‘Sugar Daddy' Dating in the Hub

(NECN: Lauren Collins, Boston) - Jasmine is a 21-year-old who walks with the confidence of someone far beyond her years.

"I've been doing this for almost a year and I've never done anything that I feel bad about," she said during a chat in the lobby of a fashionable Boston hotel. She's a Boston University senior from California, a double major in the sciences, and a sugar baby.

"I had a friend who had, still has, an amazing experience with someone that she met off the site. So, just kind of her personal antidotes kind of made me more open to the experience."

Jasmine, whose name we changed for this story, started college right after her dad lost his job. It was hard to cover all the bills. Now she makes two to three hundred dollars per date from wealthy men who live in the Hub or travel here for business. She's among a growing number of college students turning to websites like seekingarrangement.com for sugar daddies, and sugar mommies, who'll help them out.

"I have one job right now and I used to have two," she said. "It's afforded me the opportunity to do unpaid research, I get to go to nice dinners. It's been a good experience."

The founder and CEO of seekingarrangement.com, Brandon Wade said, "I think a lot of students are asking themselves, 'well if I'm dating why not date someone who's a little but more successful than I am who can help me along the way?'"

Roughly half of seekingarrangement.com's sugar babies are in college, mostly enrolled at southern universities. But even buttoned up New England schools have seen a jump in sign ups. 60 BU students joined in 2012 for a 333% increase. 48 UMass co-eds signed up for a 107% spike. Wade says the trend is driven by the economy and popular shows like The Bachelor and Millionaire Matchmaker.

"All of a sudden the sugar daddy and sugar baby lifestyle has really become main stream in the pop culture and more and more people are finding that it is acceptable," he said.

Critics say the site promotes prostitution.

"You have to think there's a power differential that's going on," said Harvard sociologist Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman who worries that sugar relationships can easily push young women into morally and legally grey areas where they feel obliged to provide sex for money. But the idea of an arrangement is as old as the human race. Even cavewomen sought out men who could bring home the biggest meal.

"What we value, you know hunting skills as opposed to monetary skills, has changed so perhaps that's what they're tapping into," she said. "Any relationship, and especially some romantic relationships, have an element of exchange."

Wade defends the site, saying there shouldn't be a presumption that an arrangement equals sex.  "We use terminology like sugar daddy but a sugar daddy is no different than a wealthy boyfriend. So there's a very big difference between prostitution and a sugar relationship."

Jasmine has found plenty of men are out for that one time fling but she claims she's never had sex with any of them and she wouldn't call any of the men she's dated her boyfriend.

"I've been very up front about that and I think the girls who aren't up front about that find themselves in uncomfortable situations sometimes."

Wade met his own wife on the website. He holds two degrees from MIT and made millions from internet start ups, but never had luck with the ladies. His mother encouraged him to leverage his career success into social satisfaction.

"That was really my goal for seekingarrangement.com, was really to take my mother's advice and turn it into a dating website where guys like myself could actually have a shot."

Since then he's launched sister sites seekingmillionaire.com and whatsyourprice.com that unabashedly cater to those who have money and those who want it.

Both Wade and Jasmine agree arrangements aren't for everyone, but this ambitious young woman has no regrets. She has big plans for her life after graduation and wouldn't mind if a man wanted to help her fulfill them.

"I'm not ashamed about it at all," she said. "I don't feel a personal sense of shame about anything I do in life."

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