I went to school with a girl I will call Rachel to protect her identity. She was four years older than me, and easily the most beautiful girl in our school.
When she was in grade nine, she dated an older man from our neighbourhood. He would pick her up from school, give her money to do her hair and buy her clothes that ensured she was the best dressed on civvies day.
Nobody ever told me that their relationship was wrong, but I remember everybody describing her as “fast” and “disrespectful”. Some even called her a whore. Our mothers would warn us not to be like her – whatever it is they thought she was.
Rachel was just 15 years old. This man was well into his 20s and had already fathered two children, but many boys envied him and other girls wanted him for themselves. By virtue of his manhood, he was immune from the animosity shown towards Rachel.
Last year I bumped into Rachel, and she was still as beautiful as I remembered. She was visiting her relatives back in our village – something she hadn’t done in years. When I asked her why, she told me she doesn’t come home because she is tired of being reminded of the mistakes she made as a teenager. She was tired of taking the blame for a relationship that, in effect, amounted to statutory rape.
What happened to the man? He is still happily married and lives comfortably in our neighbourhood. After impregnating Rachel when she was in grade 10, he went on to date even younger girls. He continued with his life, as unbothered and callous as ever.
Rachel – who was just a girl at the time of their affair – continues to be insulted and shamed, whereas he moved on swiftly and violated other girls. Rachel is one of the many girls who live with the trauma and backlash of statutory rape.
When I read about Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s three-year programme to “wean” schoolgirls off sugar daddies, aimed at reducing new HIV infections and teenage pregnancies, I remembered Rachel and how society failed to protect her.
His plan is good and noble, but the language used concerns me. Why do we think it is young women and girls who need the skills to avoid being exploited by sinister men? When will the focus be on these men, who prey on vulnerable young women? When will we stop letting them get away with it? When will these men be shamed for their actions?
Earlier this week, the hashtag #AntiBlessers was trending on Twitter. Unfortunately, it was not trending because people were calling out blessers (wealthy, probably married, men who date younger women), but because a woman who had just graduated tweeted: “#AntiBlessers. When young women are busy searching for blessers, we out here. Goal achieved!!!”
In less than 140 characters, this woman completely absolved the men in these “blesser” relationships of any responsibility – and slut-shamed the women.
Blessers and men like the one who pursued Rachel are never discussed. We do not chastise them or call them out; they are not shamed for using money to lure young women. In fact, in many cases, they are rewarded for their actions by gaining social capital. Men such as Kenny Kunene, who exploited young women and now slut-shames them, publicly weigh in on the issue of blessers.
I grew up with my mother warning me against taxi drivers. She would tell me how they would try to lure me in with their top-of-the-range sound systems. These drivers would constantly prey on schoolgirls, attempting to entice us with KFC or pocket money. To protect me from these taxi drivers, my mother made sure I used skofo – a privately hired taxi that collected us from school – until my matric year.
I grew up in an area where older men were always on the prowl for young girls. Schoolgirls would date men who worked in the mines and at the factories, because they would give them pocket money to buy “nice things” – in Rachel’s case, and other instances, basic necessities such as toiletries and food for their families. We shake our heads at these girls but turn a blind eye to the deeds of the men, who are nothing more than sexual predators.