May 17, 2021

Denoch Emexicana

For technology buffs

What the sugar daddy site has to do with a strange sex scandal.

8 min read

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz remains in the hot seat following the New York Times report last week that the Justice Department is investigating whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and violated federal sex-trafficking laws. Since then, there’s been a continuous trickle of new details about Gaetz’s supposedly lurid personal life, including that he allegedly showed nude images of people he claimed to have had sex with to fellow lawmakers in Congress and that he invented a game while serving in the Florida state Legislature in which representatives earned points for having sex with aides, interns, and married colleagues. Further reporting from the Times also indicates that he and a local Florida official allegedly used the website Seeking Arrangement to find women to have sex with in exchange for money. It’s unclear whether Gaetz allegedly met the underaged minor through a website like Seeking Arrangement. The congressman has denied ever paying for sex or sleeping with a 17-year-old as an adult. A statement from his office to the Times also said, “Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever”; Politico reported that it may have been one of his political allies who was actually using the site for him. Gaetz has, however, disclosed that he’s paid for flights and hotel rooms for the women he’s dated.

Seeking Arrangement is a dating website dedicated to matching financially well-off “sugar daddies” with attractive “sugar babies” seeking partners who can provide them with “the finer things in life.” Those things can include dinners, gifts, trips, and other forms of financial support. Seeking Arrangement also advertises itself as a resource for people to obtain financial aid for student debt through support from wealthy partners. The site was founded in 2006 by entrepreneur Brandon Wade, who came up with the idea while attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Seeking Arrangement now has 20 million users. Wade has repeatedly contended that the site prohibits users from paying for sex and that it is not an outlet for sex work, though previous reports indicate that it’s been commonplace for sugar daddies to provide sugar babies with cash after dates, some of which have involved sex.

Setting up a profile on the website first involves selecting your gender, the gender you’re seeking in a match, and then whether you’re looking to meet someone who has “Success & Wealth” or “Looks & Charm.” When users are setting up their profiles, the site also asks sugar daddies to provide their net worth and annual income. Users can browse a gallery of dating profiles or search for members based on their desires for dining and travel, the number of children they have, and whether they’re still in college. Though it’s free to join, users can pay anywhere from $100 to $250 per month for premium memberships that come with privileges like priority placement in search results, read receipts, and extra privacy features. Not all the relationships involve sex; some people are willing to provide money for platonic companionship. On the flip side, handing over money isn’t always involved; sometimes it’s just trips, nice dinners, and other luxuries. Relationships kindled through the site can become serious and have led to marriage. The younger users also often do not consider themselves to be sex workers.

It’s obviously illegal to engage in any sort of sexual relationship with someone who has not reached the age of consent. It’s also illegal in almost every state to exchange cash for specific sex acts or encounters. Yet, for Seeking Arrangement’s members of legal age, the consensual relationships that the site facilitates often exist in a legal gray area. “When someone says, ‘Here’s money and in exchange you’re going to have sex with me,’ that’s a very straightforward prostitution case,” said Matthew Galluzzo, who formerly worked in the New York County District Attorney’s Office as a sex crimes prosecutor. “But Seeking Arrangement allows two people to get to know each other over time, and I think it’s understood what’s supposed to happen, but it’s never really necessarily said.” The lack of an explicit quid pro quo often means these relationships are legal, or at least very difficult to prosecute as prostitution.

Based on reports, though, Gaetz may have left a trail of evidence that could leave him more legally exposed than the average user of Seeking Arrangement. Paying for a date’s flights or hotel rooms isn’t illegal; it’s pretty much just a more expensive version of taking someone out to dinner. However, Times reporters viewed receipts of Apple Pay and Cash App payments that Gaetz made to one of the women allegedly involved in the scandal. One source claimed to the Times that Gaetz told the women to say that the payments were for dinners and hotel rooms, when in actuality they were explicitly for sex. Galluzzo noted that this sort of cover-up could turn the case into a “he said, she said” affair, but text messages or taped conversations might help to clear the record. Seeking Arrangement does not have a tool for transferring money but does encourage users to transmit “sugar funds” through PayPal, Venmo, gift cards, direct deposit, Square Reader, and hard cash.

