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Lifestyles

A ‘Sugar Date’ Gone Sour

Posted October 19, 2018 5:21 p.m. EDT
Updated October 19, 2018 5:27 p.m. EDT

In the fuzzy space between jobs and relationships, there’s a lot that can go wrong. (Photo Illustration by Caroline Tompkins/The New York Times)

Chandler Fowles knew it wouldn’t be simple to move from Mystic, Connecticut, to New York City last year. But staying put held little appeal. Her degree in art history and fine arts from Eastern Connecticut State University wasn’t helping her land any job worth sticking around for. She was coming out of a tough breakup. She and her mother weren’t speaking at all after a particularly bad argument.

When you are 24 years old, jobless, boyfriend-less and in a fight with your mom, moving to one of the most glamorous, ballyhooed cities in the world can seem like a good idea. Never mind the expense.

Fowles arrived in August 2017. For all the excitement of moving to New York City, she ended up sharing a three-bedroom apartment with two other roommates across the Hudson River, in Jersey City, New Jersey. She got a retail job at a clothing store in Midtown that paid her $15 an hour and a commission of 1.5 percent of her sales. The cost of living (and partying) was more than she could manage, along with her $25,000 in college student loan debt.

“I knew it was going to be a little tough, but I didn’t know how hard New York breaks you,” said Fowles, now 25.

Escorting 2.0

Last winter, a friend told her about the concept of “sugar-dating”: a “sugar baby” (most often a woman or a gay man) connecting with a “sugar daddy” (a man) in a relationship that offers financial support in exchange for companionship and possibly sex.

Accelerated by the anonymity of the internet, sugar-dating is a variation on “escorting,” that practice formerly advertised at the back of New York magazine and the now-defunct Village Voice newspaper.

Fowles hesitated at first, but she convinced herself that sugar-dating would result in her having something of a regular relationship with an older man who would pamper her with an allowance. “I needed the money, and I didn’t want to ask my mom,” she said.

She signed up on SeekingArrangement.com, a website that helps people interested in monetized dating find each other. Sugar daddies (and some sugar mommies) pay monthly fees of $99 a month, which allows them unlimited access to the profiles of sugar babies, who join the website for free. (“Diamond” memberships for sugar daddies cost $200 per month and provide sugar parents with search engine optimization and top-of-page promotion for their profiles.)

The website is illustrated by stock photos of white women, sometimes carrying shopping bags and often in formal gowns and diamonds, fawning over white men with business-trip suitcases and carefully groomed 5 o’clock stubble. It includes a section on “hypergamy,” or what used to be known as marrying up.

In an interview with The Times, Brandon Wade, the founder of SeekingArrangement, said his dating platform, which he has rebranded as Seeking, is not a vehicle for prostitution. The terms of service, he said, prohibit transactions for sex; the site simply seeks to bring the role that money plays in mating out in the open. “We want to drive people to talk honestly on the first date about who they are and what they expect to gain from a relationship, just like you discuss in any business relationship and any business arrangement,” he said. If anything, a “sugar baby” hoping to find a lasting arrangement with “a good provider” should withhold sex for as long as possible, said the thrice-divorced Wade, who also runs other dating sites including OpenMinded.com, which promotes so-called “ethical cheating.” “The moment you give sex, you have lost all your power,” he said.

That was a key theme of the keynote presentation he delivered at a Sugar Baby Summit (exploring “the strategy behind living the sugar lifestyle”) that he organized at 10 on the Park, an event venue in the Time Warner Center in May. There, some 200 attendees, many silkily coifed young women, paid $50 apiece for admission to panels on topics like styling, personal branding and “financial literacy.” Wade claims that the site has 20 million members worldwide, about 60 percent of them in the U.S.

The site also markets itself as an antidote to student debt. “SeekingArrangement.com has helped facilitate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of arrangements that have helped students graduate debt-free,” Wade was quoted as saying in one news release, which also claimed: “Sugar Baby students receive an average of $3,000 in monthly allowances, earning $20,920 more than a student working full time at the federal minimum wage.”

When you sign up for an account, this message pops up on screen: “Tip: Using a .edu email address earns you a free upgrade!” (College students using their university emails to log into the site also get their profiles included under a “college student” heading so that sugar parents intent on “helping” college students can find them easily, a company spokeswoman said.) The profiles of SeekingArrangement sugar daddies include how much they make — purportedly. One man, who listed a net worth of $5 million, for example, wrote, “I’m looking to spend quality time (and money) with a potential friend (or friends).”

Another man (net worth: $1 million, annual income: $200,000) wrote, “We’ll see how things evolve, and would love to serve as a mentor for anyone looking to start their own company.”

