Although “gym life” is a microcosm of life in general, it is nevertheless one that is constrained by a restricted milieu and populated by overactive people on overdose of dopamine, testosterone and estrogen. Gym workouts have more to do with the mundane issues of life and with the travails of life in ways that is more than what many people expect it to be (health and beauty-consciousness). As men with big bulky muscles jutting out of their T-shirts secrete tons of pheromones, these chemical substances find its way to cognate receptors on sweaty women who exude the attractive features of femininity. A “romantic attraction bug” is inevitably set in motion. And so it was nothing out of the ordinary when the gym instructor beamed with a wide smile to tell me that a woman in the gym says she is attracted to me.
“Who, me? I acted surprised. “Get out of here! I’m just an old man minding my own business.”
“No, you’re not old and yes, it’s you she wants. I’m just the messenger, passing on news-worthy information that demands a good follow-up,” he countered.
“OK let her meet with me after her work-out in front of the gym.” I finally acknowledged his message just to get him off my back.
I was surprised to see her as the secret admirer. Medium height and light-skinned with a pleasant face and a bright grin that seems to be permanently fixed on her face. But she was barely 1-2 years older than my eldest daughter as assessed observationally. Jesus Christ, how does this scenario work itself out, I wondered? My goodness! How does one engage in an adult conversation with a young girl whose only connection with you seemed to be genuine infatuation? How do you start this relationship and how do you sustain and nurture it and how do you end it? Importantly, how do you tell her: “no” go look for someone your own age without bruising her developing fragile self-image?
“I’ve studied you for sometime. With a body like yours, who needs hair? (I am bald and her opening salvo was a compliment). You don’t look like one of the muscle-bound woman-beaters you find in gyms pretending to be “cool.” I hear you lecture at Tech. Good job with lots of prestige and money.” She spoke like a pro and it unsettled me momentarily.
“So what’s your story with this attraction thing, young lady?” I moved straight to the business at hand, as my mind scrambled to look for polite excuses to deploy to get rid of her. “I recognize the age disparity, and really young woman, are you genuinely attracted to me?”
“No, I am not.” She spoke in an abrupt monotone that irritated me.
“What? Yet you want a romantic relationship with me nonetheless?”
“Yes, I do.”
“So what’s in this unconventional relationship for you?”
“Finished high school 4 years ago. Didn’t get anyone to financially support my higher education. I’ve been just stuck in limbo for the past 3 years, unable to go to the university because I simply can’t afford it and unable to find a job either with my high school certificate. So here is the thing: you pay my fees for the university and you provide my supplies for school in exchange for sex, for comfort and for good conversation that simply affirms whatever you say, big man.”
She was blunt and cogent and did not show any emotion as she explained her position. My initial expectations that her age will simply clothe her in an armor of innocence evaporated as she began to expound on her proposal with a philosophical bent.
“Hmmh, interesting proposition. But you understand what you’re saying is accepting payment for sex.” I had no philosophical argument against her position. Just some distorted morality mishmash.
“No it’s not prostitution but just stubborn practicality. Can call it whatever you want but will provide services that you probably need and you take care of my financial needs. Simple, sincere and straightforward transaction that should have no associated guilt.”
“Looks like an attractive proposal. The need is there but I decline your offer.”
“Hear you’re a Bible thumper. Is your refusal due to the Bible’s admonition that sex between unmarried people is sinful?”
“I decline your proposal not on Biblical grounds and not on Christian principles but based on Ghanaian socio-cultural ethics. “ I lied. “You’re the age of my daughter and it creeps me out to think of any possible relationship besides mentoring! Already, I feel like a dirty old man talking to you about sex.”
“You know what they say that age is just a number. Age disparity should not be the limiting factor to a relationship of goodwill, of understanding, of purpose and of strict reciprocity. If it helps, just pretend that the relationship is not a transaction. Works out just fine when viewed as a “mutually beneficial relationships” enterprise.”
Its odd when a woman is the instigator of a relationship and odder when that woman is very young. I could not be persuaded by a reasoning I do not like and so I shifted gears and proceeded to lecture her as if she were an errant student in my class.
