[intro]Is the idea of a Blesse and a Blesser debatable? Nosipho Mngomezulu unpacks the discourse around this popular phenomenon and asks: what are we really mad at though?[/intro]

Old news, new terminology

The term “Blesser” has been on everyone’s lips and finger tips in 2016. With the growing popularity of the online service every Tom, Devin and Hlengiwe has been weighing in on what appears to be old news dressed up in new terminology. Men and women in South Africa are engaging in transactional sexual relationships: this is not new. The moral panic that has surrounded Blessees is no surprise, and might even be confused with a genuine concern about concurrent multiple sexual partners and the prevalence of HIV/Aids in South Africa. One might even give commentators the benefit of the doubt and accept that they are genuinely concerned about the asymmetrical power relationships between young women and older men, in a sexual partnership premised on exchange of goods for the guarantee of sex, in a context where intimate partner abuse is so pervasive.

The grinding poverty experienced by the majority of South Africa’s population is felt most acutely by women who are debarred disproportionately from access to education, and with bursaries and jobs not forthcoming, we are seeing more instances of women from diverse social backgrounds finding alternative sources of income, which again, is not new, or that surprising, if the beneficiaries of economic and political freedom are the very same persons who are the leading Blesssers in the country.

After spending a month following Blesser social media sites and reading comments on the topic, however, I find structural inequality to be the least of the concerns of the commentators. Instead, slut shaming and moralising seem to dominate the conversation and so it is important to ask, what is everyone so mad at though?

It’s important to mention that for the purposes of this article, I will not be discussing the Blessees who are under the age of 18. Although relevant to this conversation, the legal issue of statutory rape and consent do not permit me to talk of these relationships under the same terms of agency.

Is it more complex than ‘choice or coercion’?

The idea that Blessers and Blessees are just a new name for the oldest business in the book is dismissive of the immense and often thankless effort sex-workers have put into defining who and what they are outside of societies’ inference on their personhood.

While it’s sensational to call all transactional sex, ‘sex-work’, it also misses the vital point of accuracy. Although we tend to speak of sex work as one kind of activity in reality, commercial sex exists on a large spectrum of activities, which includes activities inside and outside of the ambit of the legality. For the many women, men, and gender non-conforming persons working as sex workers in South Africa, there is not only the public stigma of the work they do, but the harsh reality of no legal protection and little support.

Calling Blessees ‘sex-workers’ fails to account for the very different ways in which these activities are framed legally and socially. Whilst sex-work is illegal and punishable by fines, harassment, and sometimes imprisonment, Blessees operate in a grey area between intimate sexual partnership and part time survival strategies – on the frayed margins of heteronormative monogamy.

Whilst some sex workers strive for the legalization and protection of the work they do, there is currently (apart from Kenny Kunene’s sudden sense of propriety) nothing of the same sense of seeking legal recognition and protection by Blessees. Both Blessees and sex workers, however, are often at the mercy of moralizing claims premised on the false binary between choice and coercion. Coercion – that is engaging in sexual activities without one of the parties consent – is rape, there is no grey area here. Social circumstances that place engaging in transactional sex as one of a range of viable options need to be taken seriously, however, not only in legal terms, but in social terms as well. It’s important to consider what it really means to deny the agency of men who are Blessers and women who are Blessees.

If we are willing to admit that Blessers have agency, that is, they make a choice to participate in a relationship where they exchange goods for a relationship with a partner then, despite kneejerk discomfort at the idea, we need to take seriously the agency of women, the Blessees in these circumstances too. To force women to deny any agency or ability to consent in a relationship that involves the exchange of money is downright ludicrous. Do women cease to be agents if they agree to take money in relationships? If that is the case, then surely many marriages would also fall into the category of transactional sex? Do women cease to be agents if they have multiple partners? Surely then, by the same logic, men too act without agency when they do the same? Like all of us, Blessees engage in relationships for a multitude of reasons, and circumstances may close off some options, whilst leaving others open. If we take Blessers and Blessees as three-dimensional humans, then we need to consider that their relationships cannot be reduced to simply either coercion or choice, but must take seriously the complexities of negotiating the terms of their relationship, however they define these.

