On a cold March night in 2014, 18-year-old high school senior Jessica Brooks stepped in to a Starbucks for her first date with Sam Richard, a man she’d met only online. She spotted him immediately. By all accounts, the date went swimmingly.
“I was just so smitten,” said Brooks*, an undeclared freshman. “I thought he was beautiful and so smart and just the perfect gentleman.” They talked for so long that the barista had to kick them out so that she could close shop.
Because Brooks had never done anything like this before, she brought two friends, unbeknownst to her date. They sat across the coffee shop and frequently looked over and giggled.
“He was convinced that they were both flirting with him,” Brooks said. “Which the whole time I thought was so funny because I knew what was going on but he didn’t.”
After leaving Starbucks, Brooks and Richard went on a walk. Because it was cold, he suggested they sit in his car and put the heater on. She agreed. But soon after she got in, Brooks got a text from one of her friends saying she was ready to pick her up, and Richard insisted on walking her to her friend’s car. When he saw that the girl picking Brooks up was one of the giggling girls from Starbucks, he realized what had happened.
“You’re smart,” Richard said. “I’m glad I left my axe at home this time.”
Brooks met Richard, who is nearly 20 years her senior, on SeekingArrangement, which, according to the website, “delivers a new way for relationships to form and grow. Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies or Mommas both get what they want, when they want it.”
Founded in 2006, the site now boasts 3.6 million members; 2.6 million of those members are sugar babies, while one million are sugar daddies and mommas willing to provide. For those who don’t know, sugar daddies and mommas are older people that may provide material or monetary support to their sugar babies, younger partners in a relationship.
Brooks signed up in February soon after she turned 18. She knew she was into older men, and she was looking for some cash.
“I was working in a clothing store and I hated it,” Brooks said. “So I kind of quit, kind of got fired, but the point was, I wasn’t making money and it sucked.”
She first read about SeekingArrangement in a magazine article. “It just occurred to me that I could totally do that; why wouldn’t I?”
Earlier this year, SeekingArrangement began a marketing campaign titled “Sugar Baby University,” “where beautiful ambitious people graduate debt-free,” offering free premium membership to students who sign up with a .edu email address. “Enroll at Sugar Baby University today, and get your education paid for by a generous sponsor,” the video advertisement says. “Because let’s be real: Becoming successful starts with who you know.”
And yet, Brooks said her relationship with Richard turned out to be nothing like that. They had the rarest of things, especially from SeekingArrangement. Not a “pay-for-play exchange,” as Brooks puts it, but something special.
“It was pretty much just like a regular relationship,” Brooks said. “If it was dinner, if it was coffee, we went to a hotel … it was just understood that he was gonna pay for it. Occasionally, we went on shopping sprees together.”
Brooks said that Richard was 47 when they met, and that she kept their eight-month relationship from her parents. He’s a former Verizon engineer, and though divorced for a decade, had two kids — both older than her — one of whom had a son.
“I called him a GILF,” Brooks said.
Brooks went to Richard’s apartment for the first time about six weeks into their relationship, which was a turning point — in a good way.
“I remember we got like the crummiest pizza, and we watched like 10 different movies that night,” Brooks said. “And we had just come from shopping, so I was really happy, and I was just trying on all the different outfits. He was happy. And that was just a really, really good weekend. That was the first full weekend we spent together.”
SeekingArrangement has been criticized for often resembling prostitution: An older person spends money on a younger person, and the younger person dates and possibly sleeps with the older person.
“I don’t think he would have ever brought it up unless I wanted to,” Brooks said. “And I was extremely attracted to him. He was a really good-looking guy. I was dating him because I wanted to date him, not because of the money at that point.”
From her experience, Richard was courteous and respectful about the subject; they were in a relationship, not just an arrangement.
Brooks said that Richard is the only person she’s been with from the site, but from the dozens of messages she’s received, most older users are either busy with work or socially unskilled, and use the website to help them find monogamous relationships.
The two dated for eight months, ending it when Brooks was in Binghamton. He visited her for a weekend in November when all of her Dickinson flatmates were gone.
“He wanted to stay in a college dorm so I guess he could feel young,” Brooks said. And he would. “He found a text on my phone from another guy, and that’s how it ended. And it was very dramatic and soap opera-y, and it took a while for us to get over it and become friends again.”
College, Brooks said, changed her perspective on what she was looking for in a relationship. She didn’t want one, even if they were in love.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t need his money anymore, because that’s never what it was about for me,” Brooks said. “I just didn’t want to be tied down, and things kind of ended because of that. Not because we didn’t love each other anymore.”
But now the two are friends again. They text each other every day. They still meet up over breaks — but just as friends. Neither of them uses SeekingArrangement anymore (Brooks has no interest in a “townie sugar daddy”), but Richard is dating someone else he met on the site: the girl he was with before Brooks.
“At first I was really pissed off,” Brooks said. “I wish it had been anybody except for that girl. But now I’m kind of over it. I just want him to be happy.”
*Names have been changed