Inside the secret world of Sugar Babies
SITTING in a fashionable Sydney bar Valentina seems like any other 18-year-old girl.
But the pretty, softly-spoken student has a secret - she has been seeing a wealthy older businessman who has paid to have a relationship with her.
It's not prostitution according to the services that couple young men and women with their much older, wealthy clientele, but a mutually advantageous agreement.
In Australia Sugar Daddy relationships are gaining fast momentum with the number of women and men seeking them doubling in the past year.
For the most part they are young women, many of them at university, seeking an older man to pay their bills and give them a taste of the good life. But they also include men seeking Sugar Mummys or Daddys, or women seeking a female benefactor.
Sometimes they are showered with gifts just for the privilege of their company, but more often than not it's for a sexual relationship, and that is where the line between legitimate couples and prostitution blurs.
However, Kimberly De La Cruz from popular Sugar Daddy website Seeking.com, denies the suggestion of prostitution.
"A Sugar Baby is not a sex workers, and sex workers are not allowe don Seeking.com. Anyone engaging in this behaviour, will be banned from the site. A Sugar relationship is just that, a relationship, and it is not only about sex," she says.
Founder of Sugardaddie.com Steven Pasternack agrees.
"Prostitution is nothing more than a business transaction and after it's done, there's no relationship," he says.
"A Sugar Daddy relationship is an ongoing relationship … it's no different to a movie star in his 50s or 60s dating a younger woman - no one questions those relationships."
After originating in the United States, a number of different websites now operate Down Under and sign up hundreds of thousands of new members each year.
Members simply create an online profile and start shopping for their preferred match.
One platform, Seeking.com, has over 700,000 Australian members - around 500,000 of those are Sugar Babies - just like Valentina.
And, the site has seen its Australian database double in size in just 12 months.
Between Macquarie University and the University of Sydney - two of Sydney's top universities - more than 700 students are Sugar Babies on the side.
De La Cruz believes the rise in Sugar relationships is because the "focus more on happiness and satisfaction than traditional milestones."
"Sugar relationships are so popular because of their ability to let each person be upfront about what they are looking for in a partner," she says.
Valentina signed up to the website about a year ago after struggling to find a companion her age.
"I was never interested in guys my age so it was a way to meet older men and learn about their life experiences."
She was in a relationship with a Sugar Daddy in his early-30s for around three months however his work commitments mean the pair have taken a break for the time being.
During their time together, Valentina received "thousands of dollars" and ongoing "mentorship" from her Sugar Daddy.
"It was like a normal relationship but he would spoil me a lot more and spent money on me … he would take me for nice dinners and gave me money if I needed it," she says.
"I'm studying at the moment so it helped pay for everyday things because I can't work much. Or I'd go on larger shopping sprees than I usually would. One time I bought a Louis Vuitton wallet."
And although the arrangement began as platonic, casual sex soon was soon introduced.
"We did get into that kind of stuff (sex) but on my terms. Like a normal relationship it just progressed to that but I made it very clear from the beginning that it wasn't just all about sex," she adds.
While Valentina says she is not embarrassed about being in a relationship of this nature, she has chosen to keep it secret from her friends and family.
As luring as the luxury, fine dining and designer handbags might be, these kinds of relationship have psychological experts very worried.
Professionals warn that the blurry lines of a Sugar relationship means some people may not recognise the reality of what they're signing up to.
Dan Auerbach, a psychotherapist from Associated Counsellors and Psychologists Sydney says: "By virtue of being open ended and without exact parameters, one party might become quite demanding and compulsive in trying to extract more and more from the other as they seek to gratify their needs for intimacy or sex.
"What perhaps might start with some innocent fun in exchange for a dinner or a nice necklace, can soon become quite blurred and damaging for both parties," Auerbach explains.
Georgia's story is similar to Valentina's. The 20-year-old from Melbourne has two Sugar Daddies both in their late 30s - one whom she lives with and the other is based in Adelaide.