The term Blessee itself is interesting in that it frames the women in passive terms: she receives, she is seen as a conduit for a man to display his largess, whilst a Blesser is a verb, a doing word, an agent. The Biblical connotations are not lost on any of us who have been raised in religious contexts. Perhaps the use of that subversive, tongue-in-cheek, term is the real point of contention? Perhaps it’s taking the adage seriously that God helps those who help themselves? In a religious context, this might upset some people to consider that this is a logical follow-through on traditional religious patriarchal practice, which casts men as providers. Perhaps most importantly, however, what is lost in the term Blessee is that women who participate don’t wait to be rescued, but instead log online and clearly state their terms and conditions for specific kind of relationship.

What is striking about Blessees is that many do not frame themselves in either hapless or cunning terms. In the search for a meta-narrative, a single story, which could sum up neatly what is clearly a complex set of relations, there is a desire to either sum up Blessees as a “new wave of sex positive agents” who are disrupting old norms and re-imagining power dynamics in what have historically been read as predatory relationships. As appealing as this narrative is, for those tired of the misogynoir that accompanies public understandings of Blessees, it is also homogenizing. We need to allow more room for nuance, and for admitting that while some Blessees cast themselves as sexual revolutionaries, others are in it for pleasure, some are in these relationships part time, some are in it for convenience. These multiple stories, from three-dimensional human agents, mean we need to take the full spectrum of transactional sex into account, which requires more than totalising notions of desperate women or bad women.

Yes, money or exchange of goods for intimate relations (however these are defined) are explicitly part of the understanding when one names their partnership a Blessee-Blesser relationship, but Blessees are not a homogenous mass who seek one thing only from their partners. The explicit nature of this exchange seems to be the cause of much friction when discussing Blessees and Blessers: that both parties understand (perhaps even negotiate) that some kind of economic transaction is expected to take place in this relationship. Do some Blessees find themselves in situations where they are expected to avail themselves long over the terms of their agreement have lapsed? Yes, because human relations are often more complicated than terms of a labour contract. But we have a name for such exploitation in the workplace. Whilst it might be uncomfortable to draw parallels between wage labour, and idealised romantic relationships, the two have much in common, and it’s not only to do with one’s body, but with the notion of labour itself.

What does and doesn’t count as work and compensation has been at the forefront of feminist work for decades, and often, in patriarchal contexts, women’s work is relegated to invisible forms of labour. Could Blessees be simply showing us up for our own hypocrisy in not naming the thing that so deeply shapes our lives? To claim that Blessees reduce relationships to economic transaction is to fail to recognize that roses may be nice, but so too is the agency to buy bread or weaves. If the issue is not consent, we have to ask what, then, is the real issue?

Burn the (beautiful) witch: public shaming for what?

I must admit that I share the same fascination with the rest of South Africa about these relationships. To admit we are fascinated by sex, romance, and scandal is obvious in a world where heteronormative monogamy continues to be used as a bench mark for adult relationships despite this normative ideal seldom being fulfilled. The voyeurism through tabloids and social media is one thing, but I do worry that Blessee outing and shaming is turning into nothing more than a modern day witch hunt, with the same thrill of the dance between the sacred and the taboo. Historically, witches were women who were thought to act outside of the natural order.

