I.O.U

images-2imagesWho hasn’t, in a kareoke/
school disco/shower-singing moment, enjoyed a rousing rendition of Summer Nights?

Unanimous show of hands: I thought as much.

Ah, Grease. I have faith that in real life, Olivia Newton John would not have based her summer lovin’ on how generous Travolta was on their first date (how much dough did he spend?) nor whether he picked her up in his 1948 Ford Deluxe (like does he have a car?).

But if she had: what would have been wrong with that? Who doesn’t like being wooed with dinner in a romantic restaurant, or being whisked away for that weekend in Venice?

(If anyone is offering…)

So, no; nothing wrong with gestures and gifts that are genuine tokens of affection, I agree.

It’s rather when they are downpayment on an unspoken obligation that we’ve gone from courting to transactional sex.

Transactional sex is not prostitution (a profession, for want of a better word, that I do not intend to cover here). It is not, as my mother would probably deduce, popping down to Morrisons for her Daily Mail and snapping up that gigolo, reduced to clear in the corner rack; rather it is the idea of physical relationships which are encouraged or maintained by gifts of material goods (with or without affection).

images-3The great majority of these relationships are cross-generational: formed by an older (richer) man and younger (poorer) woman, known respectively as sugar daddies (serious Freudian issues for whoever came up with that) and sugar babies (does this make anyone else think of Bassetts Jelly Babies, or is it me who needs the psychoanalysis?).

The sugar daddy (at least 5 years older, but usually 10 or more) provides money, services or goods in exchange for the young woman’s, ahem, attentions.

How exactly that comes to pass and what the consequences are; well, that varies depending on where you are in the world.

Consider for example the explosion of western websites facilitating, more ahem, “mutually beneficial relationships” between the young-and-beautiful and the rich-and-old (why oh why did Seeking Arrangement not exist before I got saddled with my student loan…?)

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I’m sure he could use you, too

But sugar daddies are not a new phenomenon. They are long-familiar in parts of the world where young women lack opportunity for their own economic autonomy.  For example in sub-Saharan Africa (where one study estimates between 12-25% of young women’s partners are 10 or more years their senior) a sugar daddy might be key to help with food, clothes, school fees, etc.

On the surface, don’t these generous benefactors look rather harmless? If women are signing up to Seeking Arrangement or similar in their hundreds (intelligent women: top 2013 UK enrolment rates were for Cambridge University undergraduates…) isn’t it because they get exactly what they want out of it?

And isn’t it better to have your tuition fees paid, rather than being a (beauty) school dropout? Isn’t that, after all, what those MDG/SDG thingies call for – you know, getting more girls into education?

Indeed: only there is no such thing as a free gift from a sugar daddy, and the hidden price tag of transactional sex only undermines – and reverses – women’s empowerment.

Take, for example, sub-Saharan Africa. Sugar daddy relationships are partly to blame for much higher HIV infection in teenage girls than their male peers (estimates vary between 3x to 5x greater):

Source/PRB

Source/PRB

This is because a) older men have higher HIV prevalence than teenage boys; and b) the girls (given age/dependency/naïvety) are either unable or unwilling to negotiate condom use:

Women engaged in transactional sex often abdicate decision-making power over sexual activities, such as condom use, making them more vulnerable to HIV infection.  Research has also found that transactions of greater value have been associated with non-use of condoms. (Source: Baba-Djara et al, 2013:13)

Even without ending up HIV positive, cross-generational relationships often lead to pregnancy, and then to the young woman either dropping out of school; risking rejection from her family/community if the sugar daddy does not marry her; or undergoing (often illegal and therefore dangerous) abortion.

Not so much sugar, as arsenic?

For our Seeking Arrangement babies dallying with rich businessmen, perhaps tears on their pillow are more likely than STDs and/or pregnancy. But even without life-threatening consequences, signing yourself away to someone you would never have chosen if they couldn’t pay for you is, frankly, a depressing return to the era where women were a commodity like any other, whose value was based on their looks or what they provided in bed.

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all major credit cards accepted

Well: so what? shrug some of the women involved. In a tell-it-like-it-is piece done this summer by GQ, the sugar babies interviewed did not see themselves as victims: rather as wielding the power to make foolish men pay out for their company.

And even in developing countries, girls may proactively look for a sugar daddy for non-essential reasons: a easy way to get good grades (“moyennes/notes sexuellement transmises“), a mobile phone, tickets to events or travel, hair appointments, smart clothes.

For these women, perhaps there is an element of choice.

But what about the others, who go unwillingly into these kind of relationships, out of the “push” factor of basic poverty?

Patterns of gender equality frequently limit young women’s economic options, which makes transactional sex one of the few options available to them.  Girls themselves may seek out such relationships, or be pressured into doing so by parents who want them to bring resources into the household (Bantebya et al, 2014: iv)

(Puts my paper round into perspective, at least).

For these girls, cross-generational relationships are at best a gamble, and at worst a tragedy.

So where to start?

Well, with knowledge. Pilot “sugar daddy awareness” training in Africa (providing better understanding of increased risks of HIV infection with older men) has been shown to deter teenage girls from these relationships.

But, as Pascaline Dupas points out, traditional strategies of risk avoidance (abstinence before marriage) still dominate information on risk reduction (choosing your sexual partner carefully).  So even if we know that sex will happen before marriage, even if we know it’s better to educate young people about risks rather than telling them not to go to bed (before they’re legally wed); taboos over young people and sexual activity mean that information is not getting through.

Beyond the question of helping young girls make informed choices, however, is a much more urgent need to avoid women wanting – or more importantly, needing – to accept sugar daddy support in the first place. This is about tackling poverty (removing the “push”) but also about deconstructing images of girls as sexual objects, increasing girls’ autonomy and self-worth (dissolving the “pull”); and of course, tackling the sugar daddies themselves, such as better enforcement of laws protecting, say, underage girls from sexual exploitation.

Okay. I feel a lactose intolerance coming on.

Back to Grease, then, to finish.  What do you reckon – would Sandy still have ditched the demure shoulder-draped cardigans for a skin-tight catsuit if someone had told her that Danny should just accept her for who she was? And would Danny have been so hopelessly devoted in the first place, without so much to feast his eyes on?

Who knows.  But my point is: it should be about the One You Want, and not the One You Need. Even if in some cases, they do go together….

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One thought on “I.O.U

  1. Pingback: Money can’t buy you love | Ze F Word

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