Opinion

The dark side of an MIT brain

How an MIT grad has justified online prostitution

In the early 90s, a young man named Lead Wey ’93 arrived on campus at MIT, just like all of us have been these past few days. Like us, he was intelligent, driven, and had an entrepreneurial spirit. Like us, he experienced the rush of success after mastering a particularly difficult class or problem set, along with the humbling knowledge that everyone around you is just as smart as or smarter than yourself. His years at the Institute, which he attended for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, were both rewarding and, at times, uncomfortable. Both the positive and negative shaped what this man would go on to do.

Lead initially became entrepreneurially emboldened when he was the runner-up for what was then the MIT $10K Entrepreneurship Competition. He later went on to start an internet company, SourceGate Systems, Inc., enabling ISPs to create new, advertising-based revenue streams. With the help of Senior Lecturer Joseph G. Hadzima ’73, he successfully raised $10 million.

“Lead was a classic ‘driven entrepreneur,’ in the best sense of the phrase,” Hadzima said in an email. “SourceGate was a bit ahead of its time and ran into the internet bubble burst problem.”

But this was by no means the end of the motivated Wey; the website he launched in 2005 would become the legacy he is most known for. This time, the motivation behind his new project was more personal.

“I had trouble finding dates when I was at MIT primarily because of the high male to female ratio, as well as my lack of social skills,” Wey told me through email. “I believe the social problems I faced while I was at MIT eventually led me to consider starting the SeekingArrangement.com business.”

Seeking arrangement

SeekingArrangement.com is a site that connects men and women, although it is very different from sites like Match.com or eHarmony. On those traditional dating websites, users are usually looking for a date or someone with whom they can have a relationship. On SeekingArrangment.com, there are “no strings attached”; right on the website, it says that “an Arrangement is short for ‘Mutually Beneficial Relationship’ between two people. Such a relationship is usually between an older and wealthy individual who gives a young person expensive gifts or financial assistance in return for friendship, or intimacy.” The website goes on to concede that “While some society may have laid down a set of unsaid rules about extra-marital affairs or pre-marital sex, who is to say what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? In the past, Kings, Shahs and Emperors have had multiple lovers or concubines. It is human instinct to be attracted to beauty, as it is to be attracted to wealth and power. Remember, that life is short and you only live once...”

Here’s how it works: “sugar babies,” typically young, college-age women, join the site for free, where they can enter a description of the type of “arrangement” they are looking for — often with a price tag. “Sugar daddies,” who are typically much older men, also enter descriptions of what they are looking for, usually including how much they are willing to pay for it. In an April 2009 article, the New York Times cites the example of a “49-year-old investor from upstate New York willing to pay $5,000 a month for a ‘daytime playmate’ for ‘intense connection without commitment.’”

Legally speaking, this is not prostitution. Courts have decreed that as long as the woman is being paid for some service besides sex, even just “companionship,” then the transaction is perfectly legal. But regardless of what the law says, many individuals who use the site do so as a last resort. Quoting from one girl that the Huffington Post interviewed, “I never thought it would come to this. I got on the train and I felt dirty. I mean, I had just gotten money for having sex … I guess I accomplished what I needed to do. I needed the money for school. I just did what needed to be done.” Shockingly, an individual from MIT is responsible for what is essentially legalized prostitution.

I asked Lead Wey, who now goes by Brandon Wade because it’s more “Hugh Hefneresque,” how he would respond to charges that he is exploiting college women by taking advantage of their financial need or that SeekingArrangement.com is, in principle, a hub of prostitution. He disagreed with the prostitution label, arguing that there is nothing wrong with young women wanting to have a relationship with successful, wealthy, and generous men. Ironically, he believes his site empowers women. He argues that as opposed to women who stay in abusive relationships because of low self-esteem, women who use his site are confident enough to date beyond their league. Brandon cites that over 75 percent of the young women on his site have or are seeking college degrees and that they are goal-oriented, striving to become lawyers, doctors, or entrepreneurs. Mr. Wade appears to have made an amateur’s error; correlation does not imply causation. I think it is far likelier that self-confident women are bold enough to use this website than it is that his website “empowers” women.