“How much of the things we value in life, of immeasurable qualitative values have not been corrupted by transactional models from modern society. Honesty is corrupted by transactional antics; courage soiled by transactional ambivalence. And whatever happened to plutonic relationships that are built on deep kingship of mind or on kindred spirits or on uncorrupted love. What about loyalty for its own sake and for the sake of those who stand with you in hour of need out of a sense of our shared humanity. What about those who stick by you through thick and thin without the expectation of monetary rewards? What about that kind of love young lady. Whatever happened to unvarnished love as a basis for a romantic relationship?” I could tell by her gestures that I wasn’t gaining traction with my many “whataboutisms.”
“What’s love got to do with this proposal? She snapped back. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that knocks love off its high pedestal. Love can develop as the relationship progresses but the relationship can be sustained without such sentimentalities as love. All it needs is a new understanding of life perspectives that is infused with current dynamics of human interactions. Man is ……..”
She was upfront and unapologetic about her views and her intentions were direct and certain and that scared me. And there was a beautiful thoroughness about her clean-faced frankness. She would have continued this line of thinking in the conversation if I had not interrupted her with abrupt finality.
“I am very surprised by your views but I understand your position. Sometimes necessity forces one to place financial concerns above emotional and social health. But no, I am not attracted to your nihilistic philosophy of life. I am rather attracted to your attitude — your willingness to do all that it takes to get higher education. But in your telling, whatever happened to all these high-minded ideals that were inculcated in me as a young man and that I once cherished as a young man zealous for service for humanity? Of love, of courage, of sacrifice, and of respect? Maybe I’m being an old-fashioned morality freak whose sense of perspective has long been abandoned by a society that has lost its innocence about wealth, about sex, about power and about corruption.” I hit my stride in my morality crusade and wouldn’t let her slip in a word. I had forgotten that prevention of the expression of uncomfortable thoughts wouldn’t force the idea to go away; it will merely cause it to lay dormant temporarily.
Certainly, she would have continued to stake her original position in the conversation and that stance would have returned us to the intractability of transactional sex and reminded us of the familiar playbook of our current socio-cultural and political climate. That socio-cultural relationship is -quid pro quo-you wash my back and I wash your back culture. Preachers’ fixations on illicit sex do no justice to the comprehensiveness of such transactional culture. “Return to the idealized past in which Ghana’s traditional chastity of women was unquestioned,” they would preach loudly. We don’t have to retreat into easy condemnations of transactional sex from the pulpit. I understand our attachment to those “good old days.” But these are not the times for sentimentalities that do little concrete action of mitigation. Because overwhelmingly, rather than restore that social conservatism, modern society has now discredited it. The staples of Ghana’s social and religious conservatism have become hard to sustain as economic arguments overshadow cultural and religious conservatism. This story of that awakening of “economic” arguments over “socio-cultural and religious” offers a guide as well as a warning. And this story of this young woman is probably representative of the deviations from the socio-cultural norms that previously defined inter-personal relationships in Ghanaian cities. Seen from the perspective of a critic life has become a perfect cornucopia of transactional relationships.
Everything is now for sale and every saleable item has a price. So you can get the item, the idea, the thought, the service if the price is alright for you-that is if it is within your range of affordability. A mother is no longer the woman who went through labor and experienced the pangs of childbirth but it is the woman who paid the surrogate to incubate her embryo to the end of gestation. As for a father, the least said about it the better. Sperms are worth a “pesewas a litre in sperm-banks.”
Is my mentorship of students transactional-although unexpressed in monetary terms? Do I expect that students will readily run errands for me because I teach them? Have I exploited my influence on students as a lecturer in any way that can be remotely perceived as being tilted towards the satisfaction of my immediate needs within a transactional equation? Ghanaians now seem to be performing a relationship with multiple transactional links rather than being in a relationship built and sustained on common core values and common ideals.
