The murder of a pregnant 26-year-old woman in southwestern Kenya has sparked heated debate over sponsor relationships — known in South Africa as blesser relationships — or, more technically, transactional sex relationships.
Sharon Otieno, a second-year student at Rongo University, had allegedly been in a relationship with Okoth Obado, the married governor of Migori county, for several months. Though she expressed doubt that he would support Sharon and the child, Otieno’s mother confirmed the paternity of the baby.
Otieno and Barack Oduor — a journalist from Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper — had arranged to meet Obado’s personal assistant, Michael Oyamo, to get Obado’s side of a story implicating him in a love-triangle.
It is unclear what took place during the meeting with Oyamo but it is alleged that soon after the meeting, the pair was abducted. Oduor managed to escape but Otieno was driven away to an unknown location. Her corpse was discovered in a forest on September 5, riddled with stab wounds.
Across Kenya, news of Otieno’s murder sparked an outcry.
However, while there is widespread anger over her death and sympathy towards Otieno and her family, some Kenyans have appointed themselves judge, jury and executioner on the basis of the “shameful” circumstances which they believe led to her death.
Transactional sex occurs in diverse contexts, motivated by various factors, and is influenced by gendered socioeconomic and cultural factors. To understand the phenomenon of transactional sex and how to curb it, these different contextual factors need to be considered.
Otieno’s harrowing death has highlighted consensual transactional relationships and shone a spotlight on the very fraught and uncomfortable relationship we have with the truth. Our preference of showing the polished versions of our lives while demonising those who are trying to improve theirs through any means necessary, allows us to feel superior.
But, if we’re going to be honest, romantic relationships are, in their current state, transactional by nature. Whether it is money, status, companionship, acceptance or whatever else we deem valuable being traded in the confines of a “real” relationship.
For many African women sex is a bargaining chip from a very young age. Virginity, and the respectability and morality attached to it, is our first experience with the transactional nature of sex.
The discourse around sex is still heavily influenced by conservative Christian morality that emphasises procreative sex and places it in marriage.
According to this thinking, sex is not free, it should never be given away, it is “saved” for the right man and cashed in for the respectability of a white gown.
Women should be submissive and malleable and men ought to continuously purchase women’s affections through success and provision.Those who admit to this exchange, deviate from or actively seek it out are, to varying degrees, dehumanised and deserving of the violence meted out against them.
Otieno elicits derision from some quarters because she represents a deviation of what is “right” by having taken advantage of this patriarchal system.
Her post-mortem revictimisation is because, in lieu of the dutiful pretence of love and affection for her blesser, she had the audacity to own up to what it was with the evidence so prominently displayed by her pregnant belly. Even in death, Otieno is made a victim anew because she forgot “her place”.
Her death, I hope, was not in vain. Here, unfortunately, is a chance for Kenyans and the rest of the continent to admit to an age-old practice and to do away with the false piety of conservatism. It doesn’t matter what type of relationship Otieno chose to be in.
Transactional sex and relationships are often cited as a demonstration of how culturally normative the commodification and instrumentalisation of sex is in South Africa.
The “slay queen” misnomer and the scorn heaped upon women seldom crosses the paths of the men who enjoy the company of these women. These men and their role in these relationships is equally important in understanding why it continues to happen and the violence which may occur in these couplings.
For as long as there has been poverty or any other iteration of lack, “sugar babies”, “blessees” and “runs girls” have existed. This exchange is nothing new;mistresses, companions and blessees have existed for centuries, whether dressed in a bustier, Gucci’s double G, a [Japanese] nihongami wig or a school uniform.
Instead of railing against those who use their agency to create lives that we have drummed into them as being “acceptable”, should we not be focusing on the reasons these skewed relationships exist in the first place? Our misplaced anger means nothing if we don’t tackle the root causes of transactional relationships. Morality is, after all, a luxury, not a necessity for survival.