Indeed, there is certainly nothing wrong with women having relationships with rich men who happen to want to pamper them — but that is not the service his website provides. His site makes it blatantly clear that the “sugar baby” will receive material compensation for satisfying the “sugar daddy.” In a healthy relationship, both individuals receive emotional satisfaction and the glue that holds the relationship together is not money. Although both types of relationships might look the same from the outside, it is the cause, not the effect, which is the basis for a relationship. In healthy relationships, each individual is legitimately interested in the other as a person. In Wade’s “arrangement,” the girl is interested in money and the guy is interested in sex.

To test this proposition, make college free. If college girls were no longer desperately in need of money, I would be more than willing to bet that SeekingArrangement.com would cease to be highly profitable — it would certainly lose a large and important demographic. When a young woman is in desperate need of money and a wealthy man comes along and uses that vulnerability to get sex, that’s the definition of exploitation. Mr. Wade’s website is indeed taking advantage of young women who are financially needy.

Is it prostitution?

Is it prostitution? Legally, no. But an interesting thing about SeekingArrangement is that in many cases the payment takes place at the end of a date. It is reasonable to believe that the women who have sex with their “benefactor” are paid significantly more than those who do not. More importantly, those who don’t have sex may be far less likely to be summoned for a second date and, consequently, a second payment. Because these women’s payments are dependent primarily upon sex, SeekingArrangment.com is, without a doubt, in the spirit of prostitution.

But prostitution is nothing new, hence its label as the “world’s oldest profession.” What disturbed me was Mr. Wade’s belief that not only was his website not a prostitution-enabler, but that it was a good thing. I referenced MIT’s mission statement, “the mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges … We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.”

I asked Mr. Wade if he believed his website was in line with this mission, and he told me it was. To paraphrase, he said that if a business is not adding or creating value, it would not have customers. Because his website has customers and is solving real-world problems, it is, by his definition, valuable and in line with MIT’s mission statement.

This is where I see a problem with Mr. Wade’s view on MIT’s statement, and, more fundamentally, a problem with MIT. People at the Institute are incredibly frank and upfront with each other. People here are also concerned primarily with numbers; is the output worth the input? Mr. Wade’s website is exploiting young women and enticing men to have extramarital affairs, yet he believes it to be bettering humankind — as MIT’s mission statement says — because his spreadsheet tells him he is making money.

Just as his website was MIT-driven by encouraging Mr. Wade’s entrepreneurial spirit and putting him in those awkward social situations, it was also MIT-driven by twisting his view of reality into a purely utilitarian model, completely devoid of any morals. As SeekingArrangement.com says, “Who is to say what is right and wrong?” Many would see this as dangerous, but to Mr. Wade, it is purely a case of the output being worth the input.

Also note that while MIT prides itself on creating problem-solvers who solve real-world problems in the most efficient way possible, it failed in Mr. Wade. As a student here, he was socially inept. The logical solution would be to work to improve his social skills, but instead, he raised enough money, garnered enough support, and spent countless hours creating a website that allows him, and others like him, to live a superficial, fake version of the real relationships he could have had in school.

MIT’s moral compass

What should be taken away from this sad tale? First, that MIT needs to do a better job of attaching a moral compass to its lessons. While not all individuals will agree on every point, MIT students should at least be aware of moral objections others might have to their work. More importantly, they need to understand why people have these objections.

MIT’s current atmosphere makes it too easy for individuals to be puzzled when approached with moral reservations; if something is making a profit, what’s the problem? Perhaps a course available to freshmen, which could be made attractive through HASS and CI-H status, on the ethics or morality of science would help with this. Finally, MIT should continue to encourage socialization outside of “p-set parties.” While many undoubtedly find their social niche and are happy here, there are others, such as Mr. Wade, who need help communicating or relating with others. CI-Hs are a good starting point. After all, a brilliant mind is a waste if no one understands what it is saying. But it is equally a waste if a brilliant individual goes through life believing that the only road to satisfaction and happiness exists purely through science, intellectual pursuits, and money. It is those who surround themselves with people, not computers or prostitutes, who truly find happiness in life.

