As "sugar babies," cash-strapped students receive an average of $3,000 per month for relationships, mostly with older men who get companionship -- and sometimes much more. Los Angeles is the so-called sugar daddy capital for coeds seeking tuition, and one local "sugar baby" shares her story exclusively with NBC4. Robert Kovacik reports from UCLA for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2013.
A Las Vegas-based dating website for the post-"Fifty Shades of Grey" era has gained steam, now with 2 million members, 44 percent of whom are female college students seeking a "sugar daddy."
As "sugar babies," students receive an average of $3,000 per month for relationships, mostly with older men who get companionship -- and sometimes much more.
UCLA was among the fastest-growing "sugar baby schools," with 180 Bruins looking for a wealthy partner in a "mutually beneficial" relationship, according to a report this week from the website, SeekingArrangement.com.
The University of California, Los Angeles, ranks No. 20 on SeekingArrangement.com's list, while Cal State Fullerton, USC and UC Riverside are in the top 75, according to a ranking provided by the website.
"It's huge. Southern California is probably one of our biggest markets," said SeekingArrangement.com's spokeswoman, Angela Jacob Bermudo. "LA in particular is one of our sugar daddy capitals."
The site was founded in 2006 by Brandon Wade, a self-professed nerd who didn't receive his first kiss until he was a 21-year-old MIT student. Wade, pictured at right with his wife Tatiana, has since created a small dating-website empire that he says is a more honest approach to what people really want from relationships.
On the website, a sugar daddy is described as "a successful and generous man who is willing to pamper and offer financial help or gifts to a young person in return for friendship and companionship," while a sugar baby is "an attractive, ambitious and goal oriented individual who has a lot to offer."
Similar to Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in the bestselling erotic novel "Fifty Shades of Grey," the mostly older men and younger women who find each other through SeekingArrangement.com enter in a kind of contract, the terms of which are up to the individuals involved.
"This is a business relationship," said one 23-year-old student who lives in Los Angeles.
"Lyla," who didn't want to give her real name, became a sugar baby on the site last spring and shared her story. SeekingArrangement.com gave her contact information to NBC4.
"There are times I feel like it's not worth it. I feel like I'm losing my dignity each time I see a man," Lyla said. "But it is worth it sometimes."
Lyla – enrolled at both LA City College and Santa Monica College – said she earned $3,000 each month during a relationship that lasted from June till last October.
In a still-struggling economy where jobs are scarce – especially for students with short resumes – the "sugar baby lifestyle" is a way for students such as Lyla to pay for tuition and skip student loan debt, according to the SeekingArrangement.com's spokeswoman, Angela Jacob Bermudo.
"Instead of having to choose between dropping out and getting a job … this is a viable option," Jacob Bermudo said. "You're paid to become a companion. And you're getting some business sense and contacts."
In 2012, the site saw a 58 percent increase in the number of college students signing up, she said.
For Lyla, Los Angeles indeed produced a sugar daddy who supplemented her paltry college-student's budget.
But it didn’t quite work out like she had hoped.
Lyla signed up for SeekingArrangement.com after seeing an advertisement online. She'd been working as a waitress at a bar and could barely pay her rent.
"I did go out on a few dates. They were older and unattractive and I just didn't want to put myself in that situation," Lyla said. "If we were ever intimate, I would feel violated."
Then she met another sugar daddy, a 32-year-old investor who had recently moved to LA. Lyla found him attractive, especially compared with the other men.
"The first date went really well. We went to a wine bar. He said, 'I like you.' I said, 'Me too,"' Lyla recalled. "I didn't say, ‘I need your money.’ … It was an unspoken thing."
Soon after, he asked her to be his girlfriend. He bought her expensive clothing – which she didn't like – and asked her to sleep at his house four or five nights per week. She did.
Lyla got paid first in $100 bills, then via direct deposit. She was pleased with the cash, but did not like feeling controlled.
"I felt that he … bought me and I was his. He started telling me how much makeup I could wear, how I could wear my hair," Lyla said. "He would make me wear these heels that were too high, and this too-tight dress."
He showed her off to his friends, and Lyla lied about how they had met. He continued to obviously check out other women in her presence, she said.
Then he told her he wanted to reduce her "allowance" to $2,500 or $2,000.
"Now the sugar baby part of me was like eff you, I'm going to look for someone who can afford me," Lyla said. "The girlfriend part of me was like: OK."
They started getting into fights over the clothes.
After four months, he broke up with her by text message. She was hurt, but not surprised that it ended.
She told her best friend, a guy, who said he understood: She needed the money. Her sister was less sympathetic. Her father said only that he worried for her safety and he was glad she wasn't "out on the streets."
A month after the breakup, Lyla signed up for an account on SeekingArrangement.com again, but she said now she would never agree to be another sugar daddy's girlfriend. Her most recent date was an all-expenses-paid weekend in Dallas at a fancy hotel.
She received $3,000 for her time with the Texan sugar daddy.
"What we're doing is prostitution. I get it. We're coating it with something different. We're putting a label on it: 'I'm your sugar baby.' But really, I'm your part-time hooker," Lyla said. "Sometimes I look at myself and say, 'What am I doing?' I can't be a sugar baby forever."
Site spokeswoman Jacob Bermudo said that the media-savvy site – which has been profiled in countless publications – often gets compared to an escort service or straight-up prostitution.
"The difference between those and SeekingArrangment.com is that's really transactional – I give you money for services," Jacob Bermudo said. "That's not what it's about. Sugar is a lifestyle. … These people will not get into an arrangement without feeling a connection with somebody."
Members don't have sex until they feel ready, she said, adding that she's not aware of any complaints of abuse or rape. Complaints of fraud are the most common, with sugar daddies misrepresenting themselves, she said.
All members get background checks, and sugar daddies (and a few sugar mommies) pay for $60 to $210 per month for membership and to receive credits to contact sugar babies.
Relationships last from two months to several years, sometimes ending up in marriage, Jacob Bermudo said.
"It all varies," she said. "It's just like dating."
Lyla said she's been altered by the experience. Dating guys her own age is attractive, but she doesn't want a relationship.
"After this experience, it would be like having sex for free," Lyla said. "Now I have this business mentality: How much do you have and what can we work out?"