When I published my second novel, Bought, I was anxious to promote it. The book was my attempt to fictionalize a lot of research I’d done for a magazine story about hookers and also a way to examine the lives of women who weren’t quite prostitutes because they didn’t, say, spread their legs for wads of cash but nevertheless allowed men to pay their bills. I was fascinated by the double standard that exists—the way women judge other women for pursuing such a lifestyle when nearly every female alive participates in this dynamic in some form or another.

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The business of mostly younger, attractive women being subsidized by mostly older, wealthy men has only flourished, as have the websites helping the two parties find one another. No, really. Brandon Wade, the founder of Seeking Arrangement, raked in $10 million in 2012 alone.

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It seemed, at first, a lucky break that my book release coincided with the economic crash of the late aughts, because women were turning to means of survival they hadn’t previously considered. Suddenly I started to hear about websites that actually connected these women with potential benefactors. So Bought got a lot of publicity, if not a lot of sales—who wants to buy books when they’re losing their jobs?—and in the process of promoting it, I came into contact with a number of these women.

Now, while the book industry has continued to self-destruct, the business of mostly younger, attractive women being subsidized by mostly older, wealthy men has only flourished, as have the websites helping the two parties find one another. No, really. Brandon Wade, the MIT-educated founder of Seeking Arrangement and three other portals—What’s Your Price, Seeking Millionaire and MissTravel—reports that his sites raked in $10 million in 2012 alone.

That caught my attention. So I decided to dive back into this topic, with a modern, digital twist. Over the next three weeks, I’ll be exploring the online Sugar Daddy/Sugar Baby phenomenon from three diverse points of view: the Sugar dating site proprietors, the Sugar Daddies and, last but not least, the Sugar Babies themselves. Without further ado, here we go…

He’s not only the president: Wade and wife Tanya, whom he met on the job.

According to Sugar Daddy For Me founder Gautam Sharma, it isn’t just the economy that has contributed to the success of sites of like his. “I think it’s the overall evolution of things,” he says. “Between the Internet, smartphones, social media and then the evolution of society—the way a lot of people are living together and not getting married and the way there’s acceptance of all types of relationships—it was bound to happen. And when you combine all of that with the financial times and the fact that women are sick of dating pretty, broke guys who end up cheating on them anyway, it just makes sense.”

While the economic shift has certainly helped these sites multiply, former Wall Street trader Steve Pasternack actually launched the first one, Sugar Daddie, way back in 2002. “The inspiration, honestly, was my real life,” he confesses. “As a trader, I worked with a lot of multimillionaires who were always taking the women in their lives to dinners and on trips. Then I moved to Florida and the women I met were telling me how hard it was to find a successful guy. So my original intention was to connect the women here with these guys I knew in New York.”

Pasternack’s site was a hit from the get-go—“everyone liked that they didn’t have to beat around the bush”—and now boasts three million members, all of who pay for their memberships ($24.99 a month for women, $29.99 for men). “Some of the other sites offer free memberships to women, but we don’t,” says Pasternack, explaining that this discourages fake profiles. “Sometimes the women will create aliases, just to test the men and make sure they’re not trying to meet other women once they’ve already started seeing each other.”

Business has been good for Sharma, seen here flying one of his “toys.”

Seeking Arrangement, arguably the best-known Sugar site, offers free memberships to both genders, though anyone can purchase a premium account—which highlights your profile—for $20 a month. The site also makes a point of offering free premium memberships to a group of women that is perhaps the most appealing: college students. According to Wade, this collegiate focus just helps the site grow. “We noticed two years ago that college students were our largest group of new sign-ups,” he says. “And so we thought: why not give them incentive?”

Encouraging college students to join helps hammer home the point that all these site proprietors take pains to make—namely, that arrangements of this sort are not the sleazy old-lechy-man-with-young-gold-digger unions people may imagine. Sugar Daddy For Me has “babies” in their fifties, and the average “daddy” on Sugar Daddie is between 35 and 55—though Pasternack adds that “we do have men in their sixties and seventies, if they’re presentable.”

