How much is a date with you worth?

This is a real billboard.
This is a real billboard.
Image: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
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After the classic introduction (mutual friends), the second-most popular way for couples to meet is online. With that level of success, online dating is going niche, with sites like Gluten Free Singles and Tall Friends helping users maximize efficiency through tailored dating strategies. The trade off is reductivity: drop down menus may make dating easier, but meeting a potential suitor this way can feel less like love and more like marketing.

Which I guess shouldn’t make it so surprising, but when I learned of Carrot Dating, which allows users to offer “bribes,” such as a tank of gas or plastic surgery, in exchange for dates—I was alarmed. It’s hard to not immediately be concerned with the conflation of one’s romantic prospects with something as crude as well, crude oil, particularly as a woman. Brandon Wade, founder of Carrot Dating doesn’t see the problem. In fact, he’s interested in literally putting people “on the market.”

Wade, the kingpin of economically-weighted dating sites, including Seeking Arrangement (for sugar daddies and babies), What’s Your Price (bidding on first dates), and Miss Travel (paying for traveling companions), focuses on creating sites that allow users (mostly male) to leverage money in exchange for dates. Carrot Dating is Wade’s effort to attract the masses, as you don’t have to be a millionaire to play.

But when Carrot Dating was launched in 2013, it was not well received.  Carrot Dating’s press release comparing women to dogs certainly didn’t help (“Give a dog a bone and it will obey. Give a woman a present and she’ll…..”), nor did the site crassly encouraging users to “dangle their carrots.” The media was grossed out. Apple refused to allow the apps on their products, relegating users to Android. Feminists railed against the site, noting safety issues. Seeking Arrangement did in fact make news when a Google executive died of a lethal heroin overdose administered by a woman he was seeing through the site.

Cue my hesitation in creating a temporary account to find out how it all worked. All other issues aside, just the idea of figuring out what a date with myself is worth brought up enough issues for a lifetime of therapy. Is a drink with me worth a full tank of gas? Is a night in bed with me worth a new pair of sneakers? I’d rather not measure my intelligence in sky-diving trips or my looks in electric bills.

Wade sees it differently. “My mother told me to focus on school and that when I became successful the dating game would turn around for me,” Wade said via phone from Las Vegas. “But even when I was making six figures I was still shy; the dating game never turned around for me.”

So Wade turned the dating game around for himself, by creating Seeking Arrangement in 2006, a site that matches rich men with young women who like their “company.” Seeking Arrangement has since amassed 3.62 million members worldwide; nearly 3 million of those members are women, according to the site’s public relations manager. Wade said, “We know the economic angle works as a form of attraction; we wanted to apply that concept to regular guys who aren’t necessarily millionaires but still want to be generous.” Thus Carrot Dating was born.

So, what’s the problem? “All dating sites are superficial in nature,” Wade said. “Look at Tinder—that’s just people judging each other on their looks. I say if guys can leverage their biceps, why not their wallet?”

Paul Oyer, an economist at Stanford and author of Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating agrees.

“We like to think that people should be free to make their own choices about what they want to do,” Oyer said, “but there are certain markets we as a society have decided not to allow for no reason other than that they disgust people. There’s no real reason from an economist’s perspective that we shouldn’t allow them.” Oyer cites the work of fellow economist, Alvin Roth, who writes about repugnant markets.  “Roth uses the example of dwarf tossing, which is outlawed in many places. If you’re a dwarf and you want to do that for a living, a lot of people would say you should be allowed to.”

Plus, it’s not like we don’t already sell ourselves online. “One can argue that being a sugar daddy or baby is something a lot of people are already doing implicitly,” said Oyer. “You have people chasing money and flaunting money to pick up attractive people; these sites are just institutionalizing that a bit more. A lot of people feel like you’ve crossed a line once you institutionalize it, even though it helps intermediate these exchanges.”

If as a society we’ve decided that Wade’s sites are repugnant, particularly with respect to feminist ideals, who are the women using them? Public relations manager Angela Bermudo provided me with some statistics: On Seeking Arrangement (Carrot Dating did not have detailed information), over 42% of the “sugar babies” on the site are students, who are awarded free premium memberships with proof of enrollment in school. 488,050 are single mothers; 40,000 are teachers. The sugar daddies? 31% are executives, 26% are entrepreneurs, 16% work in finance, and 33% are married. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research tracks the gender wage gap over time, and estimates that it will take until 2058 for women to reach equal pay. So perhaps the economics of Wade’s dating sites merely reflects the gender wage gap in the workplace.

There are many economic theories that are based on women as objects of consumerism. The hemline index theory suggests skirts rise and fall with the market. The lipstick index says that women buy more luxury goods in a recession. Same with the manicure index and the high heel index. Do Wade’s sites reveal something particular about the current economic landscape, or are they simply playing into reinforcing the role of women as passive players in the marketplace? Seeking Arrangement’s 3.62 million members compared to Carrot Dating’s 100,000 suggests that the women who use this site are less interested in bribes and more interested in substantial cash. While there are many good arguments that sex work should be legalized, creating distinct boundaries between sex work and ordinary dating is important to ensure clarity between the two. Some people might feel that blurring the lines between them isn’t a big deal, but relationships centered on economic exchanges often have different rules from relationships built around romance and potential love. My romantic life seems to be enough trouble without the added power dynamic of exchanging money for my time.

On the other hand, my freelance-based financial insecurity might explain why, while signed into my fake Carrot Dating account, I noticed my initial repulsion giving way to mild excitement when considering that meeting someone for a drink could net me something I actually need. My larger fear, however, was that agreeing to this exchange might delay the arrival of pay parity for women to sometime closer to 3058, and would fix me into the role of consumer, not producer.  Are we more than the sum of our marketable parts? Is there a part of our love lives that can’t be reduced? It depends if you’re asking an economist or a philosopher.

Let’s not forget the original story from which this dating site draws its name. A boy dangles a carrot on a stick just out of reach of his donkey. The poor animal reaches for the carrot, and thus pulls the boy’s cart. The boy gets his way, and the donkey gets played, every time.

Follow Anisse on Twitter @anissegross