In case you haven’t already figured it out, I kind of have a soft spot for MTV. I used to love shows like Made and I Used to Be Fat – I even watched a season or two of The Real World back in the day. And of course, we all know that I love Catfish. Anyway, another MTV show I love is True Life (obviously, I have a thing for investigative journalism). Two years ago, there was an episode called “I’m a Sugar Baby,” which followed three young adults who were in “mutually beneficial” relationships. That is, they provide company for wealthy older companions in exchange for gifts or money. The show briefly mentioned that two of the sugar babies in the episode met their sugar daddies online, referring to sites such as SugarDaddyForMe.com and SeekingArrangement.com.
SeekingArrangement.com was the brainchild of Brandon Wade, an MIT graduate. Wade came into my radar a couple of weeks ago during my online dating experiment due to his most recent invention, an app called Carrot Dating. While Tinder makes its matches based on mutual (usually physically-based) interest, Carrot Dating allows you to express your interest with bribes – flowers, expensive dinners, or even lavish things like travel and plastic surgery. The theory behind dating services like these is essentially that money is the great equalizer for people who are not considered conventionally attractive or properly socialized. Wade seems to think of himself as a “dating expert” in his ingenuity, even going as far as saying with confidence, “Women love presents like dogs love treats.” Wade also made similar sites such as SeekingMillionaire.com (self-explanatory) and WhatsYourPrice.com, which functions similarly to Carrot Dating, except monetary amounts are offered instead of gifts.
The whole idea of these “arrangement” services seemed…questionable, to say the least. I hesitated for a long time before creating profiles on Carrot Dating and WhatsYourPrice.com. My strategy was the same as it has been for typical dating sites – create the profile, then sit and wait. I am not obligated to do anything else in this experiment. On Carrot Dating, everyone is able to bribe and be bribed – it’s not just men bribing women, as the advertisements imply. WhatsYourPrice works slightly differently, though. When you create your profile, you designate yourself as “Attractive” or “Generous.” I felt strange when presented with this question – those are my only two options? I can’t just be a neutral party who’s here for the sake of journalism? Begrudgingly, I quickly labeled myself as “Attractive” and hit ‘Submit,’ trying to remember why I thought this was a good idea.
WhatsYourPrice also has the “wink” feature, where an Attractive can invite a Generous to make them an offer – and a Generous can prompt an Attractive to name their price. It’s a negotiation largely referred to on the site as similar to an eBay auction; their tagline is actually “Buy and Sell First Dates.” If this whole situation didn’t already feel messed up in some way, it definitely did after receiving a few winks – even if I don’t actually plan on accepting money for dates, being presented with these options forces me to wonder: how much money am I worth, anyway? And how much do people think I’m worth based on two photos and a short blurb? Is this wrong? It sure feels wrong. These services have been widely criticized and compared to prostitution – even though the sites present disclaimers that escorts are not welcome and the only thing that is being arranged is a first date. Further, the two female sugar babies in the True Life episode made it very clear that they provide company and nothing more to their suitors.
But the problem is actually not about sex. In a review of Carrot Dating, Peggy Drexler articulated the main reason why these services feel so wrong to me: “At its core, Carrot [Dating] reinforces the notion that women can, and should, be bought.” Even if women have the power to offer bribes in CD and designate themselves as “Generous” in WYP, the language and advertising that surround these services (and Brandon Wade’s entire career) classify women as beautiful and frivolous while men are nothing if not rich. It creates an even worse dichotomy of human relationships than in cultures where daughters can be sold to wealthy families because this business empire holds that women themselves are inherently greedy and materialistic. They’re no better than dogs salivating for treats.
So, as tempting as flowers and jewelry and fancy dinners may seem, in the end, this is just not okay.
[Update: Carrot Dating has recently been discontinued from the Apple App Store for its “objectionable” content. However, the service will still be available via the CD website and on Android phones]