In her book, ‘Power and Projects: Reflections on Agency’, anthropologist, Sherry B. Ortner offers a hypothesis on why women who use their agency are depicted as evil. Citing representations of women in children’s literature and ethnographic studies, she explains that, in patriarchal contexts, women are seldom encouraged to use their agency to pursue their own goals or projects. When a woman’s quest is to find a prince or fulfil her duties as a nurturer, in both fiction and real life, she is depicted as a natural woman. In stories where women do use their agency, to follow a path that doesn’t put finding a male protector or prince at the centre of their narrative, these women are painted as wicked and as deserving of the severest punishments. Rendering Blessers as simply incidental and not core to Blessee’s narratives about their lives forces us to question the simple subsuming of Blessees into roles as either the oppressed or the vixen.

A quick glance on Blesser Finder and you notice the following shared characteristics in all the adverts: young, attractive (defined along deeply colourist lines) and most importantly women seeking out a Blesser. If the memes on the Twitter page are anything to go by, the women in these adverts are simultaneously celebrated and chided for being forthright and represented as flat caricatures. The youth and beauty of these women seems to really be what gets the ire of commentators. The young womens’ looks often serve as further proof of the need to subdue and domesticate them. Their beauty is depicted as subterfuge for a more sinister core. In a patriarchal narrative about the role of men and women, such commentary on Blessers and Blesses feeds right into the very strange ways we fail to speak about power and sex: who has it and who can use it?

Blessees have been depicted as living the “pretty woman” dream, however, the idealized image of carefree and glamourous woman who seduces men with her wiles is a far cry from the lived reality of many Blessees, as shown by the women who attend Mavuso parties simply for the chance to put bread on the table, get airtime, or pay for electricity.

Not all Blessees are jetting off to Dubai and snapping pictures of their shopping sprees on Instagram, although some are, so we need to be able to hold both realities in our heads at the same time.

Whether women are buying bread or weaves seems to be an important factor about whether transactional sex is seen as survivalist or can be trashed as frivolous and against the moral order. But is it? Can we really make such a distinction, when what one has, where one socializes, and with whom one has connections, so influences our social capital in South Africa? Is patronage based on good looks any less survivalist? If one wants to gain access to “the good life,” as defined by access to consumer goods, surely then one must be able to access these goods that are paradoxically dismissed as frivolous? If South Africa can base bursaries on virginity, then surely patronage based on looks and designer clothes fits right into the same script – just this time tailored around millennial capitalism and not pseudotraditionalist claims of virtue.

African women are left out of narratives of sexual agency

Various waves of feminism and womanism around the globe have been concerned with the autonomy of women in a world that needn’t be patriarchal nor determine for women what a dignified life ought to be. The world desperately needs a new movement to redefine masculinities: to seriously consider where heterosexual males locate themselves – outside of toxic masculinity. Undoing toxic masculinities means that we need to speak to the demand for Blessees, the demand for men to play the paternalistic role in a relationship, the demand that many men still feel they have should have unfettered access to women’s bodies, and not simply lazily fall back on tropes concerning the supply of these demands.

The idea that women can not only break the glass ceiling in the work place, but can also participate as equal partners in the bedroom, seems to have knocked everyone’s socks off. African women on the other hand, long chastised and stereotyped as overly sexualized and promiscuous are often left out of these narratives of sexual agency. As Pumla Gqola observes, in her book, Rape: A South African Nightmare, black women are often seen as always and already unrapeable because our sexuality was read as deviant, thus, for a long time, sexualizing violence towards black women wasn’t even considered a crime.

Whilst our mothers and grandmothers were in the midst of fierce battles with colonizing and oppressive racist structures, they simultaneously had to battle the named and unnamed oppression they experienced in their homes and communities. Women, especially black women, acting as agents (not perfect, but three dimensional complex agents) of their sexuality seem to make everyone upset, and this discomfort is often clocked in moralizing concerns for a woman’s own good, African values and an ethic which puts her body always at the mercy of others’ needs. It would be far too simplistic to call Blessees and Blessers a new wave of sexual liberation, given the myriad of structural and power differentials that delimit the number of options available to young women. What I want to point to here, however, is that there is something far more sinister at play when we get on our high horses and damn the “blessed.”