While Sugar Daddie has somewhat strict membership rules—the women have to be “above average in looks” and the men have to be “above average in lifestyle”—other sites have far more fluid policies. “We’ve had members who have been very successful as sugar babies who wouldn’t necessarily be considered beautiful by societal standards,” says Wade. “In fact, I’ve gotten a hard time about that. Two months ago, one of our sugar babies was on CNN talking about her experiences, and I got messages from people asking, ‘Why are you sending women like that out into the media?’ And I had to ask: wouldn’t it make me look worse if I said that women had to subscribe to my standards of beauty? I mean, who are we to judge that women have to be skinny and tall in a certain way in order to be considered beautiful?”

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“It’s not that different than ancient times,” says Sharma. The cavemen who had the driest caves or who were the strongest water carriers were the ones that women liked. So why shouldn’t a man be valued for his brains and what he’s accomplished?

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And as if that notion isn’t noble enough, Sharma is convinced his site’s paid partnerships are healthier, happier and more honest than traditional relationships. “These arrangements are based on the principle that the more you make the other person happy, the more they’ll do for you,” Sharma says. “A lot of men don’t want all of the legal and financial consequences of divorce, and this is a solution. They would rather have things understood up front. And this brings out men who love to give, who can’t do enough for the women in their lives, and who haven’t before found women who’ve given back.”

Still not convinced? Sharma is quick to point out that the concept is hardly new: “It’s not that different than ancient times. The cavemen who had the driest caves or who were the strongest water carriers—whatever the standards of desirability were then—were the ones that women liked. So why shouldn’t a man be valued for his brains and what he’s accomplished? Maybe these were men who never got a second glance in high school.”

Sugar babies, meanwhile, seem to run the gamut from, as Sharma puts it, “spoiled arm candy types who just want to be taken down Rodeo Drive to single moms, students and even just women who are attracted to older men.” The average monthly allowance for girls appears to hover around $3,000, but I was also told about women who’ve landed $10,000 a month, plus credit cards, travel and gifts, as well as girls who’ve been given houses and cars.

Pasternack has plenty to smile about, thanks to his three-million-member site.

But not all the women are in it for the cash and big-ticket items, the Herve Leger dresses and Louboutin pumps. “Some of the men take on the role of mentors who can advise them on what step to take next in their careers,” Sharma explains. “Maybe they’ll pay the rent for a boutique or help with a girl’s tuition so she doesn’t have to work two jobs while going to school.” One Seeking Arrangement member got her benefactor—who happened to be one of the 10 richest men in the world—to fund her business.

That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that these are soulless financial dealings. “Guys go into this just wanting an arrangement—they think that they don’t want to spend an hour on the phone every night and have to text 25 times a day, especially when they’ve maybe been hurt before,” Sharma says. But then the relationships become something more. “We’ve had a lot of marriages, which honestly surprised me,” says Pasternack. “I didn’t think it would go in that direction.”

Apparently, the love that blossoms is the result of the honesty at play. “You see a different side of the girls,” says Alan “Action” Schneider, a promoter (and sugar daddy) in New York who arranges Sugar Daddy For Me parties just about every month (he’s hosted 27 over the past two-and-a-half years; the next one is April 25th at the Copacabana in Manhattan). “I’ll meet women who are on both traditional dating sites and Sugar Daddy For Me, and it’s like they have two different game faces. They’ll be a lot more vulnerable on Sugar Daddy For Me and will cry and open up about serious financial distress. On the regular dating sites, they put on more of an act.”

They don’t call him “Action” for nothing…

Think what you will about that remark, but Sharma believes love found on these sites lasts. “Typical relationships are what my friend and I call Springtime in the Rockies,” he says. “In the beginning it’s all cherubs dancing in your heart, but then it evolves into a typical marriage, where the two people take each other for granted. Sugar Daddy relationships end up on a better template.”

Do you agree? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, then get more insight next Tuesday, when I’ll be uncovering the Sugar Daddies’ point of view…