Swapping sex for a degree in Uganda

July 30, 2016

Over the last few years, there has been a flurry of media stories and commentaries regarding the “sugar professor” phenomenon, much of it self-generated for publicity reasons by tabloids and dark web sites.Sugar professors or sugar daddies and to a lesser extent sugar mummies are wealthy older people seeking a mutually beneficial arrangement with a younger person. Increasingly, it has become common to hear stories of students who are turning to these sites to fund the cost of a university degree.To date, the media commentary has been mostly of the titillating kind, sometimes with pseudo polls to gauge public reaction and generate debate. Depending on the commentator’s ideology, swapping sex for education is either proof of the increasing amorality of modern culture, or of the harsh economic reality of living in a knowledge economy.But, beyond the headlines, what is really going on?Of course using sugar daddies or mummies to fund a degree has happened, and will happen. The question becomes one of degree. Let’s take the example of the University of Makerere in Uganda, which reportedly has 400 students profiled on a site, making it the number one Uganda university for new signups on the dark web. According to the most recent government data, the University of Makerere has over 20,000 students. So if the number in the article is correct, only a quarter of 2% of students have signed up.It’s a fair assumption that most, if not all, of the signups are female, making it approaching half of 1% of women still a very small number.But it is approximately four times the rate of the overall incidence of sex workers in Kampala which is approximately one tenth of 1% according to the Ministry of Health study published last year.Still, student populations have vastly disproportionate numbers of young adults compared to the general population, so the data is massively skewed. Now take out those students who signed up for a dare, or on an impulse and have no intention of following through.Also take out those who signed up for reasons other than paying for education, but just happen to be a university student at Makerere or Kyambogo University.

The point here am trying to make is that the real number of students swapping sex for education is very, very small in Uganda.Still, these people are very, very visible. Ugandans share so much information about themselves nowadays, it’s easy to find out just about anything about anyone.So we have to differentiate between increased incidence and increased reporting.Those fellow millennials out there know that back in the days, there were few people who took up sex work to cover the cost of living during their education. Theirs was a secret they shared to only a handful of close friends.Nowadays, Ugandans like that are more visible because it’s easier to find them, or their statistic, on the web. And of course, the actual sites offering the services heavily promote media coverage, both good and bad, for commercial reasons.The language the Ugandan media uses doesn’t help the debate especially the Red Pepper and Kamunye newspapers.A conversation about sex workers, tuition fees, cost of living and cultural and sexual politics sells more copies when you add in the “ick” factor of references to sugar daddies and sugar babies in Uganda. It also doesn’t hurt to include a photos.It’s hard to have an intelligent conversation on that sort of playing field.But this conversation could be an intelligent one if Ugandans tried.First, the Ugandan media needs to stop drawing causative relationships between the cost of education and sex work, until an empirical study explicitly shows rising costs in education are causing more people to enter this industry.And second, stop trivialising the real issue of social injustice in higher education by focusing on titillating stories such as these. Each day thousands of children are born in Uganda into socio-economic circumstances that set additional barriers in their way to gaining a university education.I feel that Uganda need to have serious discussions about this, not about salacious side issues.That is not to say that this issue is not worthy of discussion. When it comes to my views, i trust folks with relevant expertise in gender and sexual exploitation, morality and ethics, to contribute to the debate and know they will do it to a far higher standard than has been done to date.

Contador Harrison