What it’s really like inside the bizarre ’empowering’ summit where girls are taught how to find a sugar daddy
Spoiler: It’s not as sex positive and feminist as they’d like to make out
“I guess my sugar daddies have always liked me because of my intelligence”, says Simone Toon, a speaker at Seeking Arrangement’s first UK ‘Sugar Baby Summit’. She then clicks onto the next slide of her lecture and stumbles over the word hypothetical, adding “oh I don’t know what that word means”.
— Simone (@simonetoon) September 8, 2016
A “motivation expert”, Simone is one of many speakers there to teach an audience of young sugar babies how to snag a sugar daddy (sugar mamas are much less common). Her lecture is on allowances and gifts, how to know when you “deserve” an allowance, how to bring up money, and how to ask whoever you’re dating for more of it.
“Ask them, ‘do you think we’re a good fit for a relationship”, Simone tells the crowd at an exclusive hotel in Soho. A group of around 150 girls in their twenties (there are only 10 guys here, and they’re all looking for sugar daddies too) watch her with rapt attention as 25-year-old Simone, who first got a sugar daddy – a married one – at 19, tells them: “Do not become intimate with him until you feel like he deserves it.”
I’m gonna be honest, it was hard not to feel uncomfortable.
The Seeking Arrangement app is probably the most well known platform in the world for young girls to find “sugar daddies”, but it’s carefully curated. It’s not supposed to be sleazy, it’s supposed to be a meeting of equals, an empowering experience, at its most extreme, it’s even been presented as a way of re-addressing the gender pay gap. But while I went with an open mind, after a day at the conference I left completely unconvinced.
I’ve spoken to feminist sugar babies before, girls who can articulate and justify their reasons for making the lifestyle choice, but apparently none of them were here today. Without them, the sugar lifestyle felt reductive at best and practically cultish at worst. They even have their own language – their world is called the “sugar bowl”, men who speak to you but eventually scam you by not “gifting” or giving you a monthly allowance are “salt daddies” and poorer sugar daddies, who can’t pay your rent or give you thousands every month but might buy you some designer goodies are known as “splenda daddies”.
As the day went on the empowered, confident sugar babies I expected let me down more and more. Clover Pittilla, from Bournemouth was, like many sugar babies, a student who was using her experience to help her pay off her loans. “I should be at uni today”, she told the crowd as she tottered onto the stage in a gingham mini dress and silver platform stilettos. Clover was there to teach the girls how to get started in the sugar bowl, how to act around the rich men that would become their quasi-boyfriends. “Sugar daddies don’t want the emotional confines of relationships,” she says. “Don’t overreact if he doesn’t call you back. There should be no arguments. You might not be his number one, but you should make him happy. Don’t be entitled. Give him hints and make him feel important. Be nice, respectful and polite.”
In the question section which followed Clover was asked to give her best advice to anyone who wanted to become a “trophy wife”. One girl wanted to know her USP (unique selling point) to men. “I don’t have one”, she shrugged. Clover’s job was basically to tell the women in the audience to eat shit, smile, look pretty and never complain. Clover is the most fucking docile person I’ve ever seen in real life.
After her was Emma Gammer, a semi-famous woman in the sugar bowl because she married her sugar daddy and subsequently divorced him (a love story the cheering, whooping audience went wild for). She was there to give us advice on making a dating profile. Think of it like extreme Tinder – you mustn’t include group photos (because they might like your friend more than you), you should use “key words, like student, nurse, model”, you should have “private photos” that you can show to sugar daddies when they match to you. Oh, and you shouldn’t be offended when they ask for them. It’s just their way of saying hello.
There was a talk on online safety before stylist Edward Oliver followed with advice on what to wear on your sugar dates, with genius advice like “Even if he wasn’t what you’re expecting, give him a chance. You still get a free lunch, it’s not the end of the world”. If you’re thinking of showing up in your tattered rags so the rich men feel sorry for you by the way, that’s a big mistake.
Edward explained: “If you don’t look like money, he won’t want to spend any on you. Show your worth.” If there was one unifying feature of all of the lectures it was that – “show your good enough for their money”. The only other thing all the speakers mentioned: men are awful. “There are jerks in the world just like there are jerks on Seeking Arrangement”, says one speaker. “The world’s full of jerks.” It’s hard after eight hours of “advice” to decide whether the sugar lifestyle makes men or women look worse, but it’s offensive to both of them.
The day wasn’t all lectures though, there was also the chance to meet some sugar babies too. Wide-eyed, excited Natalie tells me how her sugar daddies have helped her see the word, flown her to Asia, help her further her studies to become a beautician. “What would you say to people who might not see the feminist aspect of the lifestyle? Who say it’s anti-feminist”, I ask. “I don’t – what do you mean by feminism?”, she blinks. Anton, one of the only straight male sugar babies I’ve ever met, explains how he sees older women for a maximum three dates before completely ghosting them. “If they’re fat, you just have to focus on something else”, he explains helpfully.
It was the exact opposite of what CEO Brandon Wade wanted: a chance to destigmatize the community. Brandon’s a, for lack of a better word, unique (and definitely impressive) guy. He graduated from MIT and developed Seeking Arrangement 10 years ago, because, as he told me, he was too shy to get a girlfriend. Since then he’s married, divorced and is back on the site. During his time in London alone he went on 10 dates with sugar babies. “I started it to solve my own pain”, he told me. “I joined a normal dating site and the experience was horrible, I sent so many messages and got no replies.
“At the end of it all, it’s like my mother says, most women want a guy who will support them. Men are really superficial creatures. We want women who will attract us from a visual and sexual perspective. A lot of women will say this is counter to the feminist movement because what you’re promoting is that women should use their sexuality to get what they want, but the honest truth is that the empowered woman shouldn’t be ashamed of her sexuality. In fact, the true feminist should be proud of it and flaunt it, and say ‘don’t tell me I should wrap myself in Hijab or whatever just like, what the Muslims too, because that’s really about controlling women and putting women down.”
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the whole day – excluding the light Islamophobic aside -was how sex was presented by Seeking Arrangement. As long as you’re not getting cash in hand for penetrative sex, it’s not sex work to them – somehow implying that those women who choose to do sex work, even if its solo sex work, are less than sugar babies. Sex, to them, is instead a prize to be given to rich men when they “deserve it”, implying that passive, money-hungry women don’t enjoy sex equally. They might scoff at any implication that its sex work, but by making relationships transactional and exploitative, it doesn’t look any less seedy.
Of course feminism means allowing people to do what they want without judgement, but surely that comes with a caveat – do what you want without judgement, as long as you’re not hurting other people. That’s not, as far as I can see, what happens in the “sugar bowl”.
“What do you do when a sugar daddy says he loves you?” a young girl in the audience asks Simone at the end of her lecture.
“Just say ‘I love you too'”, she laughs. “You don’t have to mean it.”