Sugar Dating in San Francisco: Behind the Boom of Prostitution-Lite
By Clarisse Thorn
Today, our sister blog the Snitch filled us in on the prevalence of UC girls using escort-lite site SeekingArrangement.com to help pay for their tuition. That same site also claimed a little while ago that San Francisco had the most sugar daddies per capita of any U.S. city. Sites like SeekingArrangement claim to connect people who are "interested in 'Mutually Beneficial Dating.'" Functionally, such sites often connect high-end escorts with clients, but those interactions include a remarkable lack of clarity about the monetary exchange.
Last year, I interviewed a friend who was escorting through a sugar baby site, and she described negotiations ranging from the awkward ("I have a new client who paid me $3,000 up front to see me 3 times a month. But I haven't heard from him since our first meeting. If I were his girlfriend, I'd call him, but he asked me not to call him.") to the completely unspoken ("I have one client I've never explicitly discussed money with at all... I met him and we had sex. He knew it was my birthday soon, so as we were getting dressed, he said, 'I got you some birthday spending money,' and he handed me an envelope with $400.")
An escort from L.A. named Jessie Nicole commented in the interview that:
Even though on SeekingArrangement you're still doing a lot of the work you would as an independent escort (photos, copy-writing your description, negotiating clients, etc.) you're doing so under the explicit premise that you are NOT a professional. It's a delicate line of marketing yourself as someone genuine who would never market their sexuality.... Many sugar babies are also fiercely defensive about not being prostitutes, and belittling to those who identify as such. It can be grating when your job descriptions feel extremely similar.
I spoke to San Francisco sex worker and activist Kitty Stryker about this, and she noted that "I don't know any sugar babies. I (and a few other girls) have done it, but we all stopped because there's a lot of pressure to do a lot more for a lot less than you get through escorting, and the straight exchange is just easier emotionally to manage."
When we discussed the preponderance of San Francisco sugar daddies, Kitty observed:
I suspect that there's a desire for open relationships but desirable candidates tend to be tight on availability already! You have a lot of tech/finance folks who have some money to burn, and they want the alternative, possibly geeky, probably a bit kinky girl/boy next door -- but that person is probably already in demand, so the potential daddy type needs to offer something extra to turn their lust object's head. Enter a money situation, a time commitment for a certain level of luxury. Of course, that often comes with a level of entitlement (on both sides) that ends up breaking the relationship up!
This probably is not just a matter of demand (on the sugar daddies' part), but of supply (on the sugar babies' part). The SeekingArrangement data revealed that although the city has the highest percentage of sugar daddies, the amount of money that San Francisco sugar babies receive doesn't crack the top 20. (That singular honor goes to L.A., whose sugar babies earn an average monthly budget of $5,710.) It wouldn't be possible to have so many sugar daddies paying so little money if the city's "dating market" didn't harbor lots of sugar babies.
Given San Francisco's legendary tolerance and low stigma around alternative sexuality, these dynamics make sense. In 2008, Proposition K (which would have decriminalized prostitution) did not pass, but a whopping 42 percent of voters were in favor. At the time, Gawker's article about Prop K was even titled "Apparently Prostitution Wasn't Already Legal in San Francisco." It seems possible that if sex work activists try again, a similar proposition could pass. What would that mean for sugar dating? It's hard to say, but presumably there would be at least a little bit of reduction in the city's usage of SeekingArrangement, and at least a little bit of added clarity for the city's sex workers.
Whatever we call it, legal or not, it's clear that sex work will continue to thrive in our gorgeous city -- named for a saint yet loaded with sin. Making sex work illegal drives it underground and enables industry conditions that can be confusing or, worse, dangerous. SeekingArrangement is just a new example of the oldest profession, and it would be wise to pay attention to what its data is telling us.