May 1, 2013 -- In American pop culture, "Sugar Daddies" are often regarded as relatively harmless, kind of sad men dating vapid or opportunistic, kind of sad women and locked into meaningless, kind of sad relationships. On the more romantic, aspirational end, there's Richard Gere's cad-with-a-heart-of-gold in Pretty Woman -- an actual, literal john who finds himself falling in love with a prostitute after she teaches him that love is more than being able to buy amaaaaazing outfits with someone else's money. Although that certainly doesn't hurt. And online (the Sugar Daddy's natural habitat), there are plenty of sites dedicated to helping wealthy men connect with younger, attractive, cash-strapped women. There are also a steady stream of articles -- usually written by Sugar Babies -- about how to seek and maintain such a relationship.
And while Sugar Daddy arrangements can certainly be the fun, trendy, mutually beneficial relationships between two consenting adults that popular culture and the media often portray them as being, they can also have much more harmful repercussions when played out between two people with a pronounced disparity in power. In Uganda, for instance, a billboard campaign aims to address one of the harmful side effects of Sugar Daddy relationships -- the spread of HIV. The image was posted to Reddit, where it was immediately identified as displaying Uganda's crest. Others on the thread mentioned similar campaigns in countries like South Africa and Rwanda.
In fact, a number of African nations have been waging PSA campaigns warning women against entering into sexual relationships with "Sugar Daddies" for years. One radio campaign targeted girls as young as 9, explaining that "Our adolescent girls are attracted to sugar daddies in their quest to get mobile phones, cars, luxurious commodities, putting their life at risk of getting unwanted pregnancies and HIV/Aids." In the '90s, the Gambia Family Planning Association commissioned posters urging women to "Beware of Sugar Daddy: Short Term Benfits But Long Term Problems!!" And, in case that didn't drive the message home, the poster featured an additional deterrent. "Remember," they warn. "He Could Be Your Father!!"
Population Services International (PSI), a global health organization with programs in over 60 countries, worked to combat Sugar Daddy relationships by launching The Go Getter Club, empowering and encouraging women to say no to advances by older men.
And while some of these campaigns definitely help women to consider other options and to empower themselves in their romantic relationships, it's worth noting that all of these examples speak directly to the women in these relationships, not to the men who -- because of their wealth, material possessions, age, and gender -- wield more power. To its credit, PSI did launch a campaign aimed at men in Uganda, asking "Would you let this man be with your 18-year-old daughter? So why are you with his?" But, while the message focuses on the age difference (and it's worth noting that young women and girls much younger than 18 have been known to enter into these relationships), it doesn't focus on why this power dynamic is harmful, or why a man shouldn't use wealth as a means of asserting power and control over another person.
And then there's the issue of whether (very, very) young girls have the autonomy, resources, and support to reject or leave such relationships. Cheryl Faye, head of UNICEF in Gambia, notes in a2004 report on the rise of Sugar Daddies in Gambia that there is a growing concern over the social acceptance of men who use wealth and status to take advantage of young girls. "There is a certain tolerance in wider society that this is going on," Faye said, adding that "parents who struggle to put one meal a day on the table for their family don't ask questions about where the money comes from."
And then there are the unique risks and factors at play among displaced or refugee communities within sub-Saharan Africa, and how these contribute to an alarmingly gendered rise in HIV/AIDS.
So, while campaigns can be useful in starting or continuing a conversation about Sugar Daddies, they often avoid addressing the underlying factors at play in these often predatory relationships. They can also run the risk of coming awfully close to shaming or blaming victims, or dismissing all young women's motivations as being simply materialistic. A part of the problem is definitely the fact that so many different pairings fall under the banner of "Sugar Daddies" and "Sugar Babies," regardless of a young woman's age or ability to consent.
Yes, a young woman sleeping with an older man for benefits like mobile phones and spending cash can and must be aware of the health risks she faces. But let's be real. Her circumstances -- and those of any number of adults actively seeking to recreate a Julia Roberts vehicle -- are completely different from that of a child enmeshed in a predatory relationship with a wealthy pedophile.