We’ve known for some time that Atlanta is considered a hub for sex trafficking.
But who knew metro Atlanta is also known for having an abundant number of, ahem, sugar daddies — older men seeking the companionship of college-age women?
According to SeekingArrangement.com, Georgia ranks sixth in the country, behind places like Arizona, Philadelphia and New York. Over the past few years, the website has touted its growing numbers to news publications around the country.
In Georgia, according to folks at the website, the vast majority of these young women providing companionship to older men attend big state colleges such as Georgia State, the University of Georgia and Georgia Southern (in that precise order), with a few at Spelman College and elsewhere.
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“Students are tired of being told by the government that secondary education is important, and then being slapped with outrageous student loans and staggering interest rates,” said Brandon Wade, founder and CEO of SeekingArrangement.com. “The value of a degree is undeniable, but students can’t leave their futures in the hands of officials any longer.”
Today more than 2 million students across the country — 3 million worldwide — have signed up to find wealthy benefactors who can help offset college costs, said Wade.
Each year, almost 44 million Americans rack up student loan debt or they graduate with no full-time jobs in their chosen careers.
Among them are Jessica and Stephanie, local college students introduced to me through an email exchange arranged by SeekingArrangement.com. Both agreed to talk about their experience, but neither wanted to use her last name because their parents are not aware of the arrangement. I met Jessica in person. Stephanie and I spoke by phone.
I found them both to be articulate, ambitious young women. Neither saw their arrangement as anything out of the ordinary — just an agreement between two consenting adults. There was a line, however, that both said they were unwilling to cross: marital infidelity.
Stephanie, 21, was working at a popular sports bar when a colleague told her about Seeking Arrangement, and they posted their profiles to the site.
“I really didn’t think I was going to follow through, but I actually met someone,” said Stephanie, who is enrolled in an online program at the University of South Carolina. She eventually matched with a 46-year-old cybersecurity expert, who takes her on vacation trips and shopping sprees and makes weekly deposits to her bank account.
“I know a lot of people think it’s prostitution, but it’s totally different,” she said. “This is a real relationship. We communicate every single day. I care about him. He takes care of me like men are supposed to. He thinks I’m funny. He tells me I’m beautiful. What girl wouldn’t want that?
“I’m going to college, and I’m making money,” she added.
Ironically, Jessica, a 22-year-old theater major who had her pick of six colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, Florida A&M, and Spelman, first heard about the site while overhearing her mom tell a friend about a magazine article she’d read about Seeking Arrangement. But the concept itself, Jessica said, came to her in a song titled “Suga Mama” by R&B singer Beyonce.
“That you could have a mutually beneficial relationship with someone of high status that would help with expenses intrigued me,” Jessica said.
In the scheme of things, that hardly matters. Language and naming have power and are symbolic.
“Even the terms sugar daddies and sugar babies have an incestuous and infantilizing echo,” said Deborah Cohan, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. “Young women can try to convince themselves that they are calling the shots in these situations, but is this the way women want to become empowered?”
It’s unfortunate, Cohan said, when women perceive few options for economic freedom.
“The owners and operators of these sites and the participants want to make the case that this is a choice, and a viable one, but it strikes me as the epitome of a choiceless decision,” she said.
As a professor at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, Cohan sees this firsthand. USC’s main campus is near Hilton Head, home to the annual Heritage golf tournament. “Every year I have students who tell me that as exotic dancers this is their big week to make money to pay for tuition and that as a result they want to be excused from classes,” she said. “Is this the way we want young women to have to exist in their earliest employment and earliest intimate relationships and connections?
“And moreover, what does this mean for men, for how they think about power, control, and sexuality and women in general?”
Jessica went on a half-dozen dates before she settled on an arrangement with a 45-year-old Atlanta business consultant, who pays her tuition and gives her a biweekly allowance of $2,000.
She says they dated six months before they ever touched. One of those dates was to get the results of an HIV test before beginning a sexual relationship.
On average, Jessica sees her benefactor three times a week, mostly on weekends. In that time, she’s discovered she likes the fact that he grew up in a two-parent home like herself and attends church.
“He’s kind of an introvert,” Jessica said. “He really treats me like a lady.”