May 19, 2009 -- Like lovers the world over, a couple we'll call Kyle and Melissa were spending a lazy Saturday browsing local shops for something special for her. Very special, judging by the venue -- Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
"Oh, look at the diamonds," Melissa cooed, eyeing a pair of stiletto pumps through the windows of the Jimmy Choo boutique. Kyle understood that meant they needed to go inside.
"This one is $1,450," said a store employee as he handed Melissa a handbag.
"OK, and this one is 15 [hundred]?" she asked, pointing to another bag. "It's so cute!"
She turned to Kyle. "It's like twice as much as we wanted to spend."
Fortunately, Melissa knew that her unambiguous taste for luxury was matched by Kyle's generosity.
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Instead of the handbag, Melissa settled on a pair of $600 shoes. "I love them," she said. "I could kiss them."
"I think I'm sold," she finally said. "What do you think?"
"I'm sold," Kyle agreed.
Couple Link Up on 'Sugar Daddy' Site
It was only their third date, but Kyle had already spent almost $10,000 wooing Melissa (that day's haul included a ring and a bracelet from Tiffany & Co.). His unusual generosity had a simple explanation. In fact, it was a crucial step in their courtship.
"How's my hair?" Melissa asked as they strutted across Wilshire Boulevard.
Kyle looked pleased.
Kyle met Melissa on a dating Web site called "Established Men," a forum for frank talk and candid transactions where men of means are matched with stunning, young -- and oftentimes penniless -- women.
Melissa, 23, is an out-of-work actress. She could be described as a Sugar Baby.
"It's been tricky to pursue my passion because it can be feast or famine, and in the times when the work is slow, you know, you have to get another job and then that could cause you to miss auditions ... and so it is nice to be able to have a partner ... that understands where you are going and helps support that," she said.
Kyle, 42, is a divorced television producer who makes around half a million dollars a year. He's the Sugar Daddy.
"I was very skeptical about going on EstablishedMen.com," he said. "Honestly I was ... because I didn't want to feel that a girl just wanted my money and nothing else."
Melissa's arrangement with Kyle, with the ambiguous balance of money and sex it entails, is part of a growing online dating trend. Some call it practical. Others compare it with prostitution.
ABC News asked Kyle if he ever thought about whether Melissa might not find him attractive, without his money.
"You know, I always thought about that," Kyle said. "And it always bothered me. Yeah, it does. It certainly does. But on the other hand, what if I was her? And I wasn't as beautiful as she was? Would a guy like me be interested in her?
'Sugar Daddy' Site Started by Ex-Stripper
Simone Dadoun-Cohen is creator and CEO of Established Men.
"Dating, in the most conventional terms, is dead," she said. "Absolutely dead."
After dropping out of college, Dadoun-Cohen, a Canadian, became a stripper to pay the bills. On a good night at the club, Dadoun-Cohen said, she was able to make "$1,500 to $2,000 Canadian."
"A rough night, I don't know," she said. "Maybe $800 to $1,000, and that was before generous tips from generous men."
Dadoun-Cohen said she learned there were plenty of generous men willing to reach into their wallets for beautiful women, including a patron who has since become her husband. Having lived the lifestyle, Dadoun-Cohen decided to pass it on and -- eureka! -- her site was born.
"We opened our doors September of '08, we are looking at over a quarter million active and satisfied users to date, and we've got tens of thousands that visit us every single day," said Dadoun-Cohen. "What is amazing about those numbers, though, isn't the numbers in themselves. ... And this is where I think your male viewers might want to turn up the volume. We actually have a four-to-one ratio on our Web site. So that is four gorgeous women to every one established man."
Back in Beverly Hills, Kyle took Melissa to Wolfgang Puck's latest restaurant -- for a meal that ended up costing $600. As the two made their way through the gourmet medley, talk turned to the way they met.
"I'm so happy to have met you on Established Men," she said.
"You are? Really?"
"Because there are not any here in L.A. that I've found so far," she said.
"Really? You mean that?"
"Thank you," said Kyle. "I feel the same way too."
Kyle rejected the link between sex and money on sites like Established Men as prostitution.
"No, it's not prostitution," he said. "Not at all."
He and Melissa, he said, hadn't taken long to establish an intimate relationship.
"It was pretty quick," he said. "And I don't mean physically, I mean mentally."
'Sugar Daddy' Site: Solicitation?
Psychologist Brigitte Lank specializes in sexual relationships and sex addiction. She says the underlying purpose of Established Men is abundantly clear, and it has nothing to do with long-term intimacy.
"Without a doubt it's prostitution," said Lank. "I don't think people would be willing to call it prostitution, because of the shame associated with it. But any type of jewelry, any type of bartering, is essentially sex for money."
Lank said that treating sex as a commodity does not mean paying for intimacy, however -- in fact, it's the opposite.
"But actually, what people are doing when they are engaging in prostitution or treating sex as a commodity, is they are paying people to go away," said Lank. "They are paying to not experience the intimacy. They are paying to not experience the close emotional attachments to these people."
Like Kyle, Dadoun-Cohen dismisses any comparison between the transactions at Established Men and prostitution.
"We do not have a transactional component to our Web site," said Dadoun-Cohen. "We do not permit solicitation of services, escort services, sexual services of any kind…"
Some listings on the site, however, look very much like solicitation. "I want someone who will take care of me financially, you treat me like a princess and I'll make you feel like a king in more ways than one!!! I will leave you wanting more," said one recent post.
And then another one: "I am what you call a lady in the streets, and a freak in the sheets. I am looking for a man with money who wants to have great sex with no drama."
"Oh, well, they are referring to sexual favors, absolutely," said Dadoun-Cohen. "That being said, those don't stay on the Web site for all that long..."
Dadoun-Cohen likewise rejects the label "pimp."
"No, I told you I am that boutique owner," she said. "I am the personal shopper who is going to cater to what you need. I am not the pimp."
Melissa said she feels her needs are currently catered to, but she said she knows she's in a precarious position. Wouldn't it make more sense for her to have three or four relationships with established men, just in case one of them drops out?
"Good thought," she said. "That is a good thought. ... I could have multiple relationships and that would be considered security in the lifestyle I like to lead. I actually hadn't really thought about, you know, having multiples, um, kind of don't know how to answer that question. I am a little, I am now considering it ..."
Question of Power and Pay
Melissa hastily added that if she eventually finds "the one," it won't matter whether he's "financially secure."
"I like to think that I take good enough care of myself that by the time I am 50, my assets haven't faded and, you know, he still considers me his trophy wife or someone that he considers arm candy, or, you know, whatever he is looking for."
We asked Kyle who held more power in his relationship with Melissa.
"I don't know, that's a good question," he said, laughing. "I don't think there's a ... I think it's 50-50, to be honest with you."
Back at the restaurant, Melissa's fabulous purchases are dominating the discussion.
"You look gorgeous tonight," Kyle said.
"Thank you. I thought I'd step it up a notch."
"Let's see the ring. It's beautiful."
"It's so cute," said Melissa. "I love it. I like, keep touching it."
"Thank you again."
At the end of his third date with Melissa, Kyle was pleased.
"The way I look at it is, it was fun today," said Kyle. "I had a lot of fun. I'm sure that, you know, we're going to Vegas in a few weeks, and, you know, she might buy me a couple things. Like really, it's a give-and-take with us, and I don't really see what the problem is. I don't see it as prostitution whatsoever."
Who's paying for the trip to Vegas?
Reluctantly, Kyle motioned to ... himself.