Romance, by the numbers
Can 'sugar dating' between rich older men and attractive younger partners lead to true love, or does it all add up to sweet nothings?
Aaron is a physically active man in his late 50s. He owns a distribution company and is a widower, his wife having passed away from cancer six years ago. They were high school sweethearts. He has tried to move on and meet new women, including by signing up with a speed dating company, but says he found he was at "the bottom of the dating barrel" at such events due to his advanced age.
A few of Aaron's friends then told him about a dating app specialising in introducing moneyed men of his vintage -- sugar daddies -- to younger women, or sugar babies, seeking financial security through relationships.
But despite the stigma attached to such relationships, Aaron insists his motivations are not sexual, or to show off a trophy partner.
"I'll be retiring in a few years and I am still very active," he said. "I am looking for a fit young person to play tennis or golf with every weekend and maybe have dinner and drinks after.
"Ever since my wife passed away, I'm finding it quite lonely as we used to do everything together. I have two adult kids with lives and families of their own.
"Other dating sites or apps make me feel like a dirty old man for trying, but on this app, I suppose because of the nature of sugar dating, the sugar babies I have met are very courteous and accommodating."
He added: "I am financially well-off and can provide a sugar baby with an allowance of 30,000-40,000 baht every month."
To westerners, such relationships may sound more like a marriage of convenience (or less polite terms), but in many developing countries, large age gaps between men and women are considered acceptable or even typical.
But the question remains: can love truly blossom in such relationships or is it all about the money?
Even though there are a lot of doubts, many people are willing to give it a try.
'HE TRIED SO HARD'
Cesar was born into a military family in southern Thailand. Her father is in the army, as was her grandfather. She was the only child of her family, and as she was born and raised as a male, it was expected she too would join the army. However, Cesar never felt comfortable as a male, and did not feel the urge to live up to her parent's expectations.
As a boy, Cesar went to one of the best schools in Hat Yai. There, she saw many transgender students win awards for academic excellence. Seeing these students attaining such good reputations, Cesar decided to follow their example. She started to take female hormones as an adolescent and eventually underwent sex reassignment surgery once she reached adulthood. Thus, Cesar became a woman, although this was without approval from her father.
While in university, Cesar earned a living performing in ladyboy cabaret shows, and through these shows she often caught the eyes of men in the audience, some of whom would introduce themselves later.
"I was into younger guys when I was in college," she said. "Since I earned my own money from a young age, I was able to support all of my boyfriends who were younger than me. It felt like an obligation and I didn't mind since I could afford to do so. But then again, they come and go and left me with heartache. I never knew how it felt to be in love."
When she was 23, Cesar visited a famous nightclub. An American man in his 50s approached her, but she didn't give much thought to him as a potential suitor because of his age and the fact he lived in the US -- not to mention the fact she already had a boyfriend and, it would turn out, he had a wife and family back home. Nevertheless, she agreed to go on a date with him.
"He tried so hard to impress me," she recalled. "He took me out for an expensive dinner. He bought me bags and a lot of presents.
"I thought of him as just a good friend, but we continued to stay in touch. Then we started to meet a lot more often. We travelled together and every time it would be five star for everything.
"But one thing he didn't know was I'm not a real woman," Cesar said.
"After three years of knowing him, I decided to tell him the truth that I am a transgender woman. But he said it didn't change anything. This was unlike the attitudes of many younger Thai men I knew before. So, this became the first time I could actually feel how it is to be in love."
Cesar left her Thai boyfriend and began a relationship with the older foreigner -- albeit a long-distance one -- as he continued to live with his family in the US. Now, they have been together for eight years. Cesar is 31 years old and her partner is in his 60s.
They don't meet as often as they'd like, but they talk every day, and Cesar's boyfriend has sent her US$1,000 (32,000 baht) every month for the past six years.
"I don't know if I will have a future with him since he also has a family there in the US, but I do want to live with him one day," she said.
"Compared with the other relationships I've had, this one seems the most real. Even when we are not together, I never feel lonely."
While the common perception of sugar dating is of gold diggers and dirty old men, some academics see it differently.
Nirapon Duangwises, head of the research department at the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, conducted a 2010 study into relationships between older men and younger people. He told Spectrum that to understand the phenomenon, we may have to look back into history.
"It comes from colonialism and patriarchal society," Mr Nirapon explained. "Westerners' views of people in Third World countries are always negative. They will always feel that they are more superior in every aspect, especially when it comes to their financial situation.
"Sadly, such old-fashioned beliefs continue to this day. That's why we see many older westerners coming to Asia to look for younger companions.
"Many websites in western countries focus on this type of relationship, since they know the majority of people in developing countries are looking for financial stability. There are also many looking to elevate their lives by using their charm and exoticism," he added.
According to Mr Nirapon's research, such relationships are quite rare in the western world since women in general seem to be more educated and independent. Therefore, they don't need financial support, especially in terms of receiving it as part of a relationship. Western women are also more aware of gender equality and are less likely to occupy the stereotypical role of a housewife who stays home and takes care of their husband. It is more likely they will have a career -- and thus money -- of their own.
Meanwhile, the perceived charm and exoticism of Asian people seems to be a major lure for western men. Some of these men travel or even move here, and even though they may not be able to speak the language or know the local culture, they quickly find in certain situations that money speaks louder than words.
