In April, I went to a Sugar Baby Summit. This event, for the uninitiated, is a daylong series of panels in New York City, where seasoned sugar babies and daddies share nuggets of wisdom and answer attendees' burning questions.
"Sugar baby" and "sugar daddy" are terms used to refer to two people — usually a heterosexual younger woman and an older man, although anyone can take either role — who enter into a relationship in which it's expected the sugar daddy will compensate the sugar baby for their time with money or gifts. Many people in these relationships embrace the terms, hence the summit's name.
The summit was organized by SeekingArrangement, an online dating service for those specifically seeking sugar babies or daddies. Scores of women who'd already taken a swim in the "sugar bowl," as it's called, or who were considering testing out the waters, showed up.
I was there to learn more about a topic that's fascinated Business Insider's readers since Tanza Loudenback published a story on the growing number of students turning to sugar daddies to help cover their college costs late last year. Since then, Business Insider had heard from a number of sugar babies and daddies wanting to talk about their experiences and tell people about their community.
And while I'd arrived with some ideas about what an "arrangement" was, it turned out those ideas would be quickly addressed and debunked by the panelists at the summit.
Specifically, I'd assumed that sugar dating meant a woman agreed to spend time with a man — either sexually or otherwise — in exchange for money. Sugar babies and daddies say that, in real life, an arrangement is hardly so simple.
Sugar dating, I learned during a panel called "Money Talks," is about developing a relationship. Yes, sugar babies typically receive money from their sugar daddies, but that's not the defining characteristic of the partnership, at least according to those in the sugar bowl.
Christina Friscia, who owns a digital marketing and branding agency, and was formerly a sugar baby, put it bluntly: "These guys are here to help you because you're providing them with emotional support," she told the current and aspiring sugar babies seated before her. "It's not a paycheck. You don't … just sit there and look pretty."
Friscia went on: "There's so many more levels than just the money aspect."
It wasn't the first time Friscia would mention sugar daddies' feelings. Later in the panel, she said that sugar daddies want to feel appreciated, instead of feeling like an ATM.
That's why all three panelists and the panel moderator agreed that asking for money upfront is a big no-no.
As Friscia put it, "If you've taken the time to build up [a relationship] with that person, they will respect you that much more." In fact, she added, "they will be way more willing to give before you even ask because they anticipate your need."
That is to say, sugar babies are supposed to establish themselves as someone worthy of their sugar daddy's funds and imply that they're in need of money — e.g. "I'm looking for a job" or "I'm in school right now" — until the daddies are ready to share some of those funds with them.
If that sounds like it could be confusing, it is — if it weren't, there presumably wouldn't be an entire panel devoted to the topic.
In fact, the SeekingArrangement website appears to suggest that "arrangements" are liberating specifically because you don't have to dance around important issues (like money), as you might in a more conventional relationship.
From the website: "Forget reading in between the lines, our members know what they want," and "Things would be much easier if goals and starting points were already set forth before entering said relationship."
Alexis Germany, public relations manager at SeekingArrangement, reconciled the two viewpoints in an email to Business Insider this way: "The financial aspect of the relationship is something that can be brought up once a level of trust has been built. Anyone asking for money upfront is treating the situation as a job, and Sugar dating is not a job, it's a lifestyle choice."
On an episode of the podcast "Let's Talk Sugar," which Germany cohosts, she told listeners that one, subtle way to prompt a gift or some financial help from your sugar daddy is to show him your budget and ask for advice on saving money. Inevitably, the sugar daddy will offer to cover, say, your phone bill or your tuition expenses.
Meanwhile, in a blog post on Let'sTalkSugar.com, JadeSeashell writes that money is just one benefit of sugar dating. Sugar babies often receive "long-term benefits," including mentorship and investments in their businesses.
So how do sugar daddies decide whether a sugar baby is worth their time and money?
Brandon Wade, the founder of SeekingArrangement who spoke on the panel, said he tries to "drill down to the purpose." As in: Do you want a new laptop because it makes you feel better? Or, do you "want to accomplish some goal?" When the sugar baby has a clear goal — maybe they're paying for college, or maybe they're looking to start a business — he's more likely to help.
It's "the white knight syndrome," Wade admitted, meaning he relishes the idea of swooping in and saving a woman in some kind of distress.
Wade recalled a relationship he'd had with a sugar baby who ultimately was interested exclusively in his money but pretended she wasn't. They were friends for six months before they started dating, he said: "Once she won my heart, the wallet sprung open."
Carl Foster, a speaker and radio and television host as well as a former sugar daddy who led the panel, mentioned an off-putting experience he'd had with a sugar baby who seemed especially demanding. As soon as they met, she tried to settle on a rate with him, based on a previous relationship she'd had with a sugar daddy. Foster remembers saying, "What is this, a business negotiation here? There are rates and fees?"
Friscia suggested that holding off on asking for money is partly a way to avoid repelling your sugar daddy and partly a way to preserve your own dignity.
"It's not an exchange of power," she said. "You've got to maintain your integrity." Just as important, she said: Sugar daddies "can smell desperation on your breath," so a sugar baby should "be a lady about it."
Friscia repeatedly referenced gender roles. "Men want to feel like they're helping a girl out and they're taking care of them," she said. "That's just in male DNA. Men are providers and women are receivers. That's the dynamic from the beginning of time."
Foster said, "To me, every woman is priceless. There shouldn't be a value put on anybody." (The audience let out a collective "aw.")
Jim Demetrios, an author, trader, and fitness adviser, who married and subsequently divorced a sugar baby, put it somewhat differently. He explained that if you're the kind of sugar baby who wants to state your financial needs and get them fulfilled right away, you'll have to find a sugar daddy who wants to work the same way. In that sense, sugar dating seems most similar to a conventional relationship.
"It's not necessarily a hustle," Demetrios said. "It's that's what they feel that they need and that's what you don't want. So obviously, you're incompatible. So it's not going to work out.