Five years ago, when I first joined the dating website SugarDaddie.com , hardly anyone had heard of the phenomenon. I joined guiltily, secretly, spurred by a long-held penchant for the older man. Today, sites that pair up successful, established men with younger women have become an unblinkingly common way for girls to actively seek an income top-up.
Yesterday, The Huffington Post UK ran a piece on a newly launched site, MissTravel.com, which joins a towering cyber pile of the so-called 'sugar dating websites'.
As someone who lived and breathed this intriguing but murky world for three years and wrote a book, Sugar Daddy Diaries, about my experiences, I find it disheartening and worrying at the calculated motivations.
I was drawn to sugardaddie.com because I wanted to meet someone older, wiser, more distinguished. After a long-term relationship I wanted the thrill of dating, romance, dinner, cocktails, a stimulating mind, without the obligation of commitment. I had no idea that a sub-culture existed where men offered shopping allowances, gifts and in some cases cash in return for the luxury of a non-demanding girlfriend. I used to delete such email propositions in disgust. But fast forward two years and lot of justification and I too was accepting Prada handbags, loaded store cards and first class plane tickets wherever I wanted to go.
I had a ball for three years. New York, Malaysia, Colorado all featured in my itinerary. A film director, an antiques collector, a Middle East property baron featured amongst my colourful dates. I never wanted a full-time relationship so these types of convenience based alliances with a reasonable - but not magical - amount of attraction, a respectable - but not crowding - level of continuity were perfect. In fact, given that these men could not offer the security of longevity nor a full-time emotional investment, a financial offering seemed a much more honest way to date than some of the messy dating games my friends were crying over with various smooth talking commitment-phobes.
But it did become corrosive in the end. The gifts, which were once a bonus by-product of my adventures, became my main motivation. The gifts turned into cash and soon I no longer needed the excitement pangs of the prospect of a new date with a stranger. The envelopes, with the delicate stamp of Dorchester, Claridge's, Lanesborough stuffed with fifties were enough.
Any girl or student who seeks a 'sugar daddy' purely for the monetary advantage and because she believes it's a few steps clear of prostitution, does so at her peril. Without a more hearty motivation like adventure, personal intrigue or some level of physical or intellectual attraction, it is no more than a cash exchange.
This month Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle du Jour, released her latest book The Sex Myth in which she argues that sex work is nowhere near as psychologically damaging as the media would have us believe. I agree - to an extent. I also agree with her impeccably well-researched arguments that in places where prostitution is legal, sex attacks on women decrease and that paying for sex can help reduce adultery.
But what I would say to those girls who think they can don a cocktail dress and their best smile and have their university expenses paid by a balding man who they secretly loathe, that selling sex or intimacy or anything within a dark shade of grey of this area is dangerous territory if the motivation is money alone. Faking intimacy is a far more demanding role than pulling points in the student bar, even if they do think it pays much better.
This is not to mention how unfair a purely monetary motivation is on the men who use these sites. In my experience, most are honest, generous men looking for a genuine raptor but who are too time-poor to invest the time that typical girls would demand. If they wanted just sex, well, there are plenty of other websites for that.
If you'd asked me if I was negatively affected by my experiences when I was tottering out of five star hotel rooms in Louboutins with wads of fifties in my YSL bag, I'd say no! I was having a ball! The men were more intelligent than anyone I'd dated in my previous life; they were interesting, respectful and good looking. With it being a dating site I got to choose. I rejected anyone I didn't fancy. Far from feeling demoralised, it inflated my ego to the point of arrogance. Here were men I liked - to a reasonable extent - paying for my company and still telling me they thought I was intelligent and funny and attractive. Of course I would never date anyone for free - what would be the point?!
Any man who would pay me attention in the real world - I'd dismiss. I began to believe that if men were willing to pay so much for this basic level of companionship, they must be shallow at best, weak and needy at worst. I had forgotten the rewards of a genuine spark with someone who makes your tummy flutter. I was too busy monetising every minute of my time. I became someone I didn't like. This is why I stopped.
It has taken a long time to allow myself to taste those tummy flutters again and to stop thinking longingly of those hotel envelopes. I was lucky that I had the emotional intelligence and maturity to spot the corrosive effects and stop. But it's worrying to hear students as young as 21, like those reported in this week's Mail article, enter this world like it's a glamorous alternative to a Saturday job. Selling sex for money is not wrong, manipulating someone's heart for money is. Compromising yourself by engaging in intimacy without any heartfelt motivation? Well the morals don't matter so much with that as the deeply personal consequences.