Sugar daddies and HIV: is it really about money, money, money?

The older man with young girlfriend stereotype is an important aspect of the HIV-pandemic in Southern Africa. Can this phenomenon only be blamed on poverty? And how can HIV-prevention programmes be tailored to cater for complex sociological demands?Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala brings new insights from a study on the subject.

 
 

Statistics on the HIV pandemic in Southern Africa show that young women are much more likely to be HIV-positive than their male counterparts. In some places in Botswana, for example, HIV-rates in girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are nine times more than that of boys of the same age. 

Apart from the physiological reasons that make women more susceptible to HIV, scientists often blame sugar daddies for the many HIV infections among young women. Intergenerational (where the man is more than 10 years older than the woman) and age-disparate relationships (where the age difference between the man and woman is more than five years) are common in sub- Saharan countries.

The odds of unprotected sex

Vital to the fuelling of the HIV-epidemic, is the research findings that for every year's increase in the age difference between the partners, there was a 28% increase in the odds of having unprotected sex.

There are a few reasons for the lack of condom use. First and foremost, the partners viewed one another as being ‘low risk' as far as HIV was concerned. The older men viewed the young women as being 'clean', perceiving them as being more likely to be free from HIV infection. On the other hand, the young women regarded the older men as 'safe' partners, appearing more responsible and less likely to take risks than young men.

Because of the age difference, young women are less likely to be able to negotiate condom use with an older man. In addition,the larger the economic gap between the partners, the less likely condom use will be.

The high-risk game

But why are young women playing this high risk game? The obvious explanation for why this is happening is purely financial. Older men are more likely to be employed and are therefore able to offer greater economical security than younger men. So girls from poor backgrounds would see wealthier older men as 'meal tickets', providing them with basic needs such as food, housing and clothing.

However, the answer is not that simple. Research has shown that, even where African women were relatively well-heeled, many still continue to be at risk. In a study among teenage girls in Gaborone, Botswana, it was found that they did not regard a relationship with an older man as a way of meeting their most basic economic needs. The older men were used as 'top-ups': a source of money that boosted their access to designer clothes, the latest cell phones and glitzy cars.

A girl that was seen alighting from an expensive sports car, or was seen on the arm of rich or influential men, or who attended the 'right' parties and mixed with the 'right' people, scored vital points in the social status game. It boosted young women's confidence and self-esteem.

A girl that could attract the attention of a wealthy older man, maintain a relationship with him and use him as a passport to the 'easy life' was considered as being 'clever' by her peers. Small wonder that older sexual partners have colloquial names such as 'investors' (Tanzania and Mozambique), 'sponsors' (Botswana) or even 'ministers' (South Africa).

This is a result of changing social and economic conditions. In contrast to previous generations of black women, these young women viewed themselves as active decision-makers and modern,empowered women, able to extract financial and material resources from older men in exchange for sex. Importantly, studies found this to be condoned by society in general.

Another heart-wrenching reason for young women to seek out age-disparate relationships is that young women are only too painfully aware of the realities AIDS-illness and death in their communities and environment. So having a sugar daddy plying her with money and luxury goods, and allowing her to enjoy life and have fun while she is still young, beautiful and alive, remains a strong motivator.

The desire to 'move the blood'

But it is not only the women who derive benefits from age-disparate and intergenerational relationships. The desire for 'clean partners', the myth that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and the belief that older men can be sexually rejuvenated (or having 'his blood move again') by a young woman, all contribute to men seeking younger women.

And since money or gifts (such as designer clothes, cell phones and other trappings of luxury) are a very important aspect of the relationship, the older men view the relationship as purely transactional - hence the low rate of condom use.

However, age-disparate sex is not only a 'modern' economic phenomenon, driven by young women's desire for luxuries and a particular lifestyle. Studies show that age-disparate and intergenerational relationships are strongly rooted in two cultural beliefs.

On the one hand, men are expected to redistribute wealth according to their economic means - the wealthy chief or headman looking after his people, paying large bride wealth transfers for a number of women. On the other hand, the norms prescribe that women should receive material compensation for sexual favours, as a validation of their worth, and a sign of a partner's love and commitment. Prostitution, or 'doing sex for free', is heavily frowned upon throughout the region. Across socio-economic strata, young women have been culturally conditioned to view their sexuality as a valuable resource, to be used to satisfy the primarily male need for sex.

The protection of self-worth and knowledge

The women in such relationships therefore do not view themselves as victims, explaining why HIV-prevention programmes aimed at tackling poor, desperate, women-as-victim' stereotypes will not be hugely successful. While there certainly are many young women that are driven to age-disparate relationships to meet subsistence needs such as bread and school fees, there are many better-off young women who seek out sugar daddies to meet a need for designer handbags and a glamorous lifestyle.

How can HIV-prevention programmes be tailored to meet such complex sociological needs? Educating girls and empowering them for financial independence is vital. Studies that examined factors that protected young women from indulging in age-disparate relationships, found a strong sense of self-worth, knowledge of sexual risks, acceptance of their socio-economic circumstances,social support and religious values to be important. These factors should be creatively incorporated into HIV-prevention programmes for young women.

Men's behaviour and attitudes should also be changed. The onus should be placed on adult men to stop seeking out such potentially exploitative relationships. Men who are willing to speak out against such relationships should be identified and supported to be role models to other men in the community. Finding adult males who are members of communities at high risk of HIV and who represent a masculinity that protects themselves and others from HIV, and making them visible and vocal is important. Community leaders should also support social sanctions against age-disparate relationships and how these are viewed in their communities.

Professor Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala is a chief research specialist in the Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS and Health programme.