Whether the agreements forged through SeekingArrangement constitute prostitution or solicitation depends on the specific details of each relationship and negotiation, said Marc Agnifilo, a New York lawyer who represented one of the agency bookers in the Eliot Spitzer scandal and whose firm is handling the criminal defense of Harvey Weinstein. “In New York, prostitution is sex for a fee. And in each instance, the questions are, ‘What constitutes sex, and what constitutes a fee?'” he said.

Dipping In Legal issues were far from Fowles’ mind when she went on a few dinner dates with a man she met on SeekingArrangement.com, who told her he was 37 years old. “He was Jewish, so we had to go to kosher places,” she said. Without any prior discussion, he would hand her $200 or $500. There was no sex.

Then there was another man who took her to dinner in Midtown, after which they got a room at the CitizenM hotel. (He liked that hotel, she said, because you can book a room online and then check in at an unmanned electronic kiosk.) “It was very natural and it felt like a normal hookup, except he gave me money after,” she said. Nine hundred bucks, to be precise.

In March, Fowles decided she needed a regular allowance coming from a regular arrangement. She went onto the site and soon received a message from a man who said his name was Jay and that he was an investment banker at Bain. “If you are interested in being spoiled, I have a very generous allowance and it would be a once a week thing,” he wrote to her, according to Fowles. He included a mobile number and requested that they speak. “It was weird because they usually don’t want to call you,” she said.

On the phone, “Jay” said that his name was really Ron, and that he had enjoyed a long-term sugar arrangement with a young woman who had recently moved away to attend graduate school in Michigan. He had paid her at least $1,000 per encounter, Fowles said he told her — more than the going rate.

“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so generous,'” she said.

They were going to meet that very night, but something — his jet lag from a trip to London, or maybe it was her menstrual cycle — got in the way. The next day, Fowles and Ron were back on the phone, planning a rendezvous. He asked her if she had a friend to bring along, whom he would pay the same amount. Discussions about the money were explicit but what it would buy him was never directly stated. “It was all, ‘I promise to make sure you have a good time,'” she said.

Fowles called a friend who was reluctant but needed the money. She sent Ron a few pictures of the friend, the three of them got on the phone, and then Ron and the friend spoke directly. They picked a date, a Tuesday afternoon at the end of March. Fowles felt an urgency to make it all happen.

“My rent was due,” she said.

The Assignation

Ron said the three of them should meet at a hotel of Fowles’ choice, near the Jay Street-MetroTech subway station in Downtown Brooklyn. He said he wanted to meet midday, in between a lunch meeting and a dinner meeting. He asked Fowles to book the room. “My last sugar baby took care of all the details which took pressure off of me,” he told her. “She was like a personal assistant.”

He also told Fowles how he would like her and her friend to look. “I like when a girl gets all dolled up for me,” he said. He wanted them to wear thongs and high heels. Heavy makeup. He specifically requested “a smoky eye” and “a nude lip.”

“Get your hair done, I’ll obviously pay you back,” Fowles said he told her. So she and her friend went to Drybar for blowouts and met him in the lobby of the Aloft hotel, where Fowles had gotten a room for about $200. He was in grubby clothes and did not look like he had just come from a lunch meeting. He said he had run home after lunch to change into comfortable clothes.

Once they were up in the room, they got down to business. Fowles asked Ron to pay them upfront. Though Ron had clearly wanted to communicate on the telephone to avoid making a digital footprint with text messages, he said he wanted to pay her and her friend via the PayPal app. He told Fowles he could write off the expense if he paid it digitally.

Fowles didn’t have the PayPal app on her phone. So she downloaded it, and then Ron showed her how to request payment for $2,500 (including the cost of the hotel room and the blowouts). He then pulled out his phone, said he was accepting the request as he tapped away at his screen. “Phones off!” he ordered. Fowles and her friend then had sex with Ron. After his request for a massage (they said yes) and then a request for another go-round (they said no), he bid them adieu.

“'I’ll text you about next time,'” Fowles said he said.

It wasn’t until she got on the subway and looked at PayPal that she saw her payment request had been ignored.

The Return of Ron

Fowles had another friend who was curious about sugar dating and who happened upon a profile on Tinder that caught her eye. It was a guy named Jay. His profile said that he was a “sugar daddy seeking arrangement.” The friend screen-shotted the Tinder profile and texted it to Fowles, who immediately recognized the back-story that the man who hoodwinked her had used on SeekingArrangement.

“Oh, I have a story to tell you!” Fowles texted her friend.

After discussing the drama, the two women decided to take advantage of the unusual circumstance. The friend swiped right on Jay. After a quick private message exchange, he suggested they speak on the phone. The number he gave her was the same number for Ron, Fowles’ deadbeat sugar daddy.

