Blesser culture is a new face for an old danger: relationships where the power balance is out of whack, with men typically using their wealth or status to control and manipulate younger, often poorer, more vulnerable women.
Women have agency and choice over their bodies and sexuality, but how much of blesser culture is choice and how much of it are predators preying on the financially vulnerable? A blesser is ‘anyone who supports you financially, but you don’t have a say based on your requirements or need,’ says Adeline Moagi of People Opposing Women Abuse. Your blesser may pay for your phone bill, your rent, or get you the latest designer handbag, but then uses that to exert control over you. Blessers may start controlling what you wear, when you’re available, and when you have sex – and how.
South African women, especially women of colour, are in a marginalised group where employment, education and access are major issues affecting empowerment. Blessers provide a way out of poverty and an opportunity for security and safety – at a price. ‘Abuse by blessers looks like the blesser cares about the way you look and what you say – but actually it’s just a control method,’ says Lebogang Motsumi, an HIV activist, sexual-health advocate and founder of Umzala Positive Network.
Blessers and blessees often juggle multiple partners at the same time. Add that to having unprotected sex, and STIs and HIV spread like wildfire. The conversation around wearing condoms becomes difficult if you ‘owe’ sex to a blessser because he’s paid your rent. (FYI: you always have a right to safe sex, and never owe sex to anyone.) ‘You don’t even want to talk condoms, or the guy will think you’re promiscuous,’ says Motsumi. ‘You know you should, but he’s in control of the sex: when you have it, how you have it.’
In a country where about seven-million people live with HIV, with women aged 15 to 19 eight times more likely to become HIV-positive than men of the same age, it’s difficult not to link blesser culture with HIV infection rates.
Take back your control
‘Blessers use money to control young women – they use their power to belittle you,’ says Motsumi. ‘Financial abuse centres on you not being able to make your own choices.’ Motsumi speaks from experience – she spent years in blesser relationships before finally breaking free. ‘I tell girls who I work with that, while I can’t impose on them how I think they should behave, I hope they’ll learn from my experiences,’ she says. ‘It’s important to talk about relationships and sexual health.
‘The trouble with being in a relationship with a blesser is that you lose yourself: you’re living according to someone else’s rules. There will always be someone younger who is ready to “replace” you. And a blesser won’t think twice before moving on. What remains? You! Don’t forget yourself or your wellbeing. No amount of expensive girls will replace a genuinely loving relationship.’
The Domestic Violence Act
The Domestic Violence Act recognises multiple forms of abuse. Blesser relationships may seem consensual, but abuse isn’t just physical. It’s emotional, psychological, sexual, verbal and financial. If you’re being abused by a blesser and want a way out, reach out.
Open a criminal case: go to your nearest police station and report your abuse
Apply for protection: while your abuser is under investigation, you can open a protection order to create distance from your abuser
You’re not alone
Get in touch with organisations dedicated to supporting survivors of abuse who can help you make informed decisions that keep you safe.
- Call 10111
Legal Aid Advice Line (free)
- Call 0800 110 110 (toll-free) or the Please Call Me service through 079 835 7179
- They will also be able to tell you which Legal Aid office is closest to your location
- Dial *134*7355
People Opposed to Women Abuse (POWA)
- 011 642 4345/6
Sonke Gender Justice
- o11 339 3589
- 021 423 7088
Read more about abuse and our #KnowYourRights campaign