The situation is all too common…a young girl is looking to fill a void left by an absent or abusive father, and an older man seizes the opportunity to offer comfort and gifts – at a price. The term ‘Sugar Daddy’ is an awfully sweet-sounding way to refer to men who leverage their power and wealth to bait young girls into a sexual trap.
In Lesotho (southern Africa), sugar daddies are called ‘blessers’. As girls’ bodies start to change in early adolescence, older men take notice. The girls, often orphans with no emotional support, crave the attention and feel that it is cool to have an older man show interest in them. A mother from Lesotho explains, “we find that for some girls who have grown up without a father, these sugar daddies provide something like a ‘fatherly love’, but really they are exploiting them.”
Blessers initiate relationships by buying girls presents ranging from small trinkets to new clothing to cell phones. At first the gifts are given with sweet words and compliments and the girls are thrilled to have new, luxury items. But before long, blessers are asking for favours in return and they only have one thing in mind.
All relationships between girls and blessers are sexual in nature. Many girls become pregnant, which typically terminates the relationship because blessers will not take responsibility for impregnating the girls. The blesser returns to his wife and children, while the girl is left with the shame of telling her elders that she had a relationship with a man the age of her father.
Perhaps even more devastating than pregnancy, many girls contract HIV as a result of their blesser relationships. These men typically know their status yet they convince girls that having sex with a condom is a bad idea (some men go so far as to say that condoms cause kidney disease in men – a claim with no truth whatsoever). The girls have no defence and no retribution; their shame keeps them from asking for help.
Shocking as it is, some girls intentionally seek out blessers, entering into relationships with a list of goods they hope to secure. These girls know that this behaviour is dangerous, yet the appeal of accessing nice items is too strong to resist. Most girls do not yet recognize that the gifts are not worth the cost of what they are required to give up. It often takes hindsight for the girls to recognize that they do not really want to be in a relationship with a blesser. Many wish they could return to childhood and forget the adult world they abruptly entered.
Ending a relationship between a blesser and a girl is at least as unsavoury as the relationship itself. Most girls have no say whatsoever, and may even be further victimized for trying to end things. One girl shared, “my friend is trying to end her involvement with a sugar daddy and now he wants to kill her. She has changed her phone number too – he is stalking her.”
Some parents of adolescent girls try to warn their daughters of the risks associated with sugar daddies; others encourage it. Regardless, the girls are often more interested in what their peers are up to rather than listening to their parents. For parents with daughters who board at school, the concern is even worse. One mother explains:
“My daughter normally uses public [transportation] to go home. One day, I called her to check in and I heard men’s voices in the background. I started to panic. It was the case that they were just men near the bus, but of course I was so worried that maybe a man had offered her a ride in his car.”
The prevalence of sugar daddy relationships is difficult to determine since both the girls and the blessers go to great efforts to keep their relationships a secret – girls because of the shame, blessers because of the risk to their marriages and family relationships. What we do know for certain is that these relationships are too common. In any high school, it would not be difficult to find several girls who sneak off to meet their blessers after school.
Sugar daddies, as the adults in the relationships, need to take responsibility for protecting rather than preying on young girls. These relationships are dangerous and harmful, often leading to a lifetime of trauma. The good news is that this problem is relatively straightforward to address – men need to stop engaging in sexual relationships with young girls!