuition payments, or an investment into a Sugar Baby's business venture — or simply gifts, trips, and other treats. "Companionship" is an equally broad term, which can range from explicitly negotiated sexual contracts, to casual dating, to a monogamous relationship, to being a married Daddy's secondary partner.
The Sugar Baby Summit seminars included important SB how-tos like style and beauty tips, Internet safety, and a funds management session hosted by (I kid you not) a former Romney-Ryan campaign staffer. Those were followed by a masquerade-themed mixer, where SBs could practice their newly honed skills on a club full of SDs (and oh was that soirée fascinating).
The Sugar Baby Lifestyle gets a lot of flack for being anti-feminist, patriarchal, or simply glorified sex work. But I — and a lot of sex-positive feminists like me — believe that A) there's nothing wrong with sex work, B) there are totally ways to live a feminist SB lifestyle, and C) there are ways to live an SB lifestyle that have nothing to do with being a sex worker whatsoever. There's nothing wrong with entering into a consensual, reciprocal relationship in which "love" is exchanged for material gain. Sugaring can absolutely be a feminist act when performed by women who own their sexuality and are up-front about their needs and expectations.
And SeekingArrangements.com seemed committed to reinforcing this idea, making clear that there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about becoming a Sugar Baby. Yes, it (generally) plays into the idea of women lending their "company" as they allow a man to financially support them. But a PR expert on one of the panels offered a useful reframing to anyone who feared that they might be contradicting their feminism by choosing the Sugar lifestyle. She pointed out:
"You're using what is available to you to get what you want. Men do the same thing, but they get more opportunity because of their privilege. Sugar Baby mentality is the same as alpha male mentality — you have ambition, you're dreaming for more."
"I feel like such a lady boss," veteran Sugar Baby Chelsea Ridenour tells the crowd during one seminar. "It's about looking for what you want, knowing your boundaries, being smart, going after what you want."
There are plenty of women who live both as Sugar Babies and as active feminists — the two are not mutually exclusive. What is anti-feminist, however, is how the Summit undermined its attempt to empower women by encouraging dishonesty and manipulation dressed up as ~flirtatious teasing~ and coquettishness. Of course, these tactics have their place in any power dynamic. But only once you've explicitly discussed your needs, desires, and expectations, and established boundaries and consent. And these vital concepts in power play were completely glossed over at the Sugar Baby Summit in a misguided effort to make the Sugar lifestyle seem "accessible" and "mainstream."
For example, representatives from the website constantly obsessed over how the site was kept "PG." It was very clearly their intent to de-stigmatize Sugaring, and bring it into the light as a fun, exciting, sexy way to play, away from the shady taboos that are often associated with it.
But there's nothing R-rated about frank communication and consent. Or there shouldn't be. Unfortunately, in its shortsighted efforts to become a "PG" "dating/relationship" website (as opposed to a place to find sex), SeekingArrangement.com has some pretty murky, sex-negative policies.
Take, for example, the demographics of the Sugar Baby Summit: it was overwhelmingly populated by female SBs seeking male Sugar Daddies. One of the site reps chalked this up, in part, to some gender-biased language in the first email blast sent out about the event, which was later changed to be more inclusive. So, ultimately, a few male SBs did show up. I asked if there were any plans for LGBT mixers or "gender swapped" summits in the future, and was met with a response that irked me, both as a feminist and as a queer woman. Site rep Brook Urick tells Bustle:
"It wouldn't really be cost efficient or warranted to have an event for just male or just LGBT [Sugar Babies]. I mean, only 10 percent of the population is gay, so only about five percent of our site is gay ... We are talking about doing some smaller LGBT mixers like in San Francisco or New York, where the communities are a bit bigger. But we like to garner a lot of media interest, and unfortunately only gay outlets are usually interested in gay events. And while that would be great, we get [the gay outlets covering us] anyway. We want to get as many people on the site as possible, and the fact is, everyone reads New York Daily News.
There are a lot of male Sugar Babies. There are. But there are not very many Sugar Mommies. Society kind of dictates that there wouldn't be very many Sugar Mommies, just because of gender roles, and how men are usually the provider, and it's kind of weird for a woman to be in [the Mommy] role, and it's kind of weird for a man to be in [the Sugar Baby] role.
