Risky sex for material girls

“I wasn’t getting anything from the relationship. Not even make-up from Clicks. He was making me a stupid. So I had to break up with him,” says Dudu*, a 16-year-old from Umlazi township, Durban.

Dudu’€™s attitude towards relationships and sex is indicative of a growing and worrying national trend that has been identified in new studies. Findings have shown that consumerism and materialism has led to many young South African women embarking on relationships for what researchers call ‘€œthe three Cs’€, cash, clothes and a cellphone.

Dudu was part of a group of 60 young, unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 25 who spoke candidly to head of anthropology at the University of Natal, Professor Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala and Umlazi HIV/AIDS counsellors about their expectations of relationships.

The women said that they often had to have more than one man to satisfy their “needs”, which they defined as fashionable clothes, cell phones and outings.

“It’s very hard with one boyfriend today, as we are young we must enjoy ourselves. Do things, go places, look smart. You cannot do this when you are poor or old. Men must wake up. A modern woman needs three or at least two boyfriends to satisfy her these days,” said 18-year-old Bongi.

While exchanges of gifts with sexual strings attached have been going on for centuries, Leclerc-Madlala says that the increasingly materialistic nature of our society has ensured that such exchanges are now at the centre of many relationships.

In addition, this trend is no longer something that happens at the fringes of society – such as the “sugar daddy” syndrome or prostitution. Instead, contemporary relationships in which “conspicuous consumption is a central motivating factor” are becoming the norm in urban areas, says Leclerc-Madlala.

Leclerc-Madlala was approached to conduct the research by a group of Umlazi HIV/AIDS counsellors who were disturbed at how disinterested many young women seemed in safe sex messages.

“The counsellors said they needed more information about young women’s expectations of sexual relationships as unsafe sex and material exchanges were an integral part of their relationships,” said Leclerc-Madlala.

The women spoke freely for up to an hour each about their experiences and expectations.

“In the past, researchers have focused on women becoming involved in survival sex in order to have their basic needs met,” says Leclerc-Madlala,

“But the increase in consumer values amongst youth, combined with the threat of a short life because of AIDS, means that young women are now having sex for material things that do not constitute basic needs.”

While their parents generally satisfied the young women’s basic needs for food and shelter, they clearly wanted far more and saw sex as a valuable commodity to be traded for the goods they desired.

In addition, they knew how to get their boyfriends to “buy into” spending money on them: “If he’s proud, he will want you to look good. He wants his friends to be jealous of him. He wants to show off what he can get,” said Liz (20).

“Young women are exploiting their desirability in an effort to attract men who can provide them with expensive commodities such as jewellery, mobile phones, fashionable clothes and opportunities to be seen in luxury cars,” says Leclerc-Madlala.

“This is hardly about subsistence and securing the basic means to survive. It is more to do with ‘wants’ than ‘needs’, and a desire to be associated with the visible symbols of a modern lifestyle.”

The Umlazi women expressed no qualms about having more than one man to provide for them, saying that men had been doing this for years and now it was “women’s time” to be “liberated”.

‘Today you need money, it’s not like before because now things are expensive in town. That’s why we do it. Before it was just men who could enjoy everything and do anything they liked. Now it’s our time,” said Pinky (20), a student from a local technical college.

Men’s infidelity was taken as a fact of life, but the women did not see themselves in the same light. Their’s was a calculated approach based on material need not sexual gratification. In fact, most said they favoured older men, often married, as they had more to offer materially and were less demanding.

“If you educate a man these days you are educating a pervert. He’ll have lots of money and lots of girlfriends… married women, young, old, or even little girls he can go for. With us, we are careful to pick good boyfriends who can help us. We’re not like dogs. We want nice things, to go to nice places, and to live a good life,” said Sophie (19).

However, the women were acutely aware that their behaviour, far from liberating, could actually result in them getting HIV.

They said that using condom was entirely the man’s decision – and that men generally used condoms to protect themselves from disease or making the women pregnant, rather any notion of protecting the women.

“It’s the men who actually exploit us. We are the ones who fall pregnant and get infections. They also beat us. So if we use them to get what we want, we show that we’re not stupid,” said Itumeleng (21), who said she had two boyfriends, both married men in their 30s.

Ironically, some women actually referred to HIV/AIDS to justify their efforts to rapidly improve their lifestyles by getting material goods and services from men.

“AIDS is everywhere today. Even our grannies are dying of this thing. That is why we are trying to enjoy ourselves while we are still here. Things are bad for too many people,” said Khanyi (20).

Vuvu (21) added: “Where did this HIV come from really? Now what must we do? Just sit at home and do nothing? No, no. Go out there, girl, and live!”

Leclerc-Madlala’s findings are part of a trend identified by a number of other researchers looking at young people’s views on sexuality.

The Medical Research Council’s Stepping Stones project, which runs gender awareness workshops with young people, has also identified the material overtones of modern relationships.

The young South African woman does not expect love and fidelity from her man. She wants the “three Cs”, cash, clothes and a cellphone, say MRC researchers.

Studies conducted in Alexandra, Soweto and Hammanskraal show that the exchange of goods or money for sex is not based on verbal agreements, but rather implicit understandings that link sex to money. These are not likely to change if poverty is eradicated.

A few years back, the Family Life Association of Swaziland asked young girls what they expect from their boyfriends. The most common response was money (36.2%). Most boys (38.8%) said girls expected money.

Leclerc-Madlala believes that the Umlazi women are trying to add value to their lives in a world that has lost meaning.

All 60 women knew people who had died or were dying of AIDS. Ill-health and death amongst their own age group was common, and they did not have a vision of a bright future or a life with possibilities.

“Exploiting the immediate benefits from sexual relationships with well-resourced men may be one way that urban young women seek to add value to lives that have increasingly lost their meaning,” says Leclerc-Madlala.

So how to we address this situation? There are no quick and easy answers, says Leclerc-Madlala. HIV prevention programmes need to challenge the exchange principle inherent in contemporary sexual relationships.

But in the long term, women need to control financial resources themselves so that they can get material goods themselves without relying on men. – Health-e News Service.

* all names changed.


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