The restaurant where they met wasn’t a place that catered to college students. You had to be at least 18 years old to even walk in, and even then, you got strange looks from the servers if you looked younger than 30.
And Rachel’s date was someone she never saw herself with. The age difference was 21 years — She was 19, he was 41 — the same age as her father.
“I was constantly worried about the people sitting around me,” said Rachel, an exchange student at UNC who asked that her real name not be used. “What the hell do they think is happening right here?”
But Rachel needed money, and she was expecting to receive $1,000 for this date.
The man she was with was a potential “sugar daddy,” or someone who pays young women, called “sugar babies,” to go on dates with them and provide companionship. They met through SeekingArrangement.com, the largest online dating site for these kinds of relationships.
On average, women can expect to receive a monthly allowance of $3,000 from the arrangements, which last about six months, according to Seeking Arrangement spokeswoman Kirsten Johnson.
Rachel said her family couldn’t support her through college, which left her taking a full-time course load while also working a full-time job as bartender.
“I had asked my university, and they granted me help, but it wasn’t enough. It paid like one month’s rent, but what about next month?” she said.
Being a sugar baby was her best option.
With tuition and fees at UNC increasing about 87 percent for in-state students and about 90 percent for out-of-state students in the past 10 years, sugar daddy relationships have become more popular among students to cover student expenses and tuition.
The relationships are advertised as safe and mutually-beneficial, but sex experts tend to disagree.
At UNC, 427 students are registered at Seeking Arrangement as sugar babies — a jump from 286 students in 2013, the earliest year the site has data for. The site charges sugar daddies about $60 for a 30 day membership and allows students to register for free.
Compared to similar institutions in North Carolina, UNC is among those with the most students registered — second only to Duke University, where the number of registered sugar babies has climbed from 323 students to 438 from 2013 to 2014. Johnson said universities across the state are seeing a spike in sugar baby registrations. At N.C. State University, the number has jumped from 38 to 90 students in 2014.
Employees at these companies stress that sugar babies are not high-class prostitutes or escorts.
“People in the media always say, ‘You know, this is prostitution’ — But, you know, really it’s not,” Johnson said. “I know so many sugar babies who never take their relationship with their sugar daddy or sugar mamma to the next level.”
Some sugar babies say that’s not always the case, though.
‘Like a real job’
For Lily, a UNC junior whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, the sugar baby lifestyle started with a conversation with friends and a quick Google search.
She created an account on SeekingArrangement.com and learned she could receive $500 after only one date.
“I can earn more in one meeting than I earned in one month in any of the jobs I’ve done in the past,” she said.
The relationship starts off like any other relationship does, she said. First dates are awkward and always in a public place. But after the first date, the relationship starts to deviate slightly from the normal trajectory.
“This is like a real job,” Lily said. “For relationships like this, the lines are less clear (as to when payment is received) because they’re more blurred, so you kind of have to learn how to negotiate with these guys.”
Lily has two sugar daddies right now: one, a married man who she considers her “main one,” and another who is single and of waning interest. Both have expected sex or a sexual act from her.
“Arrangements progress like actual dates, but I feel like there’s more of an expectation for sex,” she said. “In their profiles, they’ll list things like, ‘Discreet, fun, friends with benefits.’ And a lot of guys who have messaged me have tried to solicit sex on the first or second date, but I’m not really into that.”
Saying no can be difficult in relationships with an inherent power dynamic, which Lily said she does her best to combat. She is also vague during dates and always tells her sister or a friend where she is.
“I only go for people who are willing to cooperate with me on negotiating things like money,” she said. “Otherwise, I just try to go for people who are as respectful as possible.”
‘Young enough to have fun’
N.C. A&T State University senior Sarah, who asked that her real name not be used, became a sugar baby after looking at SeekingArrangement.com to make fun of it.
“Whenever my friend told us about it, we looked at her like she was crazy,” Sarah said. “We saw what it’s about, and we were like, ‘Oh, maybe she’s not crazy.’”
Sarah was a sugar baby for two years and had three relationships before she quit.
During those two years, she also dated people outside of the website, though she never told her boyfriends about her job.
“It was easy,” Sarah said. “I kept it as simple as ‘I’m going out of towns with friends, and I’ll be back in a few days.’”
One of Sarah’s sugar daddies lived in Atlanta. She drove or flew to see him twice a month and collected the minimum $1,000 that each visit brought her.
“Most of them have already been married, they’ve been divorced; They’re not ready to do that again. They just want someone who is young enough to have fun,” Sarah said.
Alternative tuition tactics
While she still needs money for tuition and student expenses, Sarah said she’s considering returning to being a sugar baby, but she plans to quit after she graduates in May.
With college tuition rising, Sarah isn’t the only college student depending on such arrangements to cover the costs of college.
Eric Johnson, spokesman for UNC’s Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, said the office tries to help students with tuition costs as much as possible, but it can only do so much to help.
“We have a relatively limited amount of discretion in what we can do because the aid is administered through federal formulas, state policies and pretty set institutional policies,” he said.
Duke has seen an increase of about 62 percent in tuition and mandatory student fee costs since the 2004-05 school year. N.C. State University has seen an increase of about 95 percent in tuition costs since 2004 for in-state students and about 46 percent for out-of-state students.
Duke’s Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid declined to comment for this story, saying that it has no knowledge of students who are using sex work to cover tuition costs.
“I haven’t heard of any outlandish tactics students are using to cover their charges, though,” said Krista Domnick, director of N.C. State University’s Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, in an email.
And Eric Johnson said that disconnect is typical for financial aid offices.
“We wouldn’t hear about any more than you would hear about it,” he said. “Once we have looked at the information you have put on your financial aid application and assessed how much aid you get, what happens from there is outside of our purview.”
He said he doesn’t want students to feel like they have no financial aid alternatives.
“We would like to hear from students before they go down that road,” he said.
“Whether they want to believe it or not, it’s prostitution,” said Laurie Watson, a sex therapist at Awakenings Center for Intimacy and Sexuality in Raleigh.
Watson said she sympathizes with women who are working as sugar babies.
“To me, it’s a failure on their part to develop their own self, their own power,” she said. “They’re trying to gain that by using their bodies essentially, and I think it’s like a tragic stunting of who they can be.”
While Lily, Sarah and Rachel argue that they still feel empowered in their relationships, Watson doesn’t believe it. She cited the dangers of meeting a stranger from the Internet as one of her chief concerns.
Watson also worries that easy access to online dating sites, like SeekingArrangement, are tricking people into thinking they’re happy and not as lonely as before.
“The young woman is looking for security,” Watson said. “The older gentleman, or the richer gentleman, is probably hoping for a multitude of things, something that is outside of his primary world and relationships.”
Despite the critics, Kirsten Johnson said she is still convinced sugar daddy relationships are mutually beneficial.
“It’s funny, some sugar babies will just have friendships with these guys and not even a kind of romantic relationship with them, which is more common than you might think,” she said.