How “sugar daddy” dating sites differ from prostitution

Relationships, Crime, Money, NakedLaw

A recent relationship survey by Avvo revealed that one in four Americans are open to the idea of matchmaking. But just how far does that go? For instance, are we open to the notion of matching tuition-strapped coeds with well-heeled older men? Some dating sites are specifically designed to pair young women with “sugar daddies” to cover college costs, providing an intimate relationship in return—but isn’t that also known as prostitution?

For a sugar daddy, it makes business sense

While writing his book, The Man Puzzle, Phillip Petree talked to a lot of men about sex and found that the sugar daddy arrangement isn’t uncommon among younger (age 35 to 50), single executives who travel a lot and don’t have time for a “real” relationship.

One Fortune 500 C-level executive told Petree that after several ex-wives, custody of his kids when he was in town, and a travel schedule that sometimes left him gone for weeks at a time, it was “easier, cheaper, and far more convenient to spend a few thousand dollars a month to support someone who can and will spend time with him when it fits his schedule. Both the executive and his “beneficiary” viewed their arrangement as monogamous.

Another of Petree’s sources, a 50-year-old CEO of a highly visible company, brings in about $8 million a year from his salary, bonuses, and stock options. This businessman has a relationship arrangement with a 26-year-old student who is pursuing a master’s degree.

“Their agreement is for monogamous sex; they speak or text every day and spend as much time as possible together—which in some months could be eight to ten days,” Petree says. “She accompanies him to all of his business social functions, and he pays her tuition and living expenses to the tune of about $140,000 per year plus any trips they take together.”

Prostitution is bad for business

The executive explained to Petree that high-end prostitutes can run between $3,000 and $10,000 per night, but the risk was so high that most executives he knew avoided that potentially career-ending lifestyle. “He said his own contract had a morals clause and a prostitution arrest would be terms for immediate termination,” recalls Petree. “On the other hand, what he gives to his ‘girlfriend’ is ‘none of anyone’s business.’”

In all of his research, Petree was unable to find anyone who considered himself or herself a victim of this type of arrangement. “People from both sides of the sugar daddy relationship would ask how what they were doing was different than a couple with one bread winner and a prenup.”

But Petree did find that none of his interview subjects cared to go public. “I found it impossible to get men to go on the record about their relationships other than to say it’s cheaper and safer than prostitutes, which can end a career,” explains Petree. Which begs the question:

What makes it cheaper and safer?

“People in these sugar daddy arrangements view themselves in a relationship with clearly defined terms,” Petree says. “There is generally some form of daily communication; whereas someone who’s bought the services of a prostitute isn’t likely to text the next day asking how her night was.”

Alisha Carrasco dated a sugar daddy for a few years. “I don’t think it’s prostitution any more than a woman marrying a man that can provide for her,” she says. “There are a lack of men who are willing to provide for women, and the sugar daddy dynamic is one that requires reciprocation. Two consenting adults can structure their relationship however they feel necessary.”

Why it’s legal

“It’s legal because it’s not strictly a contract for sex in exchange for something of value—it’s a contract for companionship,” says attorney Mark McBride of Law Office of Mark McBride, PC, in Beverly Hills. “Sex happens between adults who are companions; in this sense, the sexual activity is couched within the framework of the companionship. In exchange, the sugar baby gets money, time, opportunities, travel, luxury items, etc.”

But it’s a fine line. “Users of sugar daddy dating sites operate in a legal gray area,” cautions attorney Paul Saputo of Saputo Law Firm in Dallas. “Prostitution requires an exchange of value of some kind, and some dating sites operate on the basis of an implied exchange of service for monetary value.”

What makes these sites less of a law enforcement target is that the service being exchanged for value isn’t explicitly or necessarily sexual. “The websites advertise ‘relationships,’” explains Saputo. “Users, on an individual basis, could easily cross a line into soliciting or engaging in prostitution. But if the parties enter into a relationship for a fee, without a necessary expectation of sex, then it’s that much harder to prove there was a true quid pro quo, sex for money.”

So the question is: What are you paying for? “You can’t pay for sex, but you can pay for companionship,” says attorney Jordan Ostroff of Jordan Law in Florida. “And if that becomes ‘free’ sex, then it’s okay.”

Ostroff puts it another way: If your boss pays you for your time and skills, does that make your relationship with him or her unbalanced? Of course it does. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, as long as both parties are consenting adults, safe and happy with the arrangement.

And when it’s over?

Once the contract for companionship is up, it’s up. Unlike the legal complications involved with ending a marriage, the dissolution of a sugar daddy relationship is quite simple. “The sugar baby usually keeps the stuff—almost always, really,” says McBride. And just like that, they’re free to pursue new relationships with different people, with no obligations to their former partner.

That may sound a bit cold and transactional, but it does seem a lot easier than, say, a divorce.