Studies have shown that beyond $75,000 per year, there is no correlation between happiness and income. Despite his entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Wade has failed by every metric except for the dollar bill, which, sadly, is the metric by which so many measure themselves. Like the men who use his website, he prefers a hollow shadow of that which he has never had. Do not let yourself become him. Work hard on the things that you love, but work harder to find and nurture relationships that you love.

37 Comments
1
Anonymous over 6 years ago

Why is sex work illegal in the first place? The author takes it for granted that sex workers are capitalism's victims, but organized sex workers say quite the opposite. The author also ignores that males are working for money on this website.

2
Anonymous over 6 years ago

Written exactly like an undergrad who's a bit too sure of himself. Take an interesting discussion on the morality of prostitution and dumb it down to another hackneyed piece on OMG SOCIETY IS PRIORITIZING PROFIT OVER MORALITY!

3
Anonymous over 6 years ago

The author needs a course in anthropology. He might benefit from learning that people with beliefs quite different from his seem perfectly happy.

4
J.I. Smith over 6 years ago

Excellent article. I agree that ethics courses should be mandatory.

5
Sohaib over 6 years ago

As far as I can tell, "sugar daddies" are not walking around campus soliciting sex for money. All of those involved with the site are doing voluntarily, soliciting one another. If two people decide to exchange anything for anything else, this is creating value because the exchange would not be made if the items exchanged did not have a worth greater than or equal to what was given for them. If two people decide to make a voluntary exchange, who is Ryan Normandin to stroll in with his moral compass and tell them what they are doing is "wrong"? Wrong for what reason exactly?

Mr. Normandin, you need to get off your high horse and stop being a moral busybody.

6
Anonymous over 6 years ago

What the author is conveniently overlooking is that Brandon Wade attempted to get dates the conventional way, and he was ignored in favor of guys who were cooler, better-looking, etc. Where is the "fairness" or "humanity" in that?

If we provide free college tuition to young women, as this author proposes, should we also provide nerdy MIT grads with guaranteed sex? Let's face it-- most conventional romantic relationships begin because of purely superficial elements of physical attraction. Money is the great equalizer: It puts the nerdy (or slightly older) man on par with a tall, square-jawed frat boy.

And Brandon Wade's website allows both parties to gain something. Yes, it is an economic exchange; but so are most romantic relationships, as this author will likely understand when he gains a bit more life experience.

7
Nick Bailey over 6 years ago

It's such a shame that these poor women do something unpleasant and uncomfortable because they want money.

What a horrible exploitation.

They should be working in a factory plucking chickens for minimum wage instead. That's a much better situation.

After all there's nothing exploitative about people choosing to do something uncomfortable, unpleasant, and dangerous for money, as long as that doesn't involve sex.

8
Robert J over 6 years ago

I went to MIT. Never thought that the Institute had become a seminary. Looks like a Catholic priest has writtent this article.

9
Anonymous over 6 years ago

Is this a joke? MIT students should really be able to write more thoughtful, accurate pieces than this garbage.

10
Anonymous over 6 years ago

Thanks for the tip -- I'll be signing up for that site now. D Cya in hell.

11
Anonymous over 6 years ago

Though you cited NYTimes in one of the paragraphs, this article pulled way too many additional facts (e.g. "Hugh Hefneresuqe") without citation from the original article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/12/magazine/12sugardaddies-t.html?_r1reftechnologypagewantedall

12
Anonymous over 6 years ago

Any romantic relationship is an exchange, essentially boiled down to women exchanging sex for relationships. The fact that both people in a relationship can enjoy both the sex and the emotional aspects does not change its basic nature.

Exchanging money for sex/pleasure/companionship, voluntarily, is the same as any economic transaction. Would you call porn producers immoral? Hugh Hefner? R-rated movies?

Wade has improved the lives of many people, I think that's valuable.

13
Anonymous over 6 years ago

CI-H?

14
Anonymous over 6 years ago

"It is those who surround themselves with people, not computers or prostitutes, who truly find happiness in life."

