Website links co-eds with ‘sugar daddies’

Ashley, a 20-year-old LSU student from Lafayette, has a secret.

While she waits tables to supplement her college financial aid, she also regularly flies out to California to spend paid time with a “sugar daddy” she met on a website created to help wealthier men hook up with young people.

Ashley said the money she gets from the more traditional sources doesn’t stretch far enough to cover her tuition on top of her living expenses. Tuition in Louisiana has risen by 51 percent since she’s been in school.

“I live off campus and I always had a problem with roommates not paying rent or being inconsiderate,” Ashley said. “I realized I had to live by myself, but I needed extra financial assistance. I don’t come from a wealthy family.”

She said her “sugar daddy” pays her a $1,200 “allowance” for every weekend they spend together. She said there is intimacy between them but it hasn’t progressed to sex.

The website she used, Seeking Arrangement, is part of an online industry that operates close to the legal line. Some social scientists say the phenomenon is just a new spin on an age-old practice: the exchange of sex for financial gain.

Law enforcement, which has made sex-trafficking a high-profile target in Louisiana and elsewhere in the country, says the practices of such websites often stop just short of the legal definition of prostitution.

Ashley, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she fears her family would be angry, hopes to go to medical school one day and does not want the stigma to follow her. The Advocate verified she was enrolled at LSU, and she said she is not being paid to talk to the newspaper.

Her experience is similar to the stories told by two others from New Orleans who are involved in the same practice but don’t know Ashley.

She said she created a profile on the website about a year ago and found her “sugar daddy” four months later after a lengthy back-and-forth exchange of email, text messages and phone calls. He’s a California businessman named Mark.

Ashley said her “sugar daddy” flies her out to Santa Barbara regularly on weekends, sometimes two or three times a month. Ashley provided The Advocate with copies of airline tickets with her name on them showing she has traveled at least several times from Baton Rouge to Santa Barbara.

“At first, I was just hoping he wasn’t a creep and I wasn’t going to get my limbs chopped off and stuffed in a suitcase,” Ashley said. “But now I think he just maybe wanted some arm candy. We go to dinner; we meet his friends. It doesn’t seem like an arrangement at all.”

The Seeking Arrangement website gives priority status to young women who sign up with a college email address. That means their profiles will be featured more prominently on the website, giving them a better chance to meet a wealthy benefactor.

Seeking Arrangement recently released its list of the “Top 20 Fastest Growing Sugar Baby Schools” for 2013. Tulane ranked 17th, with 137 students creating profiles last year, while LSU ranked 20th, with 113 new profiles.

LSU President F. King Alexander said it’s disappointing for LSU to show up on lists like that when the university is improving in many other areas.

“I’ll look into that,” Alexander said. “That troubles me.”

Seeking Arrangement founder Brandon Wade said he started the website in 2006 because he had trouble meeting women while a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, it’s a $10-million-per-year enterprise, he said.

“I was really shy in college. My first kiss was at 21,” Wade said. “My mom told me to focus on being successful and then I could change my dating fortunes.”

Wade, who is now married to one of his employees, defends his website against accusations that it promotes prostitution.

“We’re hooking up people who want to meet successful and generous people,” he said. “Financial exchanges happen in all types of relationships. It’s no different than a boyfriend that’s wealthy who’s willing to help out a girlfriend.”

He said the company has a strict policy against escorts and his staff continually monitors website traffic, comparing member profiles with known escorts to weed out prostitution. He said staffers reject as many as 200 profiles a day.

Wade added some users can attain preferred status by submitting to background checks. While safety is always a concern, he said, it’s nearly impossible to police a site with about 2.7 million members.

“People have been scammed and blackmailed, certainly,” Wade said of his website. “It’s a big concern, as with any other dating site. The Internet is a very dangerous place.”

Justin R. Garcia, an evolutionary biologist who studies sexual behavior at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, said it’s not surprising some college students weigh their options and calculate becoming a “sugar baby” is a viable way to get through school.

“The exchange of commodities happens in all sorts of relationships. Some birds exchange food for sex, primates too. There’s sex in exchange for goods in the Bible,” he said. “This allows for us to think about how sex often involves the exchange of a commodity. At face value it’s prostitution, but sometimes it’s more complicated.”

Research has shown women tend to look at men with resources as more attractive, Garcia said.

“Being attractive is not just how square a man’s jaw line is,” he said. “There’s physical beauty, a sense of humor, personality, overall health, intelligence and resources. These have all evolved over millions of years.”

“Where do we draw the line?” Garcia asked. “It naturally raises the question: Is this prostitution?”

When it comes to businesses such as Seeking Arrangement, Garcia said the question society must ask is what to allow.

Sue Bernie runs the Sex Crimes Division in the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office. After reviewing the Seeking Arrangement website, she compared it with escort services, which often hint they’re selling sex but stop just short of doing anything illegal.

Bernie said escort agencies advertise their services as innocent meet-ups “where the intent is to have dinner or go to a play,” she said. If both parties end up consenting to sex, the websites can stay ahead of the law by arguing that the escort and the customer just ended up bonding.

To fit the legal definition of prostitution in Louisiana requires “indiscriminate sexual intercourse with others for compensation,” she said.

Without any explicit solicitation for indiscriminate sex, Bernie said Seeking Arrangement falls short of being a prostitution website.

“They may skirt around it, they may push the envelope, but they are very careful not to cross the line,” she said.