Well educated, attractive and sultry. She saunters into the high-end pub as young, middle aged and elderly shift uncomfortably to catch a glimpse of her. Her neon pink dress glows like a second layer of skin. It is firmly plastered on every curve of her body. She spots her date and eagerly makes her way to the tall and heavy stock man whose face is sheltered under a fading baseball cap.
The face of the modern sugar baby who engages in transactional sex for money, gifts and favours is evolving. There is a new breed of lower to upper middle class university educated sugar babies raised in the comfortable suburbs scattered all over Nairobi. In the Western context, media attention has greatly focused on young college students who intentionally seek out older and wealthier men on diverse websites such as seeking arrangement and established men. The college students claim they ‘network’ with the men for financial assistance for their studies and upkeep. In the Kenyan context, it is very difficult to get a young woman to openly confess to being a sugar baby. Kinship networks are still much tighter and collective than Western countries so many young people feel obligated to portray an ‘acceptable’ communal social image rather than openly live out a possibly controversial sugar baby lifestyle. Therefore, this results in a ‘covert’ or ‘undercover sugar baby’ lifestyle.
The covert sugar baby is a contradiction. This is because she is well educated, grew up with stable parents, attended Church regularly and has a very comfortable family network. She has never lacked the basic needs of food, clothing or shelter. However, in most cases, her parents who ensured she was comfortable enough to survive, could not afford to shower her with luxuries such as designer clothes, human hair weaves, cars and lavish holidays. In her early twenties, she blossoms into a seductive and stylishly dressed vixen. In every club and party she goes to, she is the centre of attention and young campus men and older (mostly married) men flock to her. She maintains a relationship with a young campus boyfriend as she dates the wealthier men. He is a polite and intelligent engineering student who has to save for weeks to take her out for a decent three-course meal. On dates with the campus boyfriend she is constrained to a solo date and a glass of cheap wine but with the older men she is encouraged to invite larger groups of friends for bottles of endless wine, champagne and Jägerbombs.
The young man has to borrow a car to pick her up but the older men have a wide selection of top range cars at their disposal. The young man is pleasant and her family loves him but she cannot dare to introduce any of the older men to her family members. The young man offers to help her study for her biochemistry degree and works on her term papers. The older men start demanding more attention and time so she barely has time for the young man. When she explains her situation with the campus boyfriend, they offer to double her allowance and finance more shopping trips. Finally, she ends the relationship with the young campus man. She begins to post photos of her holidays and escapades on Instagram and Facebook, effectively blocking out the faces of the ‘sugar daddy’ men. Her friends uuh and aah at her photos as they desire the same lifestyle their friend is enjoying.
Months turn into years and sugar baby realises she is in her mid 30s. After too many alcohol-fuelled escapades, she is now struggling to fit into the two-piece bikinis she easily slipped into for her numerous sugar daddy trips. Her once youthful face is sagging with permanent eye bags that must constantly be concealed with heavy make-up. She is no longer experiencing the male attention she desires when she hits the club. Instead of ten men fighting to buy her champagne, it is one or two elderly pot bellied men staring at her through their beer glasses. The 40-something well built and handsome sugar daddies she used to spend her weekends with are settled and married to much younger women. The 50-something ones are tired of roaming the streets and now spend their time hosting luncheons for their grandchildren and attending weddings of their children and friends’ children.
After seeing so many social media posts of classmates getting married and popping kids, she starts to question the sustainability of the sugar baby lifestyle. Posts of her at exotic locations are no longer in vogue as there is a new group of nubile sugar babies trending. The last straw is when she sees a photo of the young campus man she dumped for the sugar daddy lifestyle. He appears in her Facebook newsfeed as one of the winners of Business Daily’s top 40 under 40. Now a CEO in a private power company, he is happily married with two children. She starts to reconsider her lifestyle and realises she has some choices. To earn a decent living with her unutilised biochemistry degree, try to transition to marriage and motherhood or become a veteran sugar baby who moves from man to man based on availability.
In past research on transactional sex, social scientists like Michelle Poulin have largely argued that gender inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa influences young women to engage in risky sexual behaviour with older and wealthier men. This is because young women supposedly have less agency and are largely poorer than men in the Sub-Saharan African context. In select writings, the patriarchy is identified as the enabler and promoter of transactional sex. Elderly ‘sugar daddy’ men or ‘sponsors’ are described as agents of HIV/Aids to young and naïve needy women. Additionally, the writings point out that the dominance of patriarchy in society upholds men as financial providers. Therefore, young women feel compelled to seek out older and wealthier men for financial upkeep in exchange for sex.
