People have all sorts of judgments about sugar babies, those girls who act as de facto girlfriends to men who are either paying their bills or showering them with expensive gifts. But, as I see it, many of the people who turn up their noses at such behavior are doing the same thing disguised as something else. Was Ellen Barkin so charmed by Ron Perlman’s demeanor that she could overlook his bald dome and previous three marriages, or did his status (and wealth) as the head of Revlon have more to do with their six-year marriage? (She reportedly netted $60 million when they split in 2006.)

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Sandra, a bubbly 36-year-old redhead in New York, recently referred her brother’s girlfriend to Sugar Daddy For Me, the site where she met her 72-year-old paramour, Rudy. “I’m not going to tell my brother,” she admits. “He doesn’t need to know.”

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And have you ever gotten a look at Salma Hayek’s billionaire husband, the very same billionaire who had to be taken to court to pay child support on his kid with supermodel Linda Evangelista? Despite a relatively minor age difference, the two look more like father and daughter than happy couple in pictures. Point is, this kind of arrangement goes on every day and is called everything from “true love” to “a surprising but cute match.” All the Sugar Babies are doing differently is copping to their behavior. Right?

That certainly seems to be the contention of the two most groups I’ve written about the past two weeks, the Sugar site proprietors and the Sugar Daddies. Before sites like Sugar Daddy For Me and Seeking Arrangement came along, women who had their sights set on romancing older benefactors had to either manipulate these guys into paying their bills or just outright ask for stuff.

The sites take the guesswork and some of the awkwardness out of it, but so what? I find a lot of these girls refreshingly honest. If they find men who are happy to ply them with Prada, who are we to judge? If we hadn’t had the opportunities they have lacked—simply by being born into different families who offered us a leg up or inspiration or paid for our education—how can we say for sure we wouldn’t do the same?

François-Henri Pinault: milking his silver spoon for all it’s worth.

What they ask for seems to run the gamut, from college funding to breast implants (the top plastic surgery request according to Sugardaddie.com). But for many of the girls I spoke with, Sugar Daddy dating is simply a practical way to get needs met. Just how practical are these girls? Sandra, a bubbly 36-year-old redhead in New York, recently referred her brother’s girlfriend to Sugar Daddy For Me, the site where she met her 72-year-old paramour, Rudy. “I’m not going to tell my brother,” she admits. “He doesn’t need to know.”

The more Sandra shares about her arrangement, the clearer it becomes why she’s trying to spread the love: after first hearing about the sugar daddy concept when Tyra Banks discussed it on her talk show three years ago, Sandra started to research and decided that Sugar Daddy For Me looked like the most “reputable” site. Within 24 hours of posting her profile, her inbox was so flooded with potential suitors that the website actually contacted her to say they’d never had a new member receive so many messages so quickly.

There was some creepy stuff to weed through—“The weirdest one was from this guy who had really strange pictures of chains and spikes and body pierce things and said he’d like to tie me up and do all kinds of nasty things to me”—but a few months in, Sandra found the “older, quieter gentleman who’d traveled the world and could appreciate the finer things in life” that she’d been looking for.

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Rosa, a 34-year-old trainer who lives outside Boston, learned about Sugar Daddy For Me from a girlfriend who moved from the DR to Miami after her third date with her sugar daddy, and it’s clear that this girl is an inspiration of sorts. “He bought her a house!”

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“Rudy was just a gentleman from the beginning,” Sandra says. “When we spoke, he said, ‘You’ll never be forced or asked to do anything that would make you uncomfortable. I’m just looking for a companion once a month.’” Then he added that he wasn’t even interested in sexual intercourse. “He said that he just wanted someone to hug and touch and kiss and take care of,” she explains. “He wasn’t vulgar at all and I just felt very comfortable.”

So comfortable was Sandra that on their fourth date, when Rudy asked if she’d “mind doing a little role play,” she told him that she wouldn’t. They retreated to a nearby hotel, where Rudy brought out a black leather costume and paddles he’d bought her. “I hadn’t done anything like that before but I got into it,” she confesses. “Now we’ve done it several times.”

