The term “blesser” has been popularised in recent months and it has a range of meanings, from a wealthy individual, to a young “sugar-daddy” that could provide anything from airtime to luxury items or an allowance. The term “blesser” can be used interchangeably with the term “sugar-daddy”, older men who have been known to prey on school-going teenage girls and students, exchanging money and other goods for sex. ”Blessing” is not limited to these transactional relationships between older men and younger women; young men can also be blessed older men or older women. On social media, wealthy men proudly proclaim themselves as blessers to highlight their wealth and increase their social status, while “blessees” proudly admit that they are the recipients of benefits from blessers, also as a means of increasing their social status.

Juliane Hoss, a psychology master’s student at UP conducted research in Tembisa as part of her masters’ thesis. It was conducted under the supervision of Dr Linda Blokland and as a cooperation between Itsoseng Clinic, University of Pretoria and Get Informed Youth Centre, a local NPO in Tembisa. Her research study, titled “Needs analysis of school going girls in Thembisa”, assessed the challenges of grade 8 and 9 girls in Phomolong, Thembisa.

The study found that the engagement in sexual relationships with older men negatively affected high school girls’ academics with some finding it more difficult to concentrate in class while others developing an arrogant attitude and believing they are superior to girls who do not have a sugar-daddy.

Money is an integral part of these relationships, with one participant of the study saying, “Mostly, the relationship [is] all about money and sex. That’s what they mostly talk about. They don’t speak most of the time they spend together.” Another participant said, “It’s not a friendship or relationship because the girl wants money. She just wants what she always thinks about.” These relationships are therefore purely transactional.

The study also found that dating older men is “part of a process leading to problematic and risky behaviour among young girls”. These risks include exposure to violence and HIV. “They get used to the fact that they have a sugar-daddy. It become[s] a normal thing and [the] sugar-daddy changes and become[s] nice. If [the] girl does what they want, it will be nice but when the day comes when they have skin to skin sex and the girl falls pregnant the sugar-daddy will run away because they have a wife and children to look after,” one participant of the study said. These sugar-daddies were found to use violence against the young girls.

Peer pressure also plays a role, with a participant describing the influence of peer pressure, “One time they were on the way to Kempton Park and she slept with the sugar-daddy in the bush. And it was peer pressure. The next day, the other girls encouraged her and said that she is great now. ‘You slept with him. You are important now.’ ”

Bhekisisa, a health journalism platform, reported in an article titled “ #AIDS2016: ‘Blessers’ are the engine behind the rapid spread of HIV in young women” the findings of a study by the Center for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (Caprisa). The study explored the reasons why young women are at such a high risk of HIV infection. According to the article, Caprisa director Salin Abdool Karim said at the International Aids Conference in Durban, “In teenage girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24, 62.8% of HIV infections were linked to men between the ages of 25 and 40.” Karim explains, “These women are now sleeping with men of the same age or about a year’s difference,” adding, “They are now trying to find their husbands and the men are trying to find their wives so this is about pairing to establish their future.” He further said, “Women in the 25 to 40 age group are infected with HIV and then transmit it to the men in that same age group. Those men have liaisons with young women and [in turn] they are passing the virus on to these young women.”

BlesserFinder-Pretoria, a Facebook page intended to help blessees find blessers, is one of many “blesser-finding” services. Speaking to Perdeby, the administrator of the page, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that they had started the page after watching a “blesser exposé” on ETV’s Checkpoint. They said, “I knew after that episode girls will flock to Facebook looking for blessers.” They said that the page was no different to popular gossip page TuksConfessions and Facebook provided all the “services”. When asked why women, specifically university students, look for blessers, they said, “Well I think there’s two types of university girls that are looking for blessers. The ones who come from poor backgrounds are desperate for blessers because they need financial assistance to fund their studies. The others are usually from well off families and they just want monthly allowance for weaves, iPhones etc. About 99% of the girls who are looking for blessers to this page are black and I’d say two-thirds are university students, at least that’s what they [are] telling me.”

Perdeby spoke to a counselling psychologist at UP Support Services, who offered their perspective on blessers on the condition of anonymity. The psychologist discussed women who have “blessers”, saying, “I have noticed when working with woman that have ‘blessers’, that the gifts or ‘blessings’ are aimed to create a facade of perfection for the girls. These girls will often have perfectly manicured nails and woven hair, while [they will] be struggling to afford transport or struggling with their family finances. This can create a sense of instant gratification with these women and inject a sense of value and confidence as they become socially ‘entitled’ and are provided with an external source of affirmation. The danger is that this can be fleeting, leaving the women experiencing a void and commonly a dramatic decrease in self-confidence and esteem when the blessings are removed.” The pyschologist added, “I have noticed that the ‘blessers’ have a significant effect on the ‘blessees’ self-esteem. While this can be beneficial for them on a short term basis, it becomes problematic for their self-esteem on a long-term basis.”

Mpho Motiang, a training and support officer at the Center for Sexualities, Aids, and Gender (CSA&G) told Perdeby that 2016 is “the year of the blesser”, as it is the first year that the term has been used. He said that not all blessers are predators, but that some people just have a lot more capital they are willing to spend. Motiang said, “Transactional sex is not the default. Sex is a very common currency in these settings but some people just want company.” Motiang explained that although there are extreme circumstances where the blessee is dependent on the blesser for resources and not just extras, in most cases the blesser is not controlling. “The blesser has resources so it appears it’s easier for them to be in control”, said Motiang, who added “but discretion is very important, so the blessee is actually in control, and can end the relationship anytime they are uncomfortable.”

Roy Lazarus, who is part of research support at the CSA&G said, “It’s not the blesser phenomenon that’s the problem. It is the cases where it leads to unprotected sex, otherwise you are just being moralistic.” Talking about the stigma surrounding blessers and blessees, Lazarus said that the women experience the stigma more despite younger women-older men relationships being the general norm in South Africa. Motiang said there perceived sigma surrounding blessers is that they are predatory in nature, controlling and supplementing dependency and unrealistic lifestyles until they get tired and move on. He also said that although the stigma may not be decreasing, he feels the acceptability of blessers is increasing.

In May, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi launched a R3lbillion anti-blesser campaign to keep young girls in school and reduce teenage pregnancy. Motsoaledi said, “[This is] because we found that, on the socio-behavioural front, their chances of getting HIV/AIDS are eight times more than of boys of the same age group.” EWN reported that Motsoledi said that the campaign “aims to reduce infections in girls and young women, decrease teenage pregnancy, keep girls in school until matric, and increase economic opportunities for them so that they are not drawn into relationships with older men.” There have been no reports on the campaign since its launch.

Illustration: Asiphe Dlulane

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