I appreciate that SeekingArrangement.com is a business trying to turn a profit, and so the cogs of capitalism are going to be turning here. But saying that it's "kind of weird for a woman to be in the mommy role" certainly isn't empowering to the strong, financially independent women for whom the site also offers services. And saying that there's no market for LGBT events is patently false — the queer community has proven time and again that if you create accessible queer spaces, queers will come (operative word: accessible). The myth that there "isn't a market" for LGBT Sugaring can be dispelled with one visit to a "Gay Professionals" Happy Hour Mixer, and the same can be said for male Babies/Sugar Mamas by viewing of a single episode of Real Housewives of New York.
The summit revealed its latent anti-feminism again later with the sex-positivity (or negativity, as it were) issue of disclosing your kink identity on the site. SeekingArrangement.com seems like a natural place to go if you're a Fi-Dom (financial Dom/me, controlling the finances of your submissive) or a pay pig (the submissive moneybags who gets off on relinquishing power over their financial assets to a Fi-Dom). And several site reps admitted that these folks exist on the site. The CEO, Brandon Wade, even implied that it was easy, if you were a BDSM-oriented Sugar Baby, to search profiles and find Daddies who were too.
However, I received contradictory remarks about how kosher disclosing your interest in financial, sexual, or psychological BDSM is on the site. One rep even ventured, "I would say most of the girls on the site don't really understand [the BDSM lifestyle] and don't know what that is," which is a borderline offensive underestimation of her clients.
The same rep added with regard to BDSM, "If you have wording about being weird on there or something that would make someone uncomfortable, we actually have a team of people who will deny you. There are certain keywords and a threshold [for how many times you use them]."
So, all you "weirdos" making folks "uncomfortable" with your legitimate desires: this might not be the most hospitable place for you. I tried to ask what buzz words could get people scrubbed from the site, and was refused an answer: "I can't tell you about the keywords, because if I did, then people would get around them by using other words, and we really don't want those kind of people on the site."
Those kind of people.
But all of this was precisely my point — It seems difficult to navigate achieving honest communication about what people are looking for without setting off the NSFW alarms that would get users booted.
A different site representative backpedaled these views and said that it was perfectly fine to disclose your kink identity (should you have one), just that you couldn't solicit explicit acts or an explicit dynamic for money. Basically, no "transactional language" is permitted on the site.
So there are a bunch of frustrating policies to wade through on SeekingArrangement.com itself, but for those who are committed to the SB lifestyle anyway, the seminar offered an array of tips on safe and effective Sugaring — many of them useful, and many reflecting the same problematic ideals that permeated the seminar.
1. Makeup is mandatory on dates
"Not that you aren't all beautiful without makeup," SeekingArrangement rep Brook Urick gently told the Sugar Babies in attendance during her introduction. But it's mandatory.
2. But guys are afraid of too much makeup
"It screams high maintenance," said the hair and makeup expert, who goes simply by Phoenix. "They're afraid it's going to take you an hour to get ready."
3. Be clean
Veteran Sugar Baby Chelsea told the crowd a cautionary tale of how she once got dumped for having makeup dregs in her sink when her Sugar Daddy came by to visit.
4. Go over your need/uses for funds
You're more likely to get cash out of your Sugar Daddy if you ask for money to help with specific costs: car payment, cell phone bill, student loan payments, etc. Successful business-type Daddies also respond well to requests for "an investment" into your business venture, be it your lifestyle blog or your web series. All of this is basically the classy way to be like, "give me x amount of dollars in exchange for my companionship now, please."
5. How to deal with possessive Sugar Daddies
Sugaring is like any other form of freelance work — multiple streams of income is key. So what happens if you wind up with a possessive SD who doesn't want you seeing other guys? Expert SB Chelsea suggests taking this firm stance: "Look, if you're not gonna give me a big allowance and you're not gonna let me see other people, then I'm not gonna see you."
6. How to subtly bring up your financial arrangement on the first date
Chelsea recommends breaking the ice by asking "So why SeekingArrangements instead of a regular dating site?" It can provide a natural transition into talking about your needs and expectations, if the idea of a frank money talk feels forced and transactional to you.
7. How to find a Sugar Daddy in the wild
So you want to go offline. If you're talking to a cute stranger and you want to know whether they have SD potential, try looking for expensive accessories (checking the quality of their watch was a specific tip), or bringing up "traveling." These can provide clues into their lifestyle and finances.
