In his speech on World Aids Day, President Uhuru Kenyatta lamented the cross-generational relationships involving elderly men and young girls, often underage. He opined that most STDs, including HIV, contracted by the young girls are, in most cases, passed on by the “sugar daddies”.
Uhuru castigated married or unmarried elderly men, saying they should be ashamed of themselves for luring young girls into intimate relationships. He termed such affairs as manipulative and undignified and urged men to date women of their age.
Indeed, research reveals that one in every five young females, aged between 15 and 22, is engaged in a sexual relationship with an older man popularly referred to as “sponsor”. This is usually in exchange for money and other favours.
The difference between boyfriends and sponsors from available research mostly lies in the value of financial support than in monetary support per se. While dates, gifts, outings, and meals were expected from boyfriends, girls look up to sponsors for rent, trips, and financing of their beauty expenses.
Older men dating younger or young women is not new. In fact, it is the order of the day. On average, men marry women who are ten to five years younger than them. Rather, what is new and trendy and what must have pricked the president was the emerging trend where young girls purpose to lure older men for economic and social gain. No Bwana President, older men are not preying on young girls. The young girls are the hunters nailing older men.
This practice is rooted in other Sub-Saharan cultures as well. In South Africa, for instance, ‘blessers’, a connotation for sugar daddies is nothing short of an epidemic so much that it caught the attention of the country’s then-president, Jacob Zuma, who spoke out against them. Zuma’s concern sprung from research findings that prove that the ‘blessers’ are an influential factor driving the transmission of HIV in South Africa.
The crux of “sponsoring” is hardly new, as mistresses throughout history could testify. And Gen-Z and millennials are inheriting the earth at an expensive, professionally uncertain time. Nonetheless, despite the familiarity of the trope and the clarity of the need, the rise of elite sponsoring even among young, extremely upwardly mobile women points to two profound and rather shocking shifts.
One: that dating, with all its messiness and the in-built possibility (if things go well) of an actual relationship — complete with compromise, give and take, and real intimacy — has imploded. And two: that feminism has morphed from a movement with ideals — which envisioned, for instance, a socialist world in which women might be free from sex work — into a hard-nosed, misandric, mercenary pragmatism.
Feminists of the first wave looked for male allies to get laws changed. Those of the second wave, freeing themselves for the first time from the trappings of normative heterosexuality, had separatist instincts. But those of the present wave see men as pathetic, selfish, hard work — and only good for two things: sex and cash.
The callous terrain created by years of dating Apps and misapplied “sex positivity” seems to have rendered physical intimacy a shiny token whose value lies in shifting the needle of power up or down, while the relationship of sex to things like romance or affection has been cauterized. Increasingly, relationships are seen as exchange mechanisms.
Truth be told. I think all relationships are transactional. We all pay for it. We don’t always pay for it with money. We pay with time, affection, diligence, intimacy, care. If we don’t ‘pay in’, they end.
In the 70s and 80s, feminist sociology focused on the extra, “emotional” labour women had to do at work (as constantly-cheerful nurses and teachers, for instance) or, often on top of full-time jobs, at home (as the family glue and domestic drudge).
In a twisted reinterpretation of that sociology, nowadays “women my see all relationships as sexual labour if so, why not get paid for it. Today, social media is full of women who think men should pay a deposit before they go on a date with them. Women believe that men have a dearth of people they can share their feelings with. Thanks a lot toxic masculinity. So if they are performing all this emotional labour — why not get paid while at it.
Sex work has been transformed, or rather wishfully squeezed, into the same category as any form of work. At the same time, all relationships have been reduced to a form of sex work. To complete the bitter triangulation, these developments are seen as compatible with empowered young womanhood.
However lucrative, helpful, easy, or apparently “empowered”, life as a “sponsoree” erodes a woman’s sense of self. But if the women are losing something wholesome, the men seem to be gaining, even gobbling it. After all, sponsoring is about more than renting a hot body. It’s also about getting a friendly, sexy therapist; someone who will listen, even nurture. Sometimes the men just want friends.
What risks attend the sponsoring game? “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” —C. S. Lewis.
Sponsoring is situated somewhere between prostituting and romantic love, and features some of the advantages and drawbacks of both. The moral and practical implications of sponsoring are beyond the scope of this discussion, but what are the risks involved?
Experts indicate that sponsorees generally do not have control over the relationship, which can turn dangerous and exploitative. Moreover, because sponsoring seems safer than prostituting and the involved coercion is subtler, women are less likely to identify its risks.
Indeed, many young people have a lighthearted, candy-coated view of “sponsoring,” which may make them more susceptible to scams and predators. Sponsorees are in enticing circumstances where once they take the first step on the risky slippery slope, they often slide all the way down the hill. Hence, sponsoring may be more harmful to women and society in some ways than the more isolated, well-defined relation of prostituting.
Sponsoring may be disparaged for blurring important moral boundaries, thereby increasing risks and marring romantic love. Clear-cut categories can be quite nice. They impart a sense of stability to our often-rocky reality. But life is infrequently clear-cut, and our attitudes and practices ought to reflect that truth. Indeed, the romantic realm is becoming increasingly more flexible and diverse. Sponsoring is one expression of this diversity; hence, it is unlikely that we can stop this trend; on the contrary, it will grow in the future.
– Edwin Wanjawa teaches at Pwani University.