Quite a telling sentence. It is profoundly short-sighted. Obviously the author wishes to impose their view of what is morally appropriate onto others. Especially sex workers whom he considers something other than people.

15
Anonymous over 6 years ago

What a horribly written article.

16
Anonymous over 6 years ago

There ARE other ways for young women (and men!) to pay their way through college. Like taking out student loans, selling plasma, or--wait for it----getting a job!

17
Anonymous over 6 years ago

"While some society may have laid down a set of unsaid rules about extra-marital affairs or pre-marital sex, who is to say what is right or wrong? "

I nominate Dan Savage.

18
Angelina over 6 years ago

The person who wrote this has led a very privileged life, I sense, and perhaps once was in the same class as this Lead Wey (but let's not go further into all the personal issues that appear to be hiding behind the above). How else could so many angles to this phenomenon have been omitted? For starters, not only rich young men want to go to places like MIT and dedicate most of their time to research. In terms of investment of time and return on that investment, this can be a smart solution for some women. If they can handle that, good for them. I know a woman who became a beauty queen because it enabled her to fund the training for what she really wanted to do and I admire her tremendously for that. She became very successful, too.

19
Angelina over 6 years ago

A-ha! I sensed that something was off, started suspecting that maybe we were dealing with someone who is gay and is experiencing problems with that. So I decided to do a web search. Found the answer. I - of all people - shoulda known better, LOL. Hats off!

20
FxChiP over 6 years ago

"Despite his entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Wade has failed by every metric except for the dollar bill, which, sadly, is the metric by which so many measure themselves. Like the men who use his website, he prefers a hollow shadow of that which he has never had. Do not let yourself become him. "

You would have him prefer -- or worse, be forced to accept -- the total absence of anything as opposed to the "hollow shadow" of "that which he has never had"?

No. I say to you that he worked his ass off for, at least, what he considers a reasonable facsimile of what he never attained, one that he can live with... and was successful. Not only was he successful, he allowed others to attain what he had. He had nothing; he did something about it, and you would degrade him for it and admonish him for not simply doing what you think he should have done? He thought outside of your values and profited. The users of his site, both the "babies" and the "daddies", have profited -- though this is not to say I necessarily agree with it myself. He has benefited specific but sizeable subsets of people. What have you done, sir?

21
Fred over 6 years ago

"I asked Mr. Wade if he believed his website was in line with this mission, and he told me it was. To paraphrase, he said that if a business is not adding or creating value, it would not have customers...Mr. Wades website is exploiting young women and enticing men to have extramarital affairs, yet he believes it to be bettering humankind as MITs mission statement says because his spreadsheet tells him he is making money."

Wade is right -- he is allowing two parties to CHOOSE to engage in an agreement. Assuming clients are rational adults, if the agreement were not mutually beneficial, both parties would not agree to it. Thus to anyone who has taken Econ 101, the fact that his site is making money directly implies that it is providing value to society (assuming negligible externalities).

22
Ryan Normandin over 6 years ago

Hey everyone! Just want to make sure you all realize that this is an Opinion piece. Some of the comments have referred to me as attempting to "force my views on other people." This is an opinion article, not a bill. Every opinion article in existence tries to convince you of a point, but I don't "force my views" on you anymore than any other Opinion author does. I acknowledge in one of the closing paragraphs that not everyone shares a common sense of morality; however, it is certainly beneficial for individuals to be aware of others' moral reservations.

Other than that, I've enjoyed reading your comments! Keep up the discussion!

23
Anonymous over 6 years ago

everyone is entitled to their opinion! Freedom is not the only 'good' that needs to be maximized in this world. Many of problems come from people not having enough self restraint. It may not be obvious to the readers here, but interest in, money out does not always compute. Not sure if anyone should or can stop this site, but implying that its not worthy of some discussion in a newspapers makes no sense to me at all.

24
Sohaib over 6 years ago

I hate this whole "everyone is entitled to an opinion" card that gets played far too often. You are entitled to your best assessment of reality. In other words, your opinion just might be wrong! If I hold the opinion that the sky is orange, fine, I guess I'm entitled to it, but others will quickly declare me a fool.

