Are ‘Sugar Daddy’ sites prone to sex trafficking? The big picture of Matt Gaetz's ‘ecstasy fueled sex’ rumors
Amid the ongoing sex trafficking probe against Florida GOP Representative Matt Gaetz, shocking reports have surfaced that the staunch Trump supporter used to pay women for ecstasy-fueled sex at Florida hotels. According to a bombshell report published by The New York Times on April 1, 2021, multiple women have admitted to Department of Justice investigators that Gaetz used to specify the time, location, and payment amount for sex with them.
Reportedly, Gaetz was introduced to most of these women through his close friend tax collector Joel Greenberg, who is believed to have met the women through 'sugar daddy' websites. Greenberg is currently jailed on sex trafficking charges related to a minor. She is reportedly the same 17-year-old girl at the center of Matt Gaetz's sex trafficking investigation.
Matt Gaetz, meanwhile, has denied all allegations. He told Axios, “The allegations against me are as searing as they are false,” adding “I believe that there are people at the Department of Justice who are trying to criminalize my sexual conduct, you know when I was a single guy.” He also told Fox News, “I know that there was a demand for money in exchange for a commitment that he [the former DOJ official] could make this investigation go away.”
The entire episode has resurfaced the controversy of how sugar daddy websites are often prone to sex trafficking and tend to exploit young women. More shockingly, it brings back the question — is 'sugaring' prostitution?
The dark side of sugar daddy dating sites
The concept of sugar daddy relationships is not unusual or new, but the rising popularity of the online sugar dating domain is fairly recent. Platforms like SeekingArrangement, RichMeetsBeautiful, Sugarmodels, and others thrive on the idea of an older, wealthy male using cash and expensive gifts to seek sexual intimacy from younger, female, and lower-income individuals.
In 2018, New York Post published an exposé on how sugar daddy dating sites tend to target young college students. They lure young women with assurances that being a sugar baby is empowering, safe and profitable. The sites also promise the women of 'pampering', 'mentoring', and 'networking' — by being in a relationship with a sugar daddy. In reality, these relationships often take a turn towards exploitative, with the woman having little or no control. “Sugaring almost always involves a coercive exchange of money for sex,” warned experts at the 2018 “World Without Exploitation Youth Summit” in New York.
Though the websites might advertise the concept as a fun arrangement, there are often intentionally imbalanced power arrangements between the two participating parties. This leads to the 'sugar daddies' offering financial aid to their dates and coercing them into sex. Sometimes, this even blurs the lines of a consensual relationship, according to a webinar on sugar dating by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE).
“....the reality that is coming to light as a result of the increase in 'sugar dating' is an ugly one filled with harassment, sexual assault, and the manipulation of financial arrangements in order to coerce unwanted sexual action—also known as rape,” read an excerpt from a 2019 report by NCOSE.
Sugar dating and sex trafficking — two sides of the same coin?
In the aforementioned webinar by NCOSE, guest speaker Megan Lundstorm from Avery Center for Research & Services, explained the shocking connection between sugar dating and sex trafficking. Lundstorm — who herself was a former sugar baby — asserted that the sugar dating 'arrangements' often end up being tripartite — with the sugar baby, the sugar daddy, and a third-party trafficker present behind the scene. The traffickers take advantage of the economically vulnerable women acting as sugar babies, and they are mandated to meet a quota and fulfill a target amount in earnings.
A 2018 research paper titled “Sugar Dating” among college students in the United States' by Nama O'Donnell, a Psychology student from California State University, expands further on the sex trafficking aspect of sugar dating. “As shown above, sugar dating has also allowed many sex workers a safety net by being able to check out clients online before meeting them in person. However, many of the women who make accounts on sites like Seeking Arrangement are not experienced sex workers and/or do not make an account under the assumption that sexual activity is expected,” O'Donnell explained.
In 2013, a woman in her mid-twenties was raped by a man during their second date, after they met through Seeking Arrangement. She had her rape kit done at the hospital but still was blamed for the sexual assault because she was a sex worker, wrote O'Donnell. “The reality is that sugar dating is very similar to prostitution, but there is no legislation to help monitor this part of the sex industry. Overall, sugar dating is just one facet of a large sex work industry,” O'Donnell emphasized.
Following the controversies, Seeking Arrangement website now has a dedicated section on how the platform is determined to fight sex trafficking. Matt Gaetz's case has again stirred the debate on how legal and ethical sugar dating actually is and experts are advocating further research and dedicated laws on the matter to combat the problem.