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.”
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.