WARNING: This story contains references to sexual violence and drug use
Free drinks, shopping trips, fancy dinners and weekly allowances.
This is the lifestyle then 21-year-old Nadia imagined when she first signed up to Seeking Arrangements – a site infamous for those seeking dating with financial benefits.
“It just appeals, it sounds nice, it sounds easy. As someone who’s single and generally quite outgoing and confident, it sounds too good to be true.”
And it was.
After only a few short exchanges with a man who claimed to be a sugar daddy, the young woman says she was raped.
And there are fears Nadia is not the only woman falling victim to predators on sugar dating websites.
Wellington Brothel owner Mary Brennan keeps a list of men who have been banned from the premises for bad behaviour. What’s worrying for her is the number of those same men who then turn to sugar dating.
“I think these sites are extremely unsafe, and the mentality around them is very naive. Young women don’t think sugaring is sex work. It is, but they have no one looking out for them.”
What she’s referring to is the cognitive dissonance between what sugar babies believe they’re signing up for – and what is actually happening.
Dame Catherine Healy, from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, calls it “whore-phobia” – a fear of identifying as a sex worker who provides complete sexual services.
It leaves sugar workers more vulnerable, says Brennan, believing many won’t understand all their rights, like insisting on using a condom for protection despite what a sugar daddy may prefer.
In traditional brothels, workers can warn others about “boundary-pushing” clients, something Brennan knows isn’t the case on this type of dating website.
Like many sugar babies before her, Nadia thought she’d lucked out with her date, who claimed to be a wealthy 27-year-old.
Although she says they never discussed payment, he covered everything and would pick the then university student up and drop her off.
After chatting online and over dinner, the pair were consensually sexually intimate.
However, she says something felt off and he appeared a lot younger than the age listed.
Over a meal, she says the man regaled her with stories about his interactions with music producers in LA, talking a “big game” about his apparently luxurious life.
Now wise after the alleged incident, she questions how much of what he told her was real and how much was fabricated.
‘He’s not stopping’
The night Nadia will never forget started much like any other evening on the town.
She and a friend caught up over drinks at a bar on The Terrace.
When the night was drawing to a close, the man offered to pick them up.
Nadia says she was intoxicated and, once they dropped off her friend, she said the man asked whether she would go home with him.
She wasn’t keen, but says the pressure didn’t stop so she eventually caved.
“I just didn’t have any energy to keep pushing back, to say that’s not what I really want.”
When they got to his house, the woman says she just wanted to smoke half a joint, which they did, and go to sleep, telling him she wasn’t in the mood for sex.
From there things get hazy, she says, but amid the blur is a vivid memory.
“I remember clearly, us being in bed and me saying no and then it just not stopping. And none of that was consensual.”
Her recollections are accurate, she believes, and in the morning Nadia saw texts she’d sent to two friends in the early hours saying she needed to leave the man’s house because “he’s not stopping”.
“I’m with this guy and I do not want to sleep with him, I do not want to sleep with him but I’m drunk and I don’t want to … Do not know how to get out of this situation … I need to get out of here ASAP,” one message reads.
Sugar dating different from other online dating
The next day she went to the police.
It turns out the man wasn’t the 27-year-old he said he was. She says police told her he was 23 – just one of the things she thinks he lied about.
For her, the premise of the site makes it easier for issues to arise compared with other online dating platforms that aren’t inherently transactional.
Police have general advice for those using online dating sites. This includes meeting in public at first, telling someone where you’re going and who you are meeting, and to call 111 if you feel unsafe.
“Trust yourself. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t feel bad about cutting the date short.”
Deception can come easy online, and with internet dating there’s no way of proving your date is who they say they are so the risks are even more pronounced.
Netsafe Chief executive Martin Cocker has reservations about some apps, but says sugar daddy-type arrangements do come with pre-existing imbalances.
Social stigma surrounding sugar dating may also play into underreporting of incidents, says Cocker.
The organisation does receive some reports about issues on the sites, but he says criminal complaints would go to police.
Physically, the process of reporting sexual assault can be grim, but Nadia felt supported and trusted the officers who helped her.
“You’ve just obviously been so violated and you feel so fragile and vulnerable and they do have to, you know, do a bunch of swabs … because they’re looking for anything they can pick up.”
Police presented her with a range of options about how to go forward, but for the young student – who had already experienced mental health issues – the decision was fraught.
She told the Herald she didn’t believe in her situation it was “worth” pressing charges for, as she didn’t feel prepared to put herself through a court case when she felt there were so many things the defence could “put against her”.
Her hesitation surrounding going forward with a case included how she had previously had consensual sex with the man, how much alcohol she’d drank that night and how they had met on the platform.
Messages seen by the Herald show that the day after the alleged incident, the woman texted the man, asking him whether she needed to buy emergency contraception and stating she was too drunk to give consent.
He replied by saying he was “so f***ed”. When it appears he realised she didn’t think their interaction was consensual, he tells her to “f***ing hell come on”.
She then messages to say she feels taken advantage of, and he replies “You’re telling me this now? it was exactly the same as any other time except we were both high as f***”.
“What about the fact that I was already f***ed and you were completely sober,” she then messaged him.
After relaying more of her concerns, he ended the exchange by accusing her of making it up, then proceeds to tell her to never “f***ing” contact him again.
Every so often a story like Nadia’s makes headlines, but the popularity of sugar dating does not appear to be waning.
The website Nadia used boasts an active membership of more than 10 million, with more than eight million sugar babies.
The company was approached for comment but did not respond.
Another sex worker spoken to by the Herald entered into “soft-core” sex work through sugar dating. Knowing what she does now, she finds it scary to think what could have happened.
At first things were great. The man she was meeting with gave her $150 for each date, without any physical touching, but then he began asking her to do things she felt uncomfortable about.
She eventually cut him off after he suggested taking her to his house and giving her Ketamine through a IV drip.
“How convenient for you … I’ll be in your house alone under a horse tranquiliser,” she thought at the time.
Healy told the Herald the NZPC has a deep concern around “sugaring”, because of the lack of safety for workers or who may not know what they are worth, or where to find help.
Work is under way to change this and the NZPC have already created a document which is available to support people who use the sites.
Healy and Brennan urged sugar babies to get in contact with the NZPC so it can provide advice and information.
They also want those running sugaring websites to take accountability, warn about the dangers and play a more active role in protecting women.
It’s impossible to turn back the clock, but Nadia wants others to learn from her experience and for websites to take the safety of sugar babies seriously.
“It is their responsibility, because it’s not just a normal dating app. There is that power imbalance.”
Her experience shattered the fairytale sugar daddy romance Nadia in which believed, and after the perceived glamour fades she says women are left picking up the pieces with little to no support.
It’s been years since the attack, but that night still follows her.
If you are considering signing up to online sugar dating, Nadia has a warning: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”.
SEXUAL HARM: DO YOU NEED HELP?
If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone contact the Safe to Talk confidential crisis helpline on:
• Text 4334 and they will respond
• Email email@example.com
• Visit https://safetotalk.nz/contact-us/ for an online chat
Alternatively contact your local police station – click here for a list.
If you have been abused, remember it’s not your fault.