PREDATORY PERSUASION OP-ED
The transactional phenomenon of ‘sugar daddies’, ‘blessers’ and its dangers
Young women’s relationships with ‘sugar daddies’ and ‘blessers’ are predominantly transactional, a means to negotiate poverty and the economic marginalisation they experience.
A recent 14-minute Street Talk video of a group of young black women (aged 18-21) in which they discussed young women and girls who date older men called “sugar daddies” because they give them money, went viral on social media.
The part which received the most attention was the line “you know where the danger is”, where one of the young women tries to warn the others that sugar daddies usually have more than just one girlfriend and that this increases their chances of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The sugar daddy phenomenon has been at the centre of crucial conversations on HIV, in particular the high incidence rate among adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) aged 15-24. Equally concerning has been the high correlation of this incidence rate with that of males aged 20-49 years.
Many researchers acknowledge that there are various vulnerabilities unique to AGYW as a group which constitutes almost 40% of new HIV infections in South Africa. In addition, various studies have found that younger girls, especially virgins, are attractive to both older and younger men as there are beliefs that deem sexual acts with a virgin as a “prestigious” accomplishment.
Among these are beliefs that they are “HIV-free”, or can cure HIV, but also the fact that often these young women are usually from the rural areas and desperately aspire to middle-class consumerism and the lavish lifestyle of their urban peers.
The National Department of Health (NDH) together with its partners remains concerned about the rates of STIs and HIV infections in the country and has implemented various campaigns, dialogues and outreach events in order to address the issues around high infection among AYGW. One of its key focuses has been on what it calls “age-disparate” relationships — those in which a young female is involved with a sexual partner who is five years or more older than her.
The rise of terms like “blesser” — another term for sugar daddies — is also used to describe the older, rich and married men who are involved with these young women. The relationships between blessers and their beneficiaries are seen to increase the risks of infection for younger women because they may lead to their inability to negotiate or discuss safe sex practices, sexual assault and even increased use or dependence on drugs and alcohol, which leads to general poor judgement and decision making.
Although there is a general notion that women who are involved with men for their money are “gold diggers” and “slay queens”, it has become apparent that AGYW fall prey to these relationships as a means to negotiate poverty and the economic marginalisation they experience.
For some young women, the relationships are predominantly transactional as they are breadwinners at home. In some cases, parents are aware of the relationship, but due to poverty, they accept the relationship because of the benefits that come with it. As a result, many programmes for the empowerment of the girl child aim to address the contextual and socioeconomic factors that make young women vulnerable to “help” from sugar daddies.
A more sensitive issue that was raised in the video in question is that of the role played by sugar daddies as father figures, guides and mentors. The women’s reasons for involvement with the older men were largely around the provision of basic necessities and security. Many of them mentioned not having a father or one that is not present even if they are still alive. These young girls associated the relationships more with survival than sexual, romantic or intimate reasons.
They ended their discussion with each young woman sharing her dreams for the future. These young women exhibited a sense of direction, confidence, empowerment and intelligence. One could see that although their actions may not be deemed ideal, these do not translate to those of women who have given up on themselves.
The real danger is that the popular narrative has allowed us to disregard the seriousness of the situation of our young women, and rather focus on the humour. The real lesson to be learnt here is that there are many unaddressed challenges faced by young women in South Africa and that we must discourage them from continuing to engage in risky behaviours as a form of survival — let alone see this as normal behaviour.
Our ability to appraise and attend to such social ills will determine how we ensure a future where our girls and young women are safe, free, empowered and live longer and healthier lives. DM
Dr Njabulo Banda is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Pan African thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). She has 14 years’ experience in public health programming and has managed and coordinated national programmes on HIV-Aids, child, youth and psychosocial wellbeing. She holds a master’s degree in early childhood intervention and a doctorate in augmentative and alternative communication.