Jericho‘s Sonia Cuesta Maniar spoke to Brandon Wade, CEO and founder of a number of websites seeking to connect ‘sugar daddies’ with ‘sugar babies’. She also spoke to ‘E’, a London-based escort, seeking to uncover the truth about an industry that very few of us are exposed to – save for those directly involved.
“Sorry for the slight delay, hun. My client took ages to leave and I couldn’t force him out – he had paid for the full-girlfriend experience, after all!” explains E as she gives her makeup a final check in the mirror before sitting down and directing her gaze back at the screen, smiling at my Skype image. She draws a deep breath for what seems to be the first time in a while. “Poor fool, can you believe he told me he loved me today? I told him I loved him back, of course”.
‘Love does not exist. Love is a concept invented by poor people.’
– Brandon Wade, CEO and Founder, Seeking Arrangement
As far back as I can remember, my mother has wished health, money and love instead of the classic ‘bless you’ each time anyone sneezed. Since the standard of living has increased across developed countries, love has become life’s foremost goal for many. Self-help books, Valentine’s Day, chick-flicks, hearts, and sex tips in widely-sold magazines plague our society indicating love is the answer to all our problems. Everyone is now looking for somebody to love, not just Freddie Mercury in his 1976 hit. Of course, it is no secret that in this age of economically-driven love-mania, companionship has become marketable and, consequently, subject to the expectations of consumers. ‘Sugar daddies’ and escorts, like London-based E, are at the vanguard of the increasing monetisation of love and emotions.
The exchange of sexual favours for money or gifts is well established across modern society, especially in an age of unprecedented loneliness. OECD statistics show that in the last fifty years, marriage rates amongst males between the ages of 25 to 45 have dropped by close to 50%. In England, 40% of people between the ages of 18 and 50 are single – with London and Manchester heading the list. An always-on society prompted by capitalist labour-saving technology has caused a ‘dramatic rise in feelings of stress and lack of time’, as predicted by German social theorist Hartmut Rosa over a decade ago. This existential anxiety has encouraged the development of a new market for those seeking to dispel their loneliness. Unsurprisingly, the bachelors (and, in far smaller numbers, bachelorettes) using these escorting and sugar daddy websites are between the ages of 30 to 47 and willing to pay for the privilege.
Sugar daddies and sugar babies
Prostitution produces an estimated revenue of US$187 billion worldwide every year; the consistent nature of demand for the services of the world’s oldest profession makes this an ever-blooming and adaptable business. Thousands of online sites and apps have appeared since the early 2000s. Brothels, red-light districts, ‘streetwalkers’ and ‘kerb-crawlers’ are steadily being replaced by online arrangements, indicating that society’s unrelenting intimate needs are no longer merely sexual.
Gary Marshall depicted this in his modern-classic Pretty Woman. Businessman Edward Lewis discusses a ‘business proposition’ with Vivian Ward offering her $3,000 to spend the week with him. Lewis explains he prefers a professional to spare himself from any romantic hassle. The sum at which Ward kicked her legs in excitement in the 1990 film is equivalent to what E makes in an hour today – however the companionship aspect remains. Sex has become secondary with so-called ‘sugar baby’ websites taking over. In them, wealthy men are paired with young girls whom they offer to take care of financially – usually to the tune of around $3000 per month – in exchange for company.
A lucrative industry
‘Why deal with the unknowns of a traditional relationship when you could enter into an arrangement with fixed terms?’ giggles 47-year-old sugar daddy website mogul Brandon Wade, founder and CEO of websites SeekingArrangement, MissTravel, and What’s Your Price, in response to my scepticism. Unlucky in his romantic life, and having had his first kiss at age 21, Wade was advised by his mother to work hard so that, one day, upon becoming wealthy and successful, he could use his generosity to ‘turn things around’.
Indeed, according to MIT-educated Wade, love is not real – it is simply an economic transaction. Love, Wade says, has been “invented by poor people” who find solace in the belief that there is something more to a relationship than humdrum, quotidian reality. Though his brand resembles traditional dating sites with images of seemingly perfect couples recounting their success stories, the choice of language is different. The transactional nature of relationships born on the site is apparent as one is accosted by the words ‘spoil’, ‘pamper’ and ‘treat’. Rather than be rooted in some new-fangled futurist philosophy, Wade bases his idea on Indian and Chinese traditional arranged marriages where two parties are brought together because they can secure a future for one another. “Marriage”, he says confidently, “is not the only path to happiness or financial security – an arrangement can provide the same benefits as a marriage without the risk.” Marry – or pay – first, and the love will follow.
The death of romance
These sites encourage people to be unapologetic in their search for mutually beneficial relationships that fuel their ambitions and desires, according to Wade. Even catering to married men, Wade offers to keep the website’s name out of bank statements for an additional $10 for every economic transaction made through the website. The monetisation of love, emotion, and sex has even sought to justify upgrading a partner for a price. Upon raising the question of sugar daddies and babies being just another term for escorting, Wade vehemently disagrees, claiming that payment is compensation for companionship, not to sex: “A sugar daddy doesn’t want his sugar baby to leave, whereas no client of a prostitute wants the hooker to stick around”. This, however, seems to be the new norm in escorting as well. E says that she has been paid up to £10,000 for spending a soirée with a man whom she did not even have intercourse with: “I felt so bad, I decided to invest the money”.
And just like any other market, escorts and sugar babies are constantly keeping up with the competition. E recounts investing the money she earned on breast augmentation surgery: “I am a professional – a freelancer – and my appearance is my means of production – it needs to be regularly updated.” Her weekly budget of £3,000, just a fraction of net her income, is split between lingerie and personal Arabic lessons to cater to the Middle Eastern market. E also spends her mornings catching up with the news, to “remain interesting”. The more she invests in herself, the more marketable she becomes.
Have we entered a loveless age?
After interviewing both individuals, and being offered a job by E, it became clear to me that status is no longer entirely defined by economics. One’s value is defined by success in many aspects of life, especially romantic. Men and women are willing to pay thousands of pounds for a night of company; for someone they can take to a business dinner to surprise their colleagues with; for someone to replace their partner with a shiny new one.
“I appreciate this whole seduction thing you’ve got going on here, but let me give you a tip: I’m a sure thing,” says Ward in Pretty Woman. Though bordering on cliché, her line has foreshadowed a reality that many men have found in the present. The extreme rationalisation of emotion has temporarily hidden the much darker reality of loneliness. In turn, status has become more than just economic worth. Romance and companionship have become a symbol of personal realisation, and economic wealth has become the means to secure its availability.