There is perhaps no story that has brought out more schadenfreude than the downfall of Rep. Matt Gaetz. As Rolling Stone noted earlier today, the right-wing congressman, Trump supporter, and QAnon hero is currently under investigation by the Justice Department for allegations that he used Apple Pay and Cash App to pay multiple women for ecstasy-fueled sexual encounters at various Florida hotels, including possibly a 17-year-old girl.
No charges have been filed against Gaetz, and in a statement released by Gaetz’s office, a spokesperson said, “Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex. Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely. Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever. Matt Gaetz cherishes the relationships in his past and looks forward to marrying the love of his life.”
Yet the allegations have shone a light on the website Seeking Arrangements, a sugar dating website that Gaetz and former tax collector Joel Greenberg, who was indicted last year on a federal sex trafficking charge, were said to have used to meet the women.
Founded in 2006 by CEO Brandon Wade, Seeking Arrangements matches aspiring sugar babies, typically younger women, with sugar daddies, usually older men, who lavish them with gifts and various luxury goods in exchange for their attention. The website has been the center of various political scandals, most notably the 2013 extramarital sexting scandal involving Anthony Weiner and Sydney Leathers, who was later outed by TMZ for having a profile on the site.
Though not technically considered escorting, sugar dating is highly stigmatized and often considered a form of sex work, including by Leathers herself, who found herself reliving the trauma she’d experienced eight years ago in the media after hearing about the Gaetz story.
“I’m a little concerned about what will happen to the women in this situation,” Leathers told Rolling Stone when reached for comment on the Gaetz scandal. “Everybody felt like it was fair game to dig into my life. I remember the Washington Times ran a headline that said, ‘Sydney Leathers is a prostitute.’ I lost friends, I lost family. It permanently affected my employment. Every aspect of my life was affected by this. So when I see something like this coming out, my first instinct is, I hope what happens to these women isn’t what happened to me.” (The women at the center of the Gaetz scandal have yet to be identified.)
Leathers joined Seeking Arrangements when she was 19, mostly, she says, out of “desperation.” “I was in school, I barely made above minimum wage. I don’t have a family I could go to for any kind of help at all. I was just on my own and trying to figure things out and really struggling,” she says. “In my mind I was like, ‘this could help me keep a roof over my head,’ and it did.”
During her time on the website, she says, it was not uncommon to encounter high-profile figures such as businessmen and politicians, though she declined to identify specifically who she met. “Politicians in general have this attitude they can do anything and they’ll never get caught or called out,” she says. “Someone like Matt Gaetz, he probably has too much of an ego to have worried about getting caught.”
Before being outed, Leathers’ experience with the website was mixed: though she says many of her clients were perfectly respectable, she did occasionally encounter predatory or unsavory men, including one man who abused drugs and threatened to doxx her to her parents employer when she stopped seeing him. “I think back and I was putting myself in danger,” she says. “I was not vetting these men the way I should have been.”
Yet in witnessing the reaction to the Gaetz story, Leathers is concerned about people she’s seen on social media making jokes at the expense of sugar babies or making what she views as unfair generalizations about the men who use the website. She also takes issue with the fact that Gaetz is under investigation for trafficking for allegedly using the site. (According to the New York Times, it is not illegal for adults to gift each other with free goods or hotel rooms, but prosecutors can file trafficking charges if they believe that an individual used “force, fraud, or coercion” in such a context to obtain sexual services.)
“I have complicated feelings about that,” says Leathers. “If he did stuff with minors and you can charge him for that, charge him for that. But I don’t like the idea of even someone I don’t like politically facing charges, if we’re talking about consenting adults, because I think all sex work should be decriminalized.”
Ultimately, Leathers believes the focus should be on the allegations against Gaetz involving a minor, as well as allegations that he may have sexually harassed congressional interns and colleagues, rather than his alleged involvement with a sugar dating website. “I really hope that the women are protected, and their reputation is not tarnished,” she says. “I was 23 when my stuff came out and i was ill-equipped to handle that kind of pressure. So I can’t imagine what it’s be like for a 17-year-old.”
But in light of national attention on sugar dating and sites like Seeking Areangements, Leathers also thinks that the reality of the practice should be highlightd, particularly with many young people on youth-geared apps like TikTok making videos that depict or promote the sugar dating Lifestyle. “I just think it’s a bad look. I don’t think we should really be glamorizing this to children,” she says. “I don’t have any shame in what I’ve done to survive, but i wouldn’t go up to minors and say, ‘this is how you should live your life and make money.’ ”