Granted, morality is a very difficult thing to establish the true nature. I do, however, believe that there is an ideal moral compass to have and it does not include the set of beliefs Mr. Normandin espouses here.

I will say though, Mr. Normandin, you take criticism well. I just hope you use it constructively.

25
Judas over 6 years ago

Maybe you should use this service and lighten up, I heard sex was fun.

26
Amin over 6 years ago

"To test this proposition, make college free. If college girls were no longer desperately in need of money, I would be more than willing to bet that SeekingArrangement.com would cease to be highly profitable it would certainly lose a large and important demographic. When a young woman is in desperate need of money and a wealthy man comes along and uses that vulnerability to get sex, thats the definition of exploitation. Mr. Wades website is indeed taking advantage of young women who are financially needy."

This is silly. It's just as much exploitation by the woman of the older man desperately in need of sex.

What do you call mutual exploitation? A happy arrangement.

27
Anonymous over 6 years ago

I agree with the author that there is something wrong morally with the way the business in question operates...it is exploitative. That said, I disagree that all "sex workers" are necessarily being exploited. It depends on the situation, but many people in these various lines of work are smart, capable and stable people that contribute to society, regardless of how they make money.

28
Anonymous over 6 years ago

Like most of the comment's I also don't agree with the author. His writing reminds me of writings about The Trial of Socrates in that article they start the trial with pre-conceived idea that Socrates committed a crime, and without any room for ideas. Similar to Socrates trial I see author has sentenced him and thrown him to the dark side.

29
Benic over 6 years ago

This article has to be for pure "trolling" purposes. I think i figured it out. He wrote something purely inflammatory to trigger a response. Well it worked.

I actually sat down and interviewed (via skype video) Brandon about his background and business. If you watch the interview you'll learn that Brandon is an extremely capable entrepreneur. I never got the impression he was out there to exploit women for his own gain. If you are interested it's worth watching:

http://elmaveshow.com/brandon-wade-interview-part-1/

30
Anonymous over 6 years ago

I agree with the author on one point: MIT and all educational institutions should require ethics classes to discuss the importance of ethical and philosophically sound technology and dialogue.

Mr. Normandin should be the first to enroll.

I'm a sexworker and this article reeks of unexamined assumptions about sexworkers, exploitation, and feminism.

31
Anonymous over 6 years ago

"It is those who surround themselves with people, not computers or prostitutes, who truly find happiness in life." Dude - prostitutes, even the dilettantes on Seeking Arrangement, are people.

32
rational over 6 years ago

On-line dictionaries should link to this editorial when defining "sophmoric".

33
Anonymous over 6 years ago

I googled "sophmoric" and didn't find much of a definition at all.

34
Socialist Worker over 6 years ago

I was at MIT forty years ago and there was no moral compass then either. More of galavanometer connected to some sort of AC signal. If you want to find a moral compass you should look into communism Che, Trotsky, Lenin, and Marx.

35
Dashing Leech over 6 years ago

Given that this is inherently voluntary, I'm not sure where the problem is. What is about sex that makes it so much worse than other things we do voluntarily because we need money. Why is taking money for sex (voluntarily) more exploitation and degrading than, say, taking a minimum wage job cleaning other people's vomit and feces off the floor?

How is one exploitation and the other an "honest" job? These women aren't forced and they can always say no (and get paid less).

I find it more sexist to suggest that women shouldn't be allowed to make their own decisions on this, that they need to be controlled and told what they can and can't do. THAT, to me, is degrading towards women.

36
Jim over 6 years ago

75k lol with inflation and depending on where u live it's nothing. 150k in an upper middle clas area in ny is like broke

37
Jim over 6 years ago

And to Ryan, do girls like guys with money that will take care of

Them? It's be going on for ages. I think you are either gay or have your head so far up your ass that yo could never considered an intellectual. My guess is either Brandon paid you to write this article or MIT has someonevwho is delusional writing for them. The cars, the clothes, the cash always helps. Is profiting from it morally wrong? Would being an escort be better or what about the soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Yeah models at the homeless shelter. Lol