Oh, how easy it is to descend into a purely transactional relationship rather than a relationship based on core, shared values. Romantic relationships that are purely transactional have lost its “surprise factor” and the cliché about the unfathomable mysteries that once shrouded whom lovers will embrace has lost its meaning. Purely transactional relationships are transient with no emotional attachment and with no compelling commitment and yet provide sex on demand. With no social pressure to force adherents to conform and behave acceptably, it is easy to walk away from it anytime anywhere. And some young people now prefer to restrict themselves to such purely transactional relationship where other parties are viewed solely in transactional terms. But sooner or later people may find out that a purely transactional approach to relationship is unsustainable in this increasingly interdependent world.
The dictionary definition of a transactional relationship as “a relationship where both (or all) parties are in it for themselves, and where partners do things for each other with the expectation of reciprocation” belies the fact that the “pay-back” may take a form distinct from the original favor. But expect the “pay-back” because it has to come for the engine of the relationship to keep whirring.
Using transactional models of relationships, scientists have now acknowledged that some human interactions that are transactional have underlying biological basis: secreted neuroendocrine factors act as mediators of the transactional links. Such secreted factors (mostly cortisol) are responsible for the stress and behavioral challenges that are induced during/under transactional influences. Simply put, transactional relationships lead to substantial stress and Ghanaians who engage in transactional sex are particularly vulnerable to its emotional devastating impact and to other adverse health outcomes. But understanding the full trajectory of transactional influences under the variety of social stressors and within our culturally acceptable scenarios will inform not only the biology but will also offer remedial preventive interventions that will ensure that girls achieve their academic potential without having to resort to transactional sex.
The young lady’s dilemma was a classic chicken and egg story. Attainment of higher education may provide economic empowerment and obviate the need for transactional sex. But attaining her higher education goal is causally linked to engagement in transactional sex. Such transactional paths are pretty consistent across several countries in our sub-region where primarily young girls depend on it for their material and financial survival. As Ghana progresses into modernity, cultural and economic acculturation pressures from modern society that continues to sadly turn money into the measure of all value, and inexorably reduce some human relationships into a monetary transaction needs mitigation. But how?
Nevertheless, transactional sex remains a culturally sensitive issue that cannot be simply legislated away nor preached away by fire-brand Pastors and Imams. It’s with us for the foreseeable future. But just acceptance of it as a fact of life is not a good option either? How do you change attitudes toward transactional sex? Few ponderous questions that may guide you towards answers: how many old men-young girls transactional processes support girls’ future career goals and how many are just plain-old sexual exploitation? Is transactional sex just OK if it is beneficial to the girl? Doesn’t caution tell young women that life risked on older men in transactional sexual relationships are wasteful? Can we create jobs for the girl child who is contemplating a transactional sexual relationship? Are there other avenues aimed at preventing the multiple problematic financial, physical and emotional health outcomes for the girl child who is contemplating transactional sex? Can we secure reliable external family-based interventions, if the nuclear family of the girl child is delinquent? Actionable answers are tough to come by, particularly incisive answers that go beyond the constant shouts from the pulpit about the consuming fire and the unmitigated fury of God to execute merciless judgement on the sinful.
I wonder what Jesus would have said if transactional relationships had wide prevalence during his time on earth. In King James English rendering, Jesus’ comments would have read something like this: “Ye have heard them say that scratch my back and I will scratch your back; wash my back and I’ll wash yours. Verily, verily I say unto you, when someone scratches your back, simply say thank you and when someone washes your back, just say God bless you for freely you have received and anything more than that is not from your heavenly father.”
We were unable to meet each other’s gaze as our conversation concluded abruptly. We walked away from each other with our heads bowed in reciprocal humiliation. She was probably humiliated for propositioning a father figure whose stubborn Christian guilt and tenacious social ambivalence about modern trends of relationship prevented him from seeing her position as a practical, almost virtuous choice and I felt humiliated for contemplating the possibility of having guilt-free, responsibility-free, commitment-free sex with a young woman whose firm and well-toned body titillated my groin. At the end of it all, when all is said and done, I couldn’t loose that kind of old-fashioned Christian guilt of commission that was drummed incessantly into my eardrums by austere Preachers in Churches. I think many Christians will probably guiltily understand this position.