IN MY OPINION: Blessers and Blessees: Rooted in history?

Posted on August 26, 2020

To a greater or lesser extent – I’m inclined to believe greater – relationships between women and men have held economic value throughout history (as Tina Turner sang, “What’s love got to do with it?”). As such it is difficult to separate out all tinges of transactional dynamics from the unions between the sexes. We just need to take a brief look over the history of marriage, a social cornerstone of many cultures across the globe, no matter what form it may take.

In western society marriage was initially contracted as a fundamentally economic, and at times, political process. In African cultures, likewise, unions between men and women are punctuated at multiple points with material transactions. The notion that women should strive for a “good catch” implies that she will find a wealthy husband who will take care of her and provide her with her comforts of living.

Societies still generally consider that the man’s task is to show strength and power, evidenced through success, and measured by some sort of bank balance. A man has done well when he has achieved success in terms of accumulating material possessions, whereas, on the other hand, a woman has done well when she has married a wealthy man.

There is still the expectation in societies that men should make the money (the measure of success) while women don’t yet get commonly burdened with such expectations. Even as the world debates the intersectionalities between postfeminism, third wave, cyberfeminism or even fourth wave feminism, young women tend to continue to look to men for material benefit and support. This is the reality on the ground, removed from intellectual and philosophical debates.

I have no intention of criticising women for relying on men to assist with financial needs in the world today, having lived my own life as a single mother of three challenging young offspring. But I do wonder why society still considers the burden of single motherhood as more demanding than that of single fatherhood. It is true that it is more commonly the mother who carries the responsibility of raising children while having to largely provide for their wellbeing. But what does this say about the world’s readiness to accept all genders as equal? How do single fathers cope? Do they automatically earn more money? Do they search for new partners to be mothers to their children? While single mothers may search for providers?

How do mothers and fathers raise their daughters and what do they teach them to expect in terms of living their lives?

The phenomenon of the dynamics of the Blesser-Blessee relationship is not new, but has taken a “modern” flavour in the South African context. Does this render it more acceptable that young women should trade their bodies for the material goods that an older man can provide?

Is the older, wealthier man preying on the vulnerability of such girls? What do young men do who find themselves in similar financial struggles? It is true that some young men may indeed use their bodies to transact for financial gain in the face of financial need?

There are arguments that young women entering a Blesser-Blessee relationship do so out of choice and their prerogative to decide this should be respected. The relationship differs from that of prostitution, it is argued, because the transacted sex takes place within a relationship of longer and more committed duration. This approach to viewing such arrangements tends to focus more on the relationship as carrying status. Girls can benefit in a way that engenders envy from others for the material gains that come with the dynamic.

However, we should perhaps ask the question as to why, and what this means in the broader social context of relationships between women and men which have endured over time. How does this detract from the historical subjugation of women to men in a perpetual power dynamic of inequality?

Women, and especially young women, remain vulnerable to the exploitation of their sex by men.  The unequal power dynamics are embedded in our cultures and in our languages. Women largely retain the responsibility for pregnancy, get blamed for HIV transmission within relationships, and can be discarded when not performing to the standard desired by the men they engage with. In informal economic relationships they are expected to be monogamous, while men are lauded for their sexual conquests. The women are left holding more than the baby.

Has anyone discussed this with the vulnerable young women before they enter transactional sexual relationships?

It may also be important to consider how social media plays a role in influencing young women to enter such relationships. Social media seems to replace the “reality” of the material world. We’re all having a good time, dressing well, and looking beautiful. We measure our popularity by the number of followers or “friends” we have on social media. Have relationships come down to likes and views? What values are brought into relationships in 2020? Is it determined by what can be uploaded or seen? How do these young women and older men think about relationships? Has it become like a card game of say, poker? Let’s see what you put on the table? Maybe I can call your bluff?

At the end of the day, as human beings, we seek human engagement, we seek meaning in relationships. How do we teach our young people to find that? Let us remember that the Blesser-Blessee phenomenon emerges from a prevailing social context to which many of us contribute in many ways.

Dr Linda Eskell-Blokland is a clinical psychologist and Acting Head of the Student Counselling Unit at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Dr Linda Eskell-Blokland

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