8. How to snag a Sugar Daddy in the wild
So you obviously have a moneyed human in your clutches while flirting in the field. How do you broach the subject of Sugaring? Chelsea suggests using the phrase "mutually beneficial dating." Ask them if they've heard of it, or if they have any interest in or experience with it. Perhaps open up about your experience/interest and see where things go.
9. Safety tips while traveling
A Sugar Daddy might be long-distance and ask you to travel to see him. Or, he might travel a lot himself and ask you to come with. Here are some safety tips to bear in mind when traveling for Sugar:
A. Share your Google Maps location with a friend. Basically, GPS chip yourself at all times.
B. Always have a round trip ticket. You don't want to get stranded if things go south.
C. Make sure a hotel room is in your name, or that you have your own key. It gives you back some power when you're traveling on his dime.
10. Securing a married Sugar Daddy is basically hitting the jackpot
Forty percent of SeekingArrangement users are married Sugar Daddies, most of whom are acting with permission from their wives. Married SDs are "less clingy," says Chelsea, and they often give bigger allowances. They're also usually more relaxed about you having multiple partners.
"He doesn't want to settle down and get married," adds Brook. "He doesn't want to go out all the time, meaning a more low-key relationship."
11. Married Sugar Daddy etiquette
Don't call or text a married SD — their families might see those notifications on their phones; email is best when contacting a married SD. Also, don't hang out in their neighborhood on dates.
12. Sugar Babies aren't gold diggers
According to CEO Brandon Wade, "You don't care what other people think. You're into having fun. You have a lot to offer somebody else."
13. Know exactly what you want and what you don't want
Then, commodify your knowledge of your needs. Your needs are your power. Express them to get what you want, or withhold the information to draw out mystery. Says Brandon, "If you join the site for a Chanel bag, you're going to get used. The best way to a man's wallet is through his heart. I'd say no sex for the first month. Hold a lot of mystery. A-type players are successful and on the site for a challenge."
14. You don't necessarily have to put out to cash in
"I'm never going to have sex with you but I will let you think so for one more month," Chelsea recalls of her thought process dating one particular Daddy. So it is possible to commodify your flirtation, companionship, and attention, if you don't necessarily want to sleep with a potential Daddy.
15. Find sugar sisters
There's a huge Sugar Baby community on Tumblr. Make friends, share experiences, learn new things, and, most importantly, publicly shame "Salt Daddies" — older men who date younger women but have "nothing to offer" them.
16. Some guys will resent you for being independently successful
"I feel like a lot of guys resent me for being able to travel on my own," shared one independently wealthy Sugar Baby, who was mostly on the site to find guys with similar lifestyles.
17. On Sugaring while being a mom
A. Never introduce an SD to your kids, advises Vine star Danyelle Rose.B. Don't bring up that you have kids until date five.C. SDs who were raised by single mothers will allegedly have a lot more respect for you.
18. Many Sugar Babies lead double lives, but Sugaring can kill your desire for regular relationships
It's common for women to have regular boyfriends while they date Sugar Daddies, or while they have platonic Sugar Daddies. But Sugaring can ruin regular relationships, warns Brook.
"As it goes on, [Sugar Babies] usually figure out that normal guys aren't really for them," she says. "They get used to [a certain lifestyle], and when someone can't provide you with those things, it builds resentment."
As you can see, a lot of the advice doled out pushed teasing, omission, and indirect communication as ways to get what you want. Over and over again, I saw women discouraged from being up-front about their intentions and boundaries because it would "turn off" a potential Daddy and compromise their ability to cash in. This is what's anti-feminist about Sugaring — pandering to anti-feminist Sugar Daddies. Lots of power-tripping dudes will get turned off by a woman wielding her power in explicit ways. That's why you talk about how you like power to change hands at the outset, when you're defining the terms of your dynamic. If you skip that step, you might end up with a Daddy who controls you not because you like it (feminist), but because it's his default to treat women that way (not feminist). And that guy doesn't deserve to be rewarded with an awesome, thoughtful, savvy Sugar Baby like you.
I think Sugaring is a completely valid, totally great lifestyle/relationship choice. But I also think that, like in all relationships, you have to practice complete honesty and openness with your partner or partners. This is especially true when the relationship has a transactional nature or a power dynamic built into it. And if your Sugar Daddy can't deal with that like a grown-up, then he isn't worth his salt.