In contrast, scholars of evolving sexual norms like Dr. Wendy Walsh argue that the modern message, ‘women are equal and interchangeable with men in all areas’ has coerced women to adopt models of sexuality that were considered ‘unfeminine’ in previous times. That is, sexual liberation and freedom to sleep and experiment with many men as opposed to being virginal. This has led to a high supply sexual economy. In the economy, women engage in ‘liberated’ sex with many different partners as they pursue career and academic progression. The twenties are particularly a time when the encouragement to enjoy sexual freedom and choice is emphasised. However, despite the social acceptability of casual sex with multiple partners, there is one thing the sexual liberation movement has not fully managed to abolish: The sexual double standard.
The Sexual Double Standard
The sexual double standard holds that society is largely more accepting and less critical of a man who engages in diverse sexual encounters with multiple partners whilst it is not so accepting of women who engage in multiple sexual encounters. In the Western context, social science research indicates the sexual double standard is dominant in the minds of men more than it is in the minds of women. That is, men view women who have had more sexual experiences more poorly than those who have not. When it comes to marriage and settling down with them, they take this into account. In the absence of detailed African research on the subject, researchers often speculate that the sexual double standard is likely to be more dominant in Africa because of the culturally expected subservience and submission of women. This sexual double standard was revealed in Kenya when the image of a young woman went viral because she was caught on camera confessing to dating a married man. She was subjected to violent cyber bullying and abuse on her social media pages. The few who came to her defense were accused of being as immoral as she was.
The incident relayed two lines of societal discourse. On one end, there are those who felt that it was perfectly okay for her to mess around and experiment in her twenties so she could learn from the experience. They argued that it was very wrong to cast judgement on a young woman who was bound to make many mistakes in her twenties. Then, there are those who felt that she represented a clandestine culture of immorality that should be discouraged. They felt she deserved the social backlash.
Why the 20’s Matter
In the African context, the young woman and sugar babies in general, are likely to elicit much harsher judgement than they would in the Western context. The challenge for the sugar baby is to successfully transition from her lifestyle to marriage and motherhood. This is because she will be able to keep attracting some men for short and temporary flings but the sexual double standard makes it harder for men to view her as marriage or commitment material. An increasing number of young women argue they are not interested in marriage and motherhood but it is very interesting that they often change their minds when they are in their late 30s and early 40s. Recent research on the 20-something generation that believes they are forever young and 30 is the new 20 indicates that it is much wiser for young people to be actively advised to take their 20’s very seriously. In the Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Best of them Now, clinical psychologist Meg Jay debunks the pervasive societal myth that the 20’s are a time for fooling around and experimenting. She argues that it is a foundational period in which a young person can make decisions that can guarantee life success. However, if the period is not managed successfully, the young person must rush into later years with more hurdles and stresses to overcome.
In summary, any young twenty-something who believes that the sexual double standard is not alive and well in Kenya, think again. Women still get judged harsher and longer than men for being sexually liberal and they are even judged when they are perceived as such without real evidence. Also, building a successful career patiently may be easier and less risky than transactional(often alcohol- fuelled) sex with diverse men. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI’s) are not very respectful of sexual freedom and liberation movements. Even in these times of equality, women are still more likely to suffer the long term effects of STI’s than men. This is because their anatomy is more delicate than that of men. Therefore, the sugar baby lifestyle has more risks than the equally disturbing sugar daddy one.
Some Sources Reviewed:
Harvey, S. 2015, November 23. Battle of the Sexes: Sluts versus studs(You Tube). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRklCO6Yoms
Jay, M. (2012). The defining decade: Why your twenties matter–and how to make the most of them now. Twelve.
Mutoko, C. 2016, May 25. The price of shame (YouTube). Retrieved from https: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=orkWTZwJITw
Poulin, M.( 2007). Sex, money, and premarital partnerships in southern Malawi. Social Science & Medicine, 65(11), 2383-2393.
Walsh, W. (2013). The 30-day love detox: Cleanse yourself of bad boys, cheaters and men who won’t commit–and find a real relationship. Rodale.
Walsh, W. 2013, Oct 28. Is the sexual double standard gone?(YouTube). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYWN9uFjXbY
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