As rents rise in artistic hubs like New York City, young creatives are seeking alternate means of survival.
"I'm seeking support to fill in the gaps of the starving artist life," writes a 24-year-old self-described actress and former fashion student, who goes by Claire. The New York-based sugar baby has a profile on SeekingArrangement.com, the world's largest sugar dating site that connects young men and women seeking financial support with wealthy benefactors also known as sugar daddies.
Seeking Arrangement and similar sites like SugarDaddy.com are filled with thousands of creative men and women like Claire who want help funding their artistic endeavours. In 2012, artists, aspiring actresses, and models from around the country made up 19 percent of Seeking Arrangement's sugar babies, according to a press release published by Gawker.
"We do have a number of people who use sugar dating as a means to pursue their creative outlets," Seeking Arrangement's public relations manager Alexis Germany wrote to me over email. A search for "artist" on the site brings up more than 10,0000 results for potential sugar babies that have professions ranging from makeup artist and writer to painter and designer.
Through Seeking Arrangement, which boasts 5.5 million members worldwide, these sugar babies are matched with a sugar daddy or mommy that will offer them financial stability, something that can be hard to maintain as a struggling artist.
While the idea of "sugaring" can be associated with extravagant exotic trips and luxurious designer clothing, many of the artists using the site are simply looking for a way to make ends meet. One 24-year-old Brooklynite who works in graphic design writes that she wants "someone who enjoys being around a young artistic woman who's not all about being pampered, but more about being financially stable to further my art career."
"I lost my creative design job and I knew I wanted to stay in the same field," one designer who has been a sugar baby for a year now shared with me. "I used sugaring as my income while I looked for new jobs. Sugaring also gives me money to work on my own design projects."
The Chicago-based 24-year-old lost her job due to cutbacks and was introduced to the sugar baby lifestyle by a friend. Now, she uses Craigslist, Seeking Arrangement, and Tinder to find sugar daddies. "I don't expect anything more than $400-500 per session," she said. A typical session for her involves chatting, going out to a nice restaurant, and eventually having sex. The sugar daddy then pays her out at the end of the night through Square Cash — an app that allows you to send cash instantly.
Since its launch in 2006, Seeking Arrangement has made efforts to distance itself from escort services by claiming to create relationships rather than transactions, but many of these "arrangements" will involve sex in exchange for allowances (cash or direct payments for rent, tuition, etc.). While sex work can be empowering for some, this desperation for money can make it easier for young sugar babies to be exploited by older benefactors under the guise of a "mutually beneficial" relationship.
For artists based in cities like New York, making a living wage has become especially difficult. From the early 1900s through the 70s artists flocked to the Big Apple to take advantage of its cheap apartments and vibrant community of creatives, but gentrification and rising rents have priced out many struggling artists. Forbes reported that in the third quarter of 2015, the median rent in Manhattan was $4374 a month, making it the highest average rent in the nation.
While speaking to students at Cooper Union in May 2010, Patti Smith recalled being able to move to New York City as a broke artist in 1967. At the time, she and her partner Robert Mapplethorpe paid only $80 a month for rent. But, she warned young creatives that the city has changed. "New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling… New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city."
Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who moved to NYC in 1974, shared a similar sentiment in 2013. "Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists, and small business people," he wrote for The Guardian. "Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated."
Even though these days it seems the city caters more to finance bros than starving artists, the city is still packed with creators. According to the United State Census the number of those who identified as artists, writers, or photographers in NYC grew from 108,000 in 2000 to 124,000 in 2010.
With the desire to make it in the City of Dreams, it's no surprise that artists are seeking out alternative streams of income through side hustles, including sugaring. Seeking Arrangement estimates that through allowances and gifts users will receive an average of $2,440 per month, which is more than they would make working a full-time job on minimum wage.
The struggle to make ends meet has also moved art students to seek financial boosts from successful daddies. For 2016, Seeking Arrangement reported a record high enrollment for college students. According to its site, 1,204,980 students registered on Seeking Arrangement in 2016 to find sugar daddies that can help pay for tuition and other costs involved with obtaining a degree, which is an 11 percent increase from 2015.
Performance art is one of the top majors for students using the site, along with nursing and business. New York University, where visual and performing arts is one of the most popular areas of study, has the highest number of student sugar babies using Seeking Arrangement. This comes as no surprise since its average tuition is around $67,000 a year, making it one of the most expensive colleges in the country.
"...the tuition is really high and my family can't really afford it. I can use the extra money from this site to make my dreams a reality," a first year film student at NYU writes in his profile.
Seeking Arrangement has found that for the average student sugar baby, 30 percent of their allowance goes to rent while 39 percent goes to tuition — the rest is divided between things like books, clothing, and transportation. With the Trump administration's discouraging plans for tackling student debt, the site anticipates that even more will be turning to sugar daddies and mommies to finance their education.
The growing dependence on these "mutually beneficial" relationships appears to be part of a larger trend of young people who are selling their bodies online in order to get by. In addition to sugaring, some have taken to performing in front of webcams or offering themselves as an escort. But, as it stands there are already 10 sugar babies for every one sugar daddy on Seeking Arrangement, which means struggling artists may soon start to find it difficult to rely on rich donors to fund their projects.
Text Erica Euse
Photography Momo via Flickr Creative Commons