CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) - A 24-year-old college student, who wants to be called "Maria," says she became a "sugar baby" three years ago because books and tuition were too expensive.
"It's been nothing but a positive experience for me," she said.
Maria is one of more than 20 million people who joined SeekingArrangement.com, according to the site's founder. The dating website pairs rich older men, called "sugar daddies," with attractive younger women, or "sugar babies," who want to be spoiled.
Maria has received thousands of dollars, according to receipts provided to FOX 46, along with a laptop and a video game system, just for spending time with older men. She says sex is not part of the deal.
"Sex has never been brought up in any of these relationships that I've had," said Maria. "This is just someone who's looking out for you."
For Maria, it's about finding a successful mentor.
"There are people out there that just want to help you," she said. "And help you figure out your future."
FOX 46 Goes Undercover
Seeking Arrangement claims the "average" sugar baby receives $3000 a month. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ranks number 18 in the nation, in terms of the number of students who have signed up, according to the website. As of last year, 514 "sugar babies" from UNC had joined.
UNC officials had no comment on its top 20 sugar baby status.
The site promotes the sugar baby lifestyle as a way to get lavish gifts and pay off student loans and other debt.
But do these gifts come with a price? We wanted to see if the site is really all about innocent romance or a clever way to promote prostitution.
Seeking Arrangement put us in touch with Maria. But we wanted to find out what else goes on. So we paid the nearly $100 a month membership fee to create our own sugar daddy profile. Using the name "The Fox," FOX 46 investigative reporter Matt Grant went undercover as a "sugar daddy."
Like Maria, we found several profiles where the "sugar babies" made it clear they just wanted plantonic relationships.
However, we quickly found dozens of other women that hinted at, or outright offered, sex in exchange for money. While some profiles subtly advertise "friends with benefits," "adult fun," or "discreet" "mutually beneficial" relationships, in exchange for financial help, others were more explicit.
A sample of what we found:
- One woman told us she would do "anything you want for sugar of course," referring to sex for money.
- One sugar baby offered to meet up "tonight if we agree" on a price for sex. "Can u host?" the 25-year-old from Charlotte asked, volunteering that she would do "everything" for money except specific sex acts. She said "you could have me anytime" if we agreed on a price.
- One woman said she would do anything, except graphic sex acts, and "face hitting."
- Another woman offered us sex for a "couple hundred" dollars.
- Several women wanted to negotiate a "monthly" allowance. In return, one woman promised a "fun relationship w adult fun."
- One sugar baby offered a "friends with benefits" relationship that would be "physical" if it was "also financial."
- One sugar baby advertised that she was "down to meet and get into all types of fun for a price. I'm a girl with little to no limits," she wrote.
- Another woman from Charlotte said she worked at a "relaxation rub spa." "It's pretty much a pleasure spa for men," she said, inviting us to visit. "It's very explanatory."
'Definitely Considered Prostitution'
FOX 46 brought our findings to Seeking Arrangement's fonder and CEO, Brandon Wade, who says he met his own girlfriend through the website.
"I was surprised that a number of them explicitly offered sex for money," Grant said. "Could you see how that could come across as prostitution?"
"That definitely would be considered prostitution," Wade responded, in a Skype interview. "And that's the kind of activity we do not allow."
The MIT grad says they strictly prohibit escorting, prostitution and human trafficking, which is in the site's disclaimer, and which users must agree to when they join.
Wade stresses they have security measures in place to prevent prostitution and misuse of the website. He says they kick off "thousands" of members a month, including prostitutes who used to advertise on Backpage.com, who have now turned to his site and other social media platforms.
"We absolutely kick them off," said Wade. "And we ban them."
Still, Wade says it's difficult to police private messages. He says whatever happens behind closed doors is between two consenting adults.
"Even people on Christian websites, what's the goal?," he asked. "The end goal is there will be a romantic connection and people would have sex."
"But, in this case, it's for money," Grant responded.
"No, it's not for money," said Wade. "It's for wanting, you know, to date up. I mean, you want a wealthy boyfriend? Well, clearly he's going to pay for dinner. He's going to take you on trips. He's going to take you on a spa trip. He might even help you pay for school. There's nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with that."
"But, what is wrong, is when you start stying to a stranger you just met, 'Hey you know what? I want $500 to sleep with you tonight,'" said Wade. "That is not permitted. That is against the law."
CMPD 'Aware' of Site
Wade has previously said no law enforcement action has ever been taken against his site. In Charlotte, CMPD officails say they are "aware" of Seeking Arrangement.
"We are aware of this site," a spokesperson said. "But have not found a link between it and our local human trafficking cases."
Former CMPD officer Walter Bowers, who is now an attorney, confirms offering sex for money is illegal - whether it is on a street corner or online.
"It goes down to priority and resources," said Bowers, noting it would be difficult to police. "It presents challenges for law enforcement when there is no victim that is readily coming forward."