Parinda Wanitwat was concerned about finances when she graduated from college this summer. After reading a Vanity Fair article about “sugar babies” -- young women who date older men in return for compensation -- she turned to the website SeekingArrangement.com to see what the fuss was about.
“I didn't think it was a safe place at all for me,” Wanitwat, a 23-year-old New York City resident, said of the site. The website, launched in 2006, matches wealthy "sugar daddies" with willing "babies." "But I wanted to do some research."
Wanitwat began thinking about the women in such relationships, and developed an interest. After connecting with young women through online relationship forums and email Listservs, Wanitwat set out to produce a documentary that allows "sugar babies" to tell their own stories -- without judgment.
“Daddies Date Babies,” set to be released in December, follows five young women ranging from ages 18 to 27 as they navigate heterosexual sugar relationships and discuss past encounters.
The documentary explores how women enter and define these relationships, concerns they have about their privacy and safety, preconceived notions they had and why the relationships are so stigmatized.
"The women want as much money as possible for as much stability as possible," one participant says in the film's trailer. "The men want to pay as little as possible for as much novelty as possible."
As college tuition rises and an estimated 37 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, some college students and graduates turn to sites like Seeking Arrangement to help pay bills.
"I got into sugar babying because I didn't have a job, had graduated from college and needed money," Tess Wood, 25, told The Huffington Post. "It seemed easier than bartending. It seemed like a very available option. It seemed easy to fall into."
Wood, who has been involved with sugar daddies in Chicago, New York and Jacksonville, Florida, never found the relationships particularly satisfying. She agreed to participate in Wanitwat's documentary to help debunk myths about the women in sugar relationships and deconstructing the stigma.
“In general, women are sort of trained to not speak about certain things ... One of those things is sex,” Wood told HuffPost. “We're not really supposed to talk about sex. Things like sex work and the dark side of it, the stuff that isn't discussed -- that's the side I think we need to be talking about. We use shame to keep us from confronting these issues.”
Stephany Xu, a 23-year-old entrepreneur (who, in the interest of disclosure, was a college classmate of the author) often dates older men and expects them to provide a credit card for her personal use. Xu joined Seeking Arrangement five years ago and still occasionally checks the site, and has also dated older men she met at airport lounges or through introductions from friends.
"The first person I ever met off [Seeking Arrangement], I had such an amazing experience with," Xu told The Huffington Post. "He turned out to be so nice and knowledgeable and supportive. He's still one of my very close mentors today."
Xu rejects the sugar baby label, and said the credit card arrangement is a perk rather than a requirement.
"I like credit cards because it gives you an amount of freedom," she said. "I can pay off the card myself if I want to, or he can choose not to pay it that month. It never has to be something that's discussed, it's something that's kind of there."
Xu's participation in the documentary stems from her positive experiences dating so-called sugar daddies, though she noted that her relationships have been very different from other women profiled in the film. For example, the idea of a man paying her $500 specifically for oral sex -- an experience another baby recounts -- makes her very uncomfortable.
"That's terrifying to me," Xu said.
Wood no longer seeks out sugar baby relationships, after a series of disappointing endeavors in which she invested significant emotional energy in exchange for what she considered a substandard financial gain. She said she feared for her safety with one man, and had multiple experiences with sugar daddies who promised money and never delivered.
"That's one of the reasons I got out of it," Wood said. "There's no way to make sure people aren't lying."
Wood and Xu discussed relationships and sexual encounters that they said are more socially acceptable than sugar relationships, but still involve some element of exchange. For example, Wood has hooked up with men in the past order to get access to their social circle or aspects of their lifestyle. Xu is currently involved with a man a few years older who treats her to meals, shopping trips and nights out. They call each other "boyfriend" and "girlfriend."
"There are so many different facets to sugar baby dating," Wood said. "I think it ranges. It bleeds into 'regular dating' more than people realize. This whole idea of transactional relationships is insidious. It's everywhere. One thing that stood out to me, is that these [sugar baby-sugar daddy] relationships are not fundamentally different."
Xu and Wood agreed that the sugar baby label is unnecessarily stigmatizing.
"There are elements of transactionality in every single relationship," Xu said. "Who gets to say where the line is?"