They had a conversation and he gave her the same story: Ron was his real name, he was an investment banker at Bain and he had a long-term arrangement with a young woman that had enabled her to enroll in graduate school in Michigan. He explained his preference for a smoky eye and a nude lip. He wanted to meet near the Jay Street-MetroTech subway station.

They eventually agreed to meet at Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar, a restaurant not far from the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Caper

Before the scheduled meeting, Fowles went to scope out the scene. At Rocco’s, she chatted up the bartender, telling him, “This is so weird, but I’m meeting someone and I don’t think they are who they say they are.”

She described “Jay/Ron” to the bartender, who agreed to take note of the actual name on the man’s credit card, or to ask for his ID if he ordered a drink and paid in cash.

Around 10:30 p.m., Ron entered the bar and sat at the opposite end, near the front door. Fowles texted her friend, back at her apartment in Windsor Terrace, to alert her.

The friend then texted Ron that she had arrived early and was in the ladies room. “I’m anxious,” she wrote. “Get me a prosecco so I can have a drink right away.”

Ron ordered the drink and handed the bartender his credit card.

The bartender casually walked over to the side of the bar where Fowles was perched. He spelled the first and last name on the credit card. Not Jay. Not Ron either.

Fowles sent a triumphant text to her friend, who texted Ron to let him know she was standing him up.

Dejected, Ron left Rocco’s. Fowles headed to her friend’s place in Windsor Terrace.

‘Wrong Number’

The women started Googling. They quickly found that the man had been an employee of City Hall and was now a student in a New York University program that is in Brooklyn, near the Jay Street-MetroTech subway stop. He’s married with children. He is not an investment banker (nor does he work at Bain, the management consultant firm).

On his NYU bio page, they were able to find a cellphone number different from the one Ron had used to communicate. (The woman who took part in the rendezvous with Fowles at the Aloft hotel, who wanted her name withheld for privacy, confirmed that the man pictured on an NYU bio page is the same man she and Fowles had sex with, after having been promised at least $1,000 each, with an additional $50 for the blowouts.)

Fowles called him on the number that was included on the bio.

“Recognize my voice? We spent two hours together,” Fowles said, addressing Jay by his real name.

“His voice got really high-pitched,” she said. “He said ‘wrong number.’ I said, ‘You had me pay for the hotel room, and I really need that money.'”

She said he hung up on her.

Going Public The following day, Fowles messaged Sherrod Small, a comedian she had met after a show at the Stand, a comedy club. She knew that Small was a host of a podcast, “Race Wars.” Did he need another guest, she asked him? Because she had a crazy story to share.

She recorded the podcast that day, one of five guests who bantered and told stories. Fowles first shared a story about how one of her college roommates had been murdered. Then, in a portion of the podcast that is offered to listeners for $3, she told what had happened at the Aloft hotel, and after. Except she said it had happened to two friends, not herself. “I didn’t say it was me on the podcast, because I was not ready to tell my story and was not sure how brave I could be,” she told The Times.

As she laid out the story, Small commented in disbelief of the guy’s actions — “It’s kind of rapey,” he said — in addition to the stupidity of the woman (aka Fowles). “Who is this dumb friend?” Small asked.

Since then, Fowles has reached out to Ron one more time, in June. “I was drunk and I left a message asking for my money” that was spent on the hotel room, she said.

The Times contacted Ron, who requested that his real name be withheld. “I remember meeting some women,” he said, referring to the rendezvous at the Aloft hotel. “I don’t remember the details. I don’t remember a promise of payment.”

He said that he looked for women on SeekingArrangement and advertised himself on Tinder as a “sugar daddy” — his profile urged women to “swipe right if looking to be spoiled” — solely because he thought it was a good way to meet women for non-transactional hookups.

He confirmed that he told women that he was an investment banker at Bain and that he had said he had a previous sugar arrangement with a young woman who had moved to Michigan for graduate school. But, he said, “none of that’s true.” He admitted: “All that’s a story” he made up. Fowles hopes to warn “sugar babies” of their vulnerability in finding “sugar parents” on websites like SeekingArrangement; if they are taken advantage of or abused in such relationships, they have little recourse. Certainly not with Wade, the company’s founder, who said, “If she is on the site and engaging in sex for money, she is violating the terms of the site.”

Agnifilo, the lawyer, said it is unlikely that Fowles committed solicitation or prostitution as outlined by New York state statutes.

Still, Fowles has washed her hands of sugar-dating, hoping to pursue a career in personal styling. And she makes no apologies for her experience.

“Women are stigmatized and seen as repulsive and worthless when using their bodies to support themselves,” she said. “I was in a tough place financially, and I am OK with my decisions. Women have sex with vile men all the time so why shouldn’t we be paid for it if we choose? I don’t deserve to be shamed for it, or scammed because of it.”