In the two years she has been involved with them, Georgia has received over $100,000 in cash plus luxurious gifts, including a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, and various all-expenses paid holidays.
After seeing many of her Sugar Baby girlfriends "making heaps of money" and buying "designer handbags I could never afford", Georgia decided to become one herself.
"I was just a high school student, working part time but I wasn't living too comfortably and couldn't buy the s**t I wanted to buy … I just wanted to live a bit more luxury," she says.
As well as living with one Sugar Daddy, Georgia also works as his secretary. All her living expenses are covered, she drives his Lamborghini and he gives her $2,500 cash every week to spend however she wishes. The pair have casual sex, but Georgia is adamant it's only "when it suits, there's no pressure about it."
With the lifestyle of the rich and famous aside, Georgia admits there are consequences.
"The only downside I've found is that my Sugar Daddy has fallen for me and becomes a bit possessive as if we were in an actual relationship, which is not what I want," she says.
"I don't feel used or anything because it's mutually beneficial … but I do think about what I'll do (after the relationship ends) sometimes as I've gotten used to this lifestyle - but that's why I'm just saving as much money as possible."
Her second Sugar Daddy arrangement is platonic and Georgia says they are "just friends who speak at least once a week". He regularly spoils her with all expenses paid trips to Adelaide where they dine on degustation dinners worth $2,000. Recently, he gave her $10,000 to spend while she was on a four-month holiday overseas.
Though confessing she is "a little bit" frightened of being judged, she says she is not embarrassed about her choice to engage in these arrangements.
"I know it can be frowned upon, the whole gold digger thing, but I mean why not? It's not hurting anyone. I may as well get ahead now … I'm not ashamed of it," she adds.
Meanwhile, Carlo, a 20-year-old straight man from Sydney, is also a Sugar Baby but the arrangements he has with his two Sugar Daddies are different to Valentina and Georgia's.
"People often say 'it's not what you know but who you know' … so I figured I could use this (Seeking.com) to find someone who is somewhere in life where I would aspire to be," he says.
"I treat this like a job that allows me to use the skills that I have. Rather than working on a farm or something while I'm at university, I can provide my company and value and someone to talk to, and in return receive assistance with university fees and things like that."
One of his arrangements is a 'pay per meet' deal where Carlo receives $400 in return for spending time with his Sugar Daddy.
The other is based on financial domination or 'findom' for short - a fetish where someone finds pleasure in becoming financially submissive. In Carlo's case, his wealthy, powerful and successful Sugar Daddy finds pleasure in giving Carlo $6,000 cash each month to splurge in one shopping trip. While some may gawk at the situation, Carlo says "sometimes people just have to do what they have to do."
But it's not all about the Sugar Babies ... after all, it wouldn't work without a Sugar Daddy. Henry, a 48-year-old property developer from St Peters, became a Sugar Daddy after his marriage fell apart.
"When all was said and done in my divorce, I wanted to try dating again but in an environment where there was less pressure to be in a relationship. Seeking opened the door for me to explore another lifestyle," he says.
Currently in a sexual relationship with a 27-year-old Sugar Baby from Perth, Henry was looking for a companion to "join me for dinner, travel with me on my business trips and really add that youthfulness back into my life."
"In exchange for her time and company, I offer her help in her career and everything she may need to succeed - nice clothes and gifts, covering education costs, etcetera," he explains.
Reiterating the potential psychological dangersValentina, Georgia, Carlo and even Henry are facing, psychotherapist Auerbach believes the lure of a luxurious life is a recipe for disaster.
"The risk cloaked in a Sugar Daddy relationship is that it appears that there is some mutuality and romantic elements - such as money or gifts - which then puts tremendous psychological pressure on the other party to provide either sexual favours or intimacy, and there are no strict criteria for the exchange," he says.
"My concern would be that young people who are looking for a bit of fun and luxury don't fully appreciate the dangerousness and the pressure of the situations they face when they turn up on a first date."
Warnings, wads of cash and fine dining aside - is this prostitution or not? You can decide.