This story was originally published Feb. 10, 2012, in the Daily News:
PAULA'S NOT SOLD on the college dating scene.
Because of her workload as a Temple University biochemistry student, she's more likely to be found cracking open books in her dorm than beers at a frat party. Besides, she thinks that guys her age are, like, so immature.
"I've always been attracted to older men," she said. "They've been through more and know how to treat women better."
Paula (not her real name) has a new strategy for finding potential mates, one that can also help pay her tuition. And she's not alone.
Last year, hundreds of female college students like Paula joined SeekingArrangement.com, an online dating service that aims to connect older, wealthy "sugar daddies" with younger, attractive "sugar babies" looking to be pampered in exchange for some affection. The boom in membership was so high among female students that the website last month released a national ranking of the top 20 colleges and universities whose students joined the website in 2011.
Temple was No. 5.
Ray Betzner, Temple's assistant vice president of university communications, said that the university was unaware of this dubious distinction and questioned the validity of the statistic.
SeekingArrangement's founder, Brandon Wade, defended the information, grounding it in firsthand experience with some of the "babies."
"With the economy doing so badly, people are taking matters into their own hands, trying to figure out the best way to pay for college without creating a huge amount of debt," said Wade, 41, who has a 26-year-old sugar baby of his own in stunning girlfriend Tanya Kymtsova.
Wade, an MIT grad who started the website in 2005, said that the sugar babies usually join in search of a more luxurious lifestyle. Now, the website is being invaded by more pragmatic college students - women, and some guys, looking for a benefactor to pay their student loans, provide start-up capital for their businesses or help them land jobs.
In Paula's case, that last point is most important. She's on the prowl for a well-connected suitor.
"He doesn't have to be a company president, but he does have to have some ambition," she said. "If he can help me network, that would be fine, too."
Paula's been messaging a few "daddies" through the website, but nothing serious has developed yet. Sugar babies like her can chat and arrange dates for free, and college-age members (who sign up with a .edu email address) get special perks like higher placement in search results.
The men seeking these women pay a $50 monthly fee, with an option of upgrading to a "premium" account for $2,400 a year.
Each woman's account requires some basic information (name, location, age) and one piece that's a little more personal: how much money she expects to receive per date. Prices range from less than $1,000 to more than $20,000. Some women, like Paula, label themselves as being "open for negotiation."
"That's one of the things that separates us from other sites," Wade said. "The girls here are brutally honest. They tell the men what they want right away."
And what do the men want? Well, it doesn't take a diploma from MIT to figure that out.
"People throw the term 'prostitution' around a lot," Wade said. "In reality, what we're doing is not prostitution. These girls are not obligated to sleep with everyone who pays them."
The website skirts the law by not explicitly promising money for romance, but those familiar with SeekingArrangement say that sex is often synonymous with "sugar."
Liz Nistico, a researcher who studied the SeekingArrangement community on a grant from George Washington University, found that 85 percent of the website's members are either in an intimate relationship or want to be in one.
She got a look into the "sugar lifestyle" through socials held to help daddies and babies connect, as well as personal interviews with the members.
"These relationships are a commitment," she said. "It's like a job for these girls. They're on call 24/7 for their 'daddies.' "
And like many jobs, the relationships often end when better opportunities present themselves. Wade himself admitted that a majority of the relationships started through his website are short-term, with the exception of a few rare "sugar marriages."
These whirlwind, money-based unions may seem glamorous, but the damage they can do to the women involved outweighs any payout, said Brendan Greer, CEO of the Philly-based Council for Relationships.
"If a girl is doing this, she's not forming age-appropriate relationships and is cutting herself off from natural development," said Greer, a psychologist who has treated hundreds of couples at the council.
He has no problem with other, more conventional dating websites. The trouble with Seeking-Arrangement, he said, is the age gap and monetary dependence it relies on to operate.
"A website like this creates a fantasy where the man is dominant and powerful and the woman is submissive and dependent," he said. "Relationships like this aren't healthy, for obvious reasons, and can prevent the girl from finding more emotionally stable and satisfying relationships."
Paula's not worried. She's confident that she can handle herself, and has already turned down some sugar daddies that have seemed "a little outrageous."
"I know what I want from a guy, and I won't settle for anything less," she said. "It doesn't matter what people think. You need to go after what you want."