Eva, a 19-year-old aviation student, was sitting in her tiny room in shared barracks in the town of Kitengela, Kenya, feeling ruined, hungry and desperate.
She used the remaining 100 Kenyan shillings in her wallet and took a bus to the city center, where she looked for the first man to pay her to have sex with him. After 10 minutes in a seedy alley, Eva returned to Kitengela with 1,000 shillings, enough to eat the rest of the month.
Six years ago, when he was in college, Shiro met a married man almost 40 years older. At first, he received only groceries from him. Then it was a trip to the beauty salon.
Two years after the beginning of the relationship, the man moved her into a new apartment because he wanted her to be more comfortable. Two years later, he gave Shiro a piece of land in Nyeri County as a show of commitment.
In return, he can sleep with Shiro whenever he feels like it.
Eve’s experience is transactional sex in its least ornate form, a quick encounter caused by despair.
Shiro’s story illustrates a more complex phenomenon: the exchange of health and beauty for lasting financial gains, motivated not by hunger but by aspirations, embellished by social media stars, often wrapped up in the forms of a relationship.
Older men have always used gifts, status, and influence to buy access to young women. “Sugar daddy,” as these “sugar” men are known in English, has probably been present in societies for as long as prostitution.
But in Kenya, as well as in other African countries, these types of relationships seem to have become more frequent and more visible: what was once hidden is now public, on university campuses, in bars and now on Instagram.
Something More Accepted
It’s hard to know when this changed. It could have been in 2007 when Kim Kardashian’s famous sex tape was leaked, or a little later, when Facebook and Instagram took over the world, or perhaps when the 3G internet came to African cell phones.
But somehow it has reached the point where having a “sponsor” has become accepted by many young people and even a choice of a glamorous lifestyle.
You only need to visit Nairobi’s student neighborhoods, a recent graduate told the BBC, to see how widespread this culture is.
“On a Friday night, go sit outside the Box House (a student hostel) to see what kind of cars pass by: drivers of ministers and politicians sent to pick up young girls,” says Silas Nyanchwani, who studied at the University of Nairobi.
“Until recently there was no data to indicate how many young Kenyan women are involved in these ‘sugary’ relationships. But this year the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics conducted a study for BBC Africa in which it questioned 252 university students aged between 18 and 24.
They concluded that approximately 20% of the young women who participated in the research had or have had a “sponsor”.
The sample size was small and the study not fully randomized, so the results only give an indication of a possible figure and cannot be taken as definitive.
In addition, only a small percentage openly admitted to having a “sugar daddy.” But, interestingly, when talking about others, not themselves, young women estimated on average that 24% of their peers had had a transactional sexual relationship with an older man, a figure very close to that reached by the researchers.
Is It Prostitution?
Does breaking old taboos around sex represent a form of female empowerment? Or is sponsor culture just another way in which the female body can be auctioned off for men’s pleasure?
“There has been a growing rise of the women’s movement in Africa and a growing feminist awareness,” says Oyunga Pala, a columnist from Nairobi. “Women who were vilified for being sexually active have been granted the license to be. There is less humiliation than before.”
But while some feminists argue that any choice a woman makes is inherently feminist, because it was made by a woman, others question how free the option to enter into a sponsored relationship really is.
Mildred Ngesa, an ambassador for the global activist group Female Wave of Change, believes that after decades in which women have fought for the right to vote, own land or go to school, the “choice” of participating in these relationships is steeped in contradictions.
“If we say she has the right to be a prostitute, we will send her back to the jaws of patriarchy.”
But is it prostitution or something different in a subtle but important way?
Jane, the student, makes a distinction, arguing that “in these relationships, things are done according to your conditions,” and Dr. Kirsten Stoebenau, a social scientist who has researched transactional sex in Kenya, agrees that this is significant.
“It only becomes sex work when the woman involved in these relationships describes her sexual partners as clients when she describes herself as involved in the sexual economy, and when the encounter and exchange are pre-negotiated, explicit, usually immediately remunerated and often devoid of any emotional connection,” she says.
Grace, the aspiring singer struggling to put food on the table, has a slightly different perspective: for her, the similarities to sex work are more apparent.
“I’d rather have a sponsor than stand on the street,” he says. “Because you have that one person who is supporting you… you don’t need to sleep with so many men.”
Artist Michael Soi points out that Kenya remains on the surface a religious society with traditional sexual customs, but only on the surface.
In many families, it is taken for granted that men will provide for women’s livelihood.
Those who deplore sex before marriage and infidelity in marriage rarely practice what they preach, he argues, and the condemnation of “sugary” relationships is tainted by the same hypocrisy.
“We are constantly bombarded with moral ethics and with what religion allows and does not allow. But it’s all faked,” he says. “We’re just burying our heads in the sand and pretending these things don’t happen.”
For many young Kenyans, the values espoused in families, schools and churches simply do not align with the economic realities of the country, or cannot compete with the material temptations that, in the age of reality TV, television and social media, are visible everywhere.
Even within the family, most Kenyan girls are bombarded from an early age that they must marry a rich man, not a poor one.
It is taken for granted in these conversations that men will provide the money for women’s survival. So, for some, it’s just a small step in visualizing the same transaction outside of marriage.
“What about sex anyway?” asks Jane. “People just make it sound bad. But sometimes, it’s not bad at all.”
Some names have been changed.