The “sugar daddy” phenomenon is prevalent enough in South Africa for it to have created an acceptable subculture. “It’s not an anomaly. This problem happens everywhere, in all areas,” said Lebo Ramafoko, the chief executive of the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication.
“It happens in a context where having more than one sexual partner, even when you are married, is an acceptable norm,” she said. “Schools know teachers are doing it, universities know it is happening. There is an attitude of ‘I do it, you do it, that girl is doing it, that man does it, so it’s OK.’”
The phenomenon, also known as intergenerational sex or transactional sex, commonly refers to the relationship between a young woman and an older man in which sex is traded for material goods. “The men buy the young women gifts and there is pressure on campuses especially to look a certain way, so the young women fall for the men’s offers. You also hear of men paying a student’s rent, buying the girl’s airtime, paying for school fees and paying for her hair and nail [treatment],” she said.
Crass materialism has accompanied the growth of the middle class in post-1994 South Africa and “our political leadership is not doing our youth any favours by displaying their flashy, lavish lifestyles”, Ramafoko said.
At a time when our youth should be excited about learning, they are 'worrying about the way they look’. According to academic Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala: “The South African national household survey of 2005 found a high HIV prevalence of 29.5% among girls aged 15 to 19 years who had partners of five years or more older than themselves.”
Leclerc-Madlala’s study, titled “Age-disparate and Intergenerational Sex in Southern Africa: the Dynamics of Hypervulnerability” also found that “more recently, a study of more than 8000 men in Botswana found that for every year’s increase in the age difference between partners, there was a 28% increase in the odds of having unprotected sex.
“Studies from southern Africa have tended to support findings from eastern Africa: the larger the age difference, the greater the association with unsafe sexual practices and HIV infection.” The phenomenon needed to be understood in the larger context of a patriarchal and unequal society, Ramafoko added. “Married men and married women are doing it. It’s all linked to gender imbalances and patriarchy in our society. Women say: ‘I know my husband is doing it, but I hope he takes care and comes back to me … I even leave condoms in his car’s cubbyhole’. But they also say: ‘If he finds out I’m doing it, he will kill me’.”
This is our culture
“Many African men say that a woman must submit to a man,” said Ramafoko. “They say ‘this is our culture’. They are quick to lean on culture when it suits them. But something else that is ‘our culture’ is the African saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Unfortunately, many men do not treat children as children. Instead, they sleep with children. “Men know they can use money to buy sex. And girls know they have something that can get them the material goods they want. Neither party is factoring in the risks they are exposing themselves to.”
Ramafoko questioned whether a young girl was able to tell an older man to use a condom. “Young women are most at risk because they don’t have the agency to be able to negotiate safe sex. There is the risk for considerable physical, psychological and emotional harm.”
In January, the KwaZulu-Natal department of health launched a campaign against sugar daddies with a call to action to “protect your loved ones from ‘sugar daddies”. Provincial health minister Sibongiseni Dhlomo explained the association between cross-generational sex and HIV, saying: “We now know that young women bear the brunt of the HIV/Aids epidemic. Young women 15 to 24 years old are three to four times more likely to be infected with HIV than young men of the same age.
“In most cross-generational relationships, young women are usually below the age of 20 and their male partners at least 10 years older,” he said. In 2010, at least 16940 teenage mothers had given birth in the province. More than 800 billboards have gone up across the province warning of the dangers of cross-generational sex. The MEC said the campaign aimed to “challenge the acceptance of cross-generational relationships and introduce an element of community leadership and stigma of older men who seek sex with young girls”.
Correction: In the print version of this story we incorrectly attributed certain quotes to Leclerc-Madlala. This has been rectified. We apologise for the mistake.