- By Elias GrollElias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University., Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
When every single editor of an Internet publication receives a press release claiming that growing numbers of eastern European women are seeking the protection of Western "sugar daddies" because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s a difficult thing to ignore.
So it was this week when SugarDaddyForMe.com sent nearly the entire staff of Foreign Policy an email with a decidely explosive headline: "Crimea Crisis Triggers Flood of Women from Eastern Europe Seeking Sugar Daddies, According to Dating Website." The press release went on to say that the women were leaving because of "the current geopolitical environment" — a clear nod to the chaos in Ukraine since Russia sent troops into Crimea in late February and early March.
For a textbook example about how to make a buck off of resurgent Russian militarism and human desperation, look no further.
SugarDaddyForMe is a site that does exactly what its name implies. It serves as a portal for women seeking men hoping to "spoil" them. In exchange, women are encouraged to do the same for the male clientele. The site is quick to caution that it doesn’t condone prostitution, but its intent is easy to discern: Women seeking cash and perhaps companionship can use the site to find what might be generously described as "doting" men. "Predatory" might suffice as a harsher, but more accurate, description.
"SugarDaddyForMe brings together successful, generous sugar daddies and attractive young sugar babies that love to be pampered and supported," the company writes on its website. "A sugar relationship is very simply a relationship based upon mutual spoiling…and what’s wrong with that?"
According to statistics provided by the company, women in Ukraine have flocked to the site during the month of March. In December and January, roughly 200 women — "sugar babies," in the parlance of the site — signed up in each of the two months. In February, when protesters forced the resignation of former President Viktor Yanukovych, 314 women signed up. In March, after Russian troops took control of Crimea, that number jumped to 593.
The site won’t say it outright, but the obvious implication is that Ukrainian women are fleeing Russian troops and trying to leap into the waiting arms of Western sugar daddies. "The crisis in eastern Europe points out only one of the many situations causing economic insecurity that women all around the world and right here in the U.S. often still face today," Gautam Sharma, the site’s founder, says in the press release. "And the assistance of a supportive man can sometimes be of great value and comfort to a woman in her time of need. A Sugar Daddy can provide a safe haven for a woman when she has nowhere else to turn. He can be a mentor and help someone he cares for get back on their feet to start a more successful and happier life, and what’s wrong with that?"
That last rhetorical question, both anticipating backlash and inviting the reader to whitewash the enterprise, seems a favorite of the site’s communications strategists.
Critics of sites such as SugarDaddyForMe describe them as hubs for sex trafficking, a charge they vehemently reject. Whether these sites in fact encourage trafficking — whether there is in fact anything "wrong with that" — turns on the nature of the relationships between sugar daddies and sugar babies. Incredibly, Peter Stolz, the site manager for SugarDaddyForMe, offered to provide FP with chat transcripts between the site’s users and prospective sugar babies in Ukraine. But those conversations — the veracity of which can’t be verified — don’t quite paint a picture of desperate women seeking a way out of warzone. In one such conversation, a woman from Odessa informs an American man that she has been living "dangerously" since Russia invaded — and, yes, she puts the word dangerously in scare quotes.
Sugarbaby wrote: (Thu, 20 Mar 2014 02:54:42 -0700)
how are you?
Sugardaddy wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 00:39:23 -0700)
I am great how about you?
Sugarbaby wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 01:58:20 -0700)
i’m good, thanks. where do you live? you can write to: XXXXXX@yahoo.com
Sugardaddy wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 02:15:58 -0700)
I live in Phoenix Arizona. How about you? I see you’re from Ukraine.
Sugarbaby wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 03:12:08 -0700)
I live in Odessa. close to Crimea (you might have heard about the situation in the area). I would love to see Phoenix. what do you do every day?
Sugardaddy wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 04:46:50 -0700)
I have fun every day and what about you?
Sugarbaby wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 08:58:37 -0700)
every day is different. lately I live "dangerously". with the Russian military in the area and all. do you want to meet?
Sugardaddy wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 09:22:18 -0700)
Sure that would be nice
We know very little about this woman from Odessa and whether things worked out with her sugar daddy. We also don’t know with certainty whether she in fact used the word "dangerously" in an ironic sense. It’s difficult to read any other way, but perhaps she meant it in earnest.
What we do know is that a bunch of Internet entrepreneurs were willing to share a private conversation involving a potentially vulnerable woman to market their site. Many words come to mind when thinking about how to describe that. "Shameless" may be the best one, and we don’t mean it ironically.
Meanwhile, the crisis in Ukraine has had very real humanitarian impacts. Thousands of refugees have left Crimea in recent weeks, particularly ethnic Tatars. The Ukrainian government has gone so far as to set up a hotline for individuals looking to leave the peninsula. Many of those fleeing Crimea have made their way to Western Ukraine. Authorities in the city of Lvov report that some 2,000 have already requested temporary residency there.
But the proprietors of SugarDaddyForMe don’t seem too concerned about the appearance of attempting to cash in on a humanitarian crisis. "We are a for-profit business after all," Stolz wrote in an email.
Let this be your postcard from a moment in late-stage capitalism, circa April 2014.