#AIDS2016: ‘South Africa’s Blesser industry must be regulated’
South Africa’s “blesser” phenomenon is not new, but gift giving during courtship has now evolved to include deadly consequences for those who partake in soft prostitution.
“Transactional sex is like abortion – we don’t like it but we must get involved to ensure the safety of our young women,” Evidence-Based Solutions president and former CEO of the South African Human Sciences Research Council Dr Olive Shisana told a forum on HIV infection among African youth, a prelude to the official opening of the Aids 2016 international conference starting in Durban on Monday.
She said that while blessers and the blessed/blessees – wealthy men and poorer women linked for material gain, and increasingly using the internet to find each other – were well-known, there were other facets to transactional sex in South Africa and on the continent.
Mavusos were modified taverns where members paid to drink, dance, and find sexual partners. “These women are known as entry-level blessees.” Today’s were organised groups of “sugar mommies” who paid younger men – some as young as 13 – to have sex, she said.
Inkwari was something unique to the eThekwini (Durban) area and involved weekend-long parties that were highly sexualised. “At an Inkwari you can meet those with money, drink, socialise, do drugs, and have sex.” The chance of rape among drunk or drugged women was high.
“Gift giving is not new and occurs in all cultures; giving a gift is a way of enticing a person to find you interesting. This used to end up in marriage, but today it has evolved into a transactional relationship involving money and sex.”
Shisana said that while HIV infections had declined by 42 percent between 2001 and 2015, 1.7 million African adolescents were still HIV positive and 80 percent of these were in sub-Saharan Africa; 60 percent of the infections from this region were female.
“We must manage the risks from the new way in which people conduct their sexual relationships. Transactional sex is a trending topic at the moment. While at first the transaction took place between individuals, it now has a new dimension where organised networks are encouraging and offering transactional sex,” she said.
Websites, social media platforms, parties, and community activities were all used by blessers and blessees to find partners for casual sex in which money was exchanged. Shisana said transactional sex was often a need for survival, and quoted a Kenyan woman who said she was a blessee because “you cannot sleep on an empty stomach when you have a business (private parts) to offer”.
But there were also young women and men who accepted cash and gifts for sex because they simply wanted to improve their lifestyles and desired cellphones, good clothing, and material status.
“Transactional sex is now such a big problem that it is being formally studied. The University of California has done research indicating that people are connected sexually in these networks. So if one is HIV positive, there is a very good chance that many others will end up being infected.”
Because transactional sex involved multiple and concurrent partners it was exceptionally risky behaviour, which would have implications when looking at possible interventions.
“Even if groups of people involved in transactional sex don’t have lots of partners but are still in networks, the chances of HIV infection are high,” Shisana said.
In terms of intervention, it was necessary to identify the partners involved, track the transmitter of HIV, and get him into an intervention programme. It was also important to encourage monogamy. “We also have to try to get the managers of sexual networks to get involved in HIV prevention,” she said.
“Transactional sex will always be here in one form or another. We must find ways to reduce the risk of infection. We need to design HIV prevention messages to be delivered on social networks that are involved in transactional sex.”
The health-related aspects of blesser networks had to be rolled-out like anti-smoking campaigns. Those who were providing the networking services should spread the message and make blessers use HIV prevention messages on their posts.
“We could also go to blesser and blessee sites to utilise social networks as HIV prevention programmes; the state could regulate this,” she said.
Additionally, all blessers should take an e-course in which they had to pass an HIV prevention test. All had to be HIV tested before they were allowed onto social networks. Taverns should display condoms and HIV prevention messages. Tavern managers would need to take HIV prevention courses.
“Sexual liberation is here to stay. We can’t change it. It happens in an area of high-risk sexual behaviour. Society must step back and use a rear-view mirror to assess how we got here and then drive looking forward to ensure the path ahead is safe for our young people,” Shisana said.