Sugar Dating in Kenya

An investigation of ‘Sponsorship’ among female university students in Nairobi

Photo by Godisable Jacob from Pexels

Any group of young people living and thriving in Nairobi will agree on this: ‘sponsorship’ is a hot topic and the source of many heated discussions. The terminology changes from ‘Sugar Dating’ to ‘Mentorship’ (in Nigeria) to ‘Blessings’ (in South Africa), but the broad concept remains: an older man giving a younger woman gifts or money in exchange for sex.

Like in all stories at the center of popular discourse, there are two main narratives around sponsorship. One tells a story of empowerment, freedom and agency, where women can apply their sexual liberation for personal gain, enjoying a life of luxury, fun and excitement in way that works well alongside their student life.

“It was fun, I got to travel to different parts of the country. He was very supportive in terms of money and also was there for me emotionally. I enjoyed it while it lasted.” — anonymous participant

The other tells a story of young women who are vulnerable, dependant, and highly exposed to risk and violence. It is described as socially unacceptable and attached to shame and stigma, with the lack of trust in sponsorship relationships causing threats to health and safety.

“Sponsorship as an experience is unacceptable. A girl who tries this is prone to danger such as unwanted pregnancy and fateful disease such as HIV. One person I know tried this and was infected and the guy left her claiming she was the one who wanted it.” — anonymous participant

The reality, undoubtedly a balance of these, has not yet been explored in depth in the Kenyan context. As a behavioral science research organization, we are interested in understanding people’s decision-making processes; in this instance: how people weigh decisions between sex, money, and relationships. We recruited 252 female-university students between 18 to 24 years old at our research lab in the center of Nairobi to shed light on this process. Our research was designed into three components:

  1. a quantitative questionnaire including demographic information, psychometric measures and questions covering perceptions, attitudes, perceived prevalence and norms surrounding different sponsor-relationship structures,
  2. an experimental lab game to understand the attention biases and identify the factors at play in sponsorship decision, and
  3. a qualitative study, where participants were asked to write a short story about any experience of sponsorship, relating to themselves, friends, or someone they don’t know.

What we learnt

Our research of 252, 18–24 year-old women in Nairobi generated the following results:

Photo by Godisable Jacob from Pexels
  • Sponsorship is prevalent. 20% of women in our sample have been/are in a sponsor relationship.
  • Sponsorship relationships are not openly spoken about. Self-reporting rates are significantly lower than actual prevalence, with only 2% of respondents self-reporting on sponsorship.
  • Peers are able to easily identify sponsorship relationships. Sponsorship relationships are relatively accurately and easily recognized by peers who estimate prevalence at 24% among female university students, indicating that anonymity may be overestimated.
  • Sponsorship is highly stigmatized among young women and not considered socially acceptable. 85% of participants disagreed with the statement that “being sponsored is cool” and 61% agreed with the statement that “sponsorship is shameful”
  • Sponsorship isn’t linked to a specific profile. Acceptability and prevalance of sponsorships does not vary by psychological profiles (risk preferences, time preferences and personality traits)
  • The line between ‘boyfriend’ and ‘sponsor’ is blurry. 13% of participants reported expecting money in exchange for sex, be it from a boyfriend or casual acquaintance.

Our qualitative interviews showed that respondents felt decidedly negative about their stories of sponsorship, whether relating experiences of peers or themselves. With an imbalanced distribution of control in favour of the sponsor, sponsees may be exposed to greater risk. The secrecy surrounding sponsorship evidenced by the low self-reported rate paired with the strong stigma associated with sponsorship, even among peers, makes it hard to tell friends or seek support if needed, and may doubly contribute to increased safety risks for women.

Photo by Godisable Jacob from Pexels

How can behavioral science improve the decision-making context for women?

Our research suggests that women have little decision-making power both on whether to get a sponsor (when lines between boyfriend and sponsor become blurry) and once they’re in a relationship (when the sponsor has more power/control and there is stigma that prevents them from seeking support from peers or other sources). Whether women should or not engage in sponsorship is their own choice alone, which is why it is all the more important they are able to make an informed decision.

Principles from behavioral science can improve young women’s decision-making when it comes to sponsorship, listed below as thoughts inspired by this research:

  • People tend to respond more to identity statements (for example, “don’t drink and drive” is significantly less effective in awareness campaigns than “don’t be a drunk driver”). Identity is indeed a powerful actor, and with the blurry line between boyfriend and sponsorship, it is plausible to imagine women easing into sponsorship relationships without necessarily identifying themselves as ‘sponsees’. Could more effective labels help women make more informed and active choices on whether they want to engage in these relationships?
  • The strong social norm against sponsorship is counterproductive to raising awareness about the realities of sponsorship. The clearly prevailing negative norm even amongst young women (65% say sponsorship is shameful) doesn’t account for the people actively engaged in it (20% have or have had a sponsor). This may either be caused by a form of cognitive dissonance (like smoking: people know it’s bad for them but do it anyway) or could be explained by people saying what they believe they should based on the public narrative. This makes it particularly hard to talk about safe sex or birth control in the context of sponsorship relationships, as few are willing to discuss having a sponsor in the first place. By shifting young women’s norms away from the morality of sponsorship to, for example, the use of contraception with sponsors, could this open the conversation to focus on all the realities they face in these relationships?
  • Clearly defined spaces for dialogue significantly help at-risk populations better understand their choice environment. In this heavily stigmatized environment where prevalence is relatively high but self-reporting significantly low, it is clear people don’t feel comfortable discussing their relationships openly, which may stop them from making the best decisions for themselves or seeking support when they need it. Our own research from work with FSW (Female Sex Workers) and MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) has shown that groups led by certified experts (such as doctors), providing tangible support (such as condoms) and fostering open dialogue, work best when the conditions enable anonymity: i.e. participation is something one can reasonably hide from key people. This is why some argue that support centers for gender based violence should be located within larger health-facilities, rather than in independent buildings (Simmons, Mihyo, and Messner 2016). Similarly in our research, digital channels such as WhatsApp were used by MSMs to privately discuss issues affecting them. Could these learnings be applied to create spaces for dialogue and support for sponsees whilst protecting their anonymity?

This topic of sponsorship is a complex and intricate one which needs further research to truly understand the relationship dynamics and behaviors brought to light in this study. In particular, we are curious to understand to what extent the violence and risk that we have found in this research is exclusive to sponsorship or a symptom of a wider, structural problem of gender inequality in Kenya, which exists across different types of relationships.

What are you interested in understanding more about sponsorship in Kenya? We’d love to hear your thoughts / ideas / comments below!