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Love for Trade: the Transactional World of Modern Dating

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine persistently urged me to entertain a man’s advances solely because of his wealth and generosity. Financial cushioning was paramount. She completely disregarded my lack of attraction for him.


“Look at the things he’s doing for you; he’ll do even more when you date him,” she said.


Transactional expectations in romance appear to have intensified, fueled by social media, pop culture, and the realm of online dating. Music by Chris Brown, Wizkid, and Davido portrays women trading sex, attention, and accessibility for the promise of a man’s money, lavish lifestyle, or financial advancement. And while social networks abound with  slut-shaming and dehumanizing accusations of gold-digging, it also contains women who assert that a man should feel embarrassed to flirt with them if he can’t or won’t help with bills. 

The people in this story know the drill. Kalisha, a project manager based in Ibadan, Nigeria, recounts her ex-boyfriend demanding the return of every dime he spent while they dated. She relented after his endless pestering and threats turned the breakup into a financial reckoning.


“This includes the gifts he’d bought me, or their monetary value. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t,” she says. “I made a spreadsheet documenting everything he’d ever spent on me, put in some extra just in case I missed anything, and I sent it back to him. I’d never felt so awful.” 


“After we had sex, he got me a laptop.”

Duncan, a teacher and data analyst in Accra, Ghana, says he feels pushed to provide material things just to maintain attention and affection.


“She’d casually mention she was in … need of something, and I’d feel this pressure to get it. It’s a very masculine expectation … as ‘the man in her life.’”


“That’s the ‘love-buying’ stage,” says Teddy, a Leeds, UK architect, and taking it for granted can quickly sink a relationship.


“My friend broke up with his woman because she became emotionally distant when he went from financially OK to broke. He’d won her attention with the promise of a materialistic, high-end lifestyle, but when times got hard, he couldn’t keep up. ... Society tells men, ‘You are not deserving of love, if you don’t have money.’”


As financial favors begin to rack up on one end of the relationship, sexual pressure mounts on the other.


Siobhan, a  writer living in Lagos, Nigeria, says her boyfriend was a quick spender. She barely spent a dime during the relationship, but it wasn’t long before comments like, “I can’t be in a relationship without sex” began to crop up. 


“At some point, I felt like I had to have sex with him because he was spending so much on me,” Siobhan says. “So, I did.” 


The two eventually did fall in love, but initially, Siobhan says it came off as an ugly swap. “After we had sex, he got me a laptop. The whole thing felt transactional.”

Ibifubara Davies

Psychologist and mental health expert Ibifubara Davies points out that money carries a negative connotation, even though relationships are, by nature, deeply transactional, and always have been.


“When one hears, ‘transactional nature of modern relationships’ what comes to mind is money and material things. [But] it’s usually expected of women to contribute the bulk of the domestic labor, emotional heavy lifting, and even child-care in relationships. There’s no negativity attached to that, yet these are all forms of exchange.”


Davies says partners in a healthy relationship free of resentment see themselves as equals regardless of education or exchanges. “It’s … important to be with people who do not view money as love or proof of love,” Davies says. “Money … can sometimes buy the tools to show kindness and consideration, but it can’t buy intangible things that help a relationship thrive, such as kindness and consideration.”


“Relationships have always had a transactional element throughout history,” says Alice Child, a sexologist who has written for sexual wellness platform SheSpot. “Think of dowries, arranged marriages, marriages of convenience, or the spoken or unspoken agreement—whether by choice or by societal norm—one partner [is often] the breadwinner and the other the child rearer.”


Child says values surrounding relationships, monogamy, and dating are constantly evolving, and certain relationship arenas can indeed feel more transactional. Online dating is blatant in the way matches and interactions are much quicker and superficial. People often set their filters to shallow, fatphobic, and racist standards. “Height, ethnicity, physical appearance. Even filtering by income or profession is transactional; you are filtering people by their perceived lifestyle or finances, not their personality or potential for romantic connection,” she says.


What feels ‘transactional’ to one couple can feel like ‘a joyful shared life’ to another, she added, however. And some of the more traditional methods aren’t exactly perfect. Many people still hold outdated views on sex, gender, and dating, including expecting the man to pay for dinner. This, Child warns, is just another form of transaction, but with a sharp hook: the buying of a woman’s time and attention. This can easily lead to non-consensual developments. If the relationship continues down that path, it could mature into a lopsided partnership with most of the financial power accumulating at one end.


“Financial abuse is a real danger,” Child says, and she urged women to know what they want to put into a relationship and what they’re looking for in return. “What does a healthy, happy, loving relationship look like for you? What truly matters most? Focus on those, rather than what society has told you matters.”


Davies added that the transactional slant of relationships doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially for women.


“It’s merely perceived [as transactional] because of monetary pressures that often fall on men, and because of unmet expectations from both men and women,” she says.


Not that the old ways are perfect for men, either: “[M]en aren’t seen as enough, if they’re not having or not constantly giving money. Patriarchal culture, childhood upbringing, and even self-esteem may play a hand in this,” Davis says. “…Relationships work best when everyone shows their hands, and expectations are communicated at the onset.”




Shalom Esene is a journalist with works appearing in Black Ballad, Lolwe, OkayAfrica, and elsewhere. She emerged runner-up in the Abebi Inaugural Award for Afro-nonfiction for her essay ‘Untimely’, and won AMAKA Studio’s creator grant for her essay ‘Time to Address the Eldest African Daughter Syndrome’. She lives in Nigeria.


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