Another potentially incriminating factor is former Seminole County, Florida, tax collector Joel Greenberg’s alleged role in Gaetz’s trysts. Greenberg, one of Gaetz’s political allies, was indicted last June on 14 federal charges, including sex trafficking of a girl between the ages of 14 and 17. The Justice Department’s case against Greenberg reportedly led investigators to also look into Gaetz. According to Politico, it was actually Greenberg who was scouring Seeking Arrangement for young women. He then introduced the women he found to Gaetz. If Greenberg decides to cooperate with law enforcement, he could testify as to whether Gaetz actually intended to engage in legal relationships with these women or was simply paying them for sex. “If we’re talking about legal exposure, that would potentially pull the roof off his defense if he says they were just innocent date arrangements,” said Galluzzo, adding that Greenberg could reference conversations he’d had with Gaetz about the site and the resulting sexual encounters. Typical users of Seeking Arrangement are unlikely to have a friend under federal indictment who is privy to how they were using the site. Prosecutors filed additional charges against Greenberg having to do with wire fraud and money laundering last Wednesday, and he is scheduled to stand trial in June, though it may be postponed.

If it does turn out that Gaetz was engaging in illegal behavior and that it involved Seeking Arrangement, there will likely be questions about the site’s culpability. (I sent Seeking Arrangement questions about Gaetz’s and Greenberg’s possible use of the site and have not heard back.) The law known as FOSTA-SESTA holds websites responsible for knowingly or unknowingly facilitating sex trafficking. When the legislation was passed in 2018, Craigslist got rid of its personals section while the website Backpage, which was one of the largest hosts of advertisements for sex workers, went offline. At the time, legal scholars thought services like Seeking Arrangement would be devastated as well. Wade told the Wall Street Journal that Seeking Arrangement was training staff to better sniff out suspicious activity and had put in measures like message monitoring but that he was still worried about how the law put the site at a greater risk of civil lawsuits. Undercover law enforcement officers have also been known to monitor Seeking Arrangement and other sites to determine whether certain interactions cross the line from legal relationships to illegal sex work.

Yet three years have gone by and Seeking Arrangement continues to thrive. The site has been able to avoid the fate of Backpage, according to Galluzzo, largely due to its focus on relationships rather than straightforward transactions, which makes it more difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate. He noted that busts on Backpage were fairly easy because undercover officers would often just email people who were advertising sex on the site, arrange to meet for a certain amount of money, and then arrest them. It isn’t so simple with Seeking Arrangement. “Do you create a profile for an undercover agent to be a sugar daddy and give him a bunch of money and have him go on three dates with a young woman?” he said. “Or do you pretend to be a sugar baby and try to meet a guy and go on a bunch of dates and then have a cagey conversation with him?” Such an investigation would be exhausting and resource-intensive, and even if it led to a few arrests, it likely wouldn’t be enough to establish a pattern of illegal behavior in how people are using the site.

Another reason why Seeking Arrangement has survived might also be that even if some of the relationships do technically constitute illegal sex work, the transactions are supposed to be between two consenting adults of legal age. FOSTA-SESTA was intended to protect children and other potential victims from being forced into prostitution, but there was a considerable amount of controversy when it was passed over how the law would prevent willing adult sex workers from safely making a living. Sex workers and their advocates argued that the ability that online platforms give them to pick and vet their clients is empowering and helps to ensure their safety; without such sites, they could be find themselves in more dangerous situations on the street. In this vein, Seeking Arrangement does theoretically allow people to seek out consensual partners who are willing to provide financial benefits with relative safety, even though the site and many of its users don’t consider this activity to be sex work. (The calculus is obviously very different when a 17-year-old could be involved, and there have been reports of abusive relationships forming through the site.) “Is there really much moral outrage about this? Because you don’t necessarily think the people on there are being trafficked … you get the sense that all the parties are more or less willing participants,” said Galluzzo. “It’s hard to say that some forms of prostitution are legal and some are not as a practical matter, but it seems like there’s a moral basis to be able to distinguish between the two.”

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