"[The financial aspect] doesn't mean this type of relationship can't be based on love, because genuine feelings can slowly develop along the way and finally become true love," Mr Nirapon said. "But it's undeniable that money and stability are the main factors behind these relationships starting in the first place."
In this region, sugar dating is often associated with Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines. Young Thais in such relationships often come from Isan, where many people are seeking better opportunities and more money than is available to them if they stay in their home region. >>
>> The older western man-young Thai partner dynamic is typically heterosexual, although the same motivations apply to gay and transgender Thais, although they may face more legal limitations in terms of marriage and relocation, depending on which country their partner comes from.
"At the end of the day, it is a win-win situation," Mr Nirapon said. "Older westerners get to have younger companions who are willing to take care of them in a traditional manner, while younger people who get together with older westerners gain financial stability and improved prospects."
ROMANCE MEETS FINANCE
Welcoming registrations since December 2016, TheSugarBook (www.thesugarbook.com) focuses on sugar relationships. It currently has approximately 56,000 active members, and is growing.
With its focus as a niche social networking platform where like-minded consenting adults can connect and form mutually beneficial sugar relationships in a safe online environment, TheSugarBook aims to acquire more than 100,000 global users by the middle of this year, and puts a premium on honesty and transparency.
Around 70% of members are females aged 19-35 years old, commonly university students, single mothers and divorcees. The sugar daddies typically range from 30–48 years old, with an annual income average of US$150,000 (4.8 million baht). Malaysia, the Philippines, the US, Singapore and India are the top five countries with the most members, and TheSugarBook has launched a marketing drive in China.
Anyone above the age of 18 can register a free basic account, while sugar babies in university are offered a free upgrade to a premium account.
TheSugarBook says it is empowering women by showing them the ability to attain the lifestyle they desire is in their own hands, and helping successful men find partners when they have limited time for conventional dating.
Darren Chan, CEO and Founder of TheSugarBook, said he had the idea for the site when reading the conclusions of a 2005 academic study into rich older man/attractive younger woman relationships.
"When they applied sociology, behavioural studies and economics into the rules of attraction, what they found was that feminine beauty plus masculine money equals love," said Mr Chan of the research conducted by Peter Todd of Indiana University, Lars Penke of Humboldt University, Berlin, Barbara Fasolo of the London School of Economics, and Alison Lenton of the University of Edinburgh, and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"I read [another] article which suggested that 40% of people choose 'financials' as one of their top three criteria when it comes to selecting a life partner," Mr Chan added.
"Beauty is key for men, as it represents 'good genes', while women leverage their good looks for wealth, security and commitment, which is why TheSugarBook is the ideal platform for like-minded adults to connect, meet and develop mutually beneficial relationships."
CASTING THE NET: Screenshots from TheSugarBook, which serves to introduce wealthy men and attractive young women. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Gilian is a 22-year-old self-proclaimed digital nomad. She works while travelling and she funds her lifestyle through a combination of freelance marketing jobs and sugar dating.
"I like the straightforwardness of sugar dating," she said. "It's direct and convenient. When I was on other dating apps, there were a lot of guys who aren't serious and were just browsing. On TheSugarBook, you can be upfront and the sugar daddy won't think you're being brazen. In fact, they appreciate it.
"I like going out on dates with sugar daddies because it's a guarantee that I don't have to pay anything."
Katia is a 25-year old international student from Kazakhstan pursuing an MBA at a university in Malaysia. She had earlier negotiated with "two or three" potential sugar daddies but is now in an exclusive sugar relationship. Her partner is a 38-year old tech startup entrepreneur who owns offices in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
"I don't think all sugar daddies are old, fat and rich men looking for young, pretty girls. My sugar daddy is hot and sexy, and him having the financial means for the luxury life makes him even more attractive. He's taken me to the Maldives and we're planning on a skiing trip to [Japan]. My parents met him when they came to visit last month and they love him."
Ryan is a 40-year-old businessman from the wholesales industry specialising in air-conditioning and cooling systems. He joined TheSugarBook in February last tear and has dated three sugar babies so far. He's currently involved in a sugar relationship with "Lina", a 23-year old sales executive from Malaysia.
"Lina's great. We were chatting on TheSugarBook for over a month to get to know each other first, and all that online interaction just built up the anticipation. When we met, the chemistry was undeniable," Ryan said.
"She just started working less than a year ago and her [monthly] salary is between 2,000 and 3,000 ringgit [16,000-24,000 baht]. She needed some financial assistance to improve her lifestyle and for small luxuries like holidays and going out with her friends.
"We've been involved exclusively for over three months now and I provide her with an allowance of 3,000 ringgit, and she's basically like my girlfriend."
Dan is 38 years old and runs a startup. He's fairly new on TheSugarBook, having joined after seeing a sugar daddy dating video go viral on social media a few months ago. He said there isn't much difference between sugar dating and regular dating.
"In my previous relationship, I paid for everything; from dining out to holidays to even our rent," he said. "We were together for five years and talking about marriage before she cheated on me.
"Throughout our relationship, she always said her money is her money and my money is her money. The only difference between sugar dating and regular dating would be that my emotions are not invested in sugar dating. When my ex cheated on me, I was more damaged emotionally than to care about how much money of mine she had spent."
TAKE YOUR PICK: Online sugar dating profiles. PHOTO: SUPPLIED