The fact that Rudy is married doesn’t bother Sandra. She’s not looking for a boyfriend, though she says that Rudy wouldn’t mind if she had one. In exchange for being available for monthly dinners followed by whatever touching, kissing and role-playing Rudy has in mind, Sandra receives “a few thousand dollars a month, plus he pays for my clothes and whenever I have anything—like, I have to go to the dentist or have a yearly physical or something—he just tells me to turn the bills over to him.” Rudy also pays her phone bill.

The upside: seemingly endless gifts…

The relationship, which has been going strong for three years, is hardly a simple business transaction. “Rudy’s a real sweetheart,” Sandra enthuses. “You just want to be around him. He’s very endearing. He travels a lot so he’ll call me when he’s gone and ask me if I’m free a week or two before. And he’ll let me know if he’s going to be away a long time.”

Of course, a healthy portion of Sugar Babies are looking for something more. Rosa, a 34-year-old Dominican and Cape Verdean trainer who lives outside Boston, learned about Sugar Daddy For Me from a girlfriend who moved from the DR to Miami after her third date with her sugar daddy, and it’s clear that this girl is an inspiration of sorts. “He was a widower and asked her if she’d move to Florida to be with him,” Rosa explains. “She had no kids to hold her down so she thought, ‘Why not?’ They’ve lived together for about two years now. He bought her a house!”

While Rosa has met up with two men from the site in the eight months she’s been a member, neither of them were ultimately what she was seeking. The first guy was “much, much older and so out of shape.” The second was married. Though she saw the married guy for a while—“We had chemistry”—the fact that he had three kids and was sneaking away from his wife and pretending to be at work when they were together ultimately didn’t work for her.

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Although Anna says that her guy has “everything” going for him, she can only elaborate to say that “he has a career and is established” and when asked to describe how he looks, the solitary word she comes up with is “stylish” before adding that he’s “kind of short.”

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Although the married man brought her gifts and flowers over the six months they saw each other, Rosa wasn’t comfortable when he offered her money. “I want to be with a guy I like and can actually be in a real relationship with,” Rosa says. “Some girls would rather have the money however it comes but not me. Then it’s like a business. And I’d rather have a guy take me out to dinner, buy my food and then maybe offer to pay my bills or give me a bracelet than hand me money.”

Anna Victoria, a 21-year-old brunette waitress in New York, feels similarly. Her 35-year-old steady isn’t married, but he’s made it clear that he’s only interested in something casual. They’ve been seeing each other a couple of times a week for the past seven months, and a lot of the time he’ll either bring along a gift—say, a Gucci or Louis Vuitton bag or Jimmy Choo shoes—or take her on a shopping trip.

While Anna stresses that she and her paramour have a lot in common because they’re both “artistic and interested in music,” perhaps her truest feelings are revealed by what she doesn’t say. For instance, although Anna says that her guy has “everything” going for him, she can only elaborate to say that “he has a career and is established” and when asked to describe how he looks, the solitary word she comes up with is “stylish” before adding that he’s “kind of short.”

The downside: when the relationship ends, so does the cash flow.

Still, these girls are the first to admit that being a sugar baby doesn’t mean becoming Cinderella. Sandra’s brother’s girlfriend, for example, has seen her inbox flooded as well, but not always with sweet somethings. “She got some pretty weird emails,” Sandra notes. “One guy, this doctor in Canada, told her that he wanted her to be his sex slave for $800 a week.” Sandra laughs. “I said, ‘I don’t think this is what you want. I think you’re looking for a Rudy.’ ”

So what are we left with? My overall feeling is, if you’re going to take part in the Sugar Daddy lifestyle, just own up to what you’re doing, because trying to dress it up as something else just makes you sound silly. When I was getting to know the girls, the ones I respected and enjoyed speaking with were those who seemed to understand exactly what they were doing and had a healthy attitude of acceptance around the whole thing. But the girls who were defensive or evasive just seemed to advertise their own feelings of guilt or shame.

And the same goes for the site proprietors and the Sugar Daddies. I respected the guys owned it, while I just started to tune out those who tried to convince me they’re helping to make the world a better place. Because Sugar Daddy dating is what it is: men who prioritize beauty pairing with women who prioritize money. It’s not my place to judge how a guy wants to spend his earnings—or what a woman does to get her hands on it. If you’re going to do it, do it whole-heartedly and without apology. Just don’t try to convince any of us that it’s somehow noble.