Transactional Sex: Women, Poverty and AIDS

Written by Daniella Choi

Last summer, I gave a series of sex education seminars to Tanzanian adolescents in the Kilimanjaro region. One of the groups that I worked with was a group of girls in their late teens and early twenties who were in a vocational training program.

One day, I planned to do an exercise presenting various ways to “sema hapana”- refuse requests for sex. I prepared the typical phrases such as “if you love me, you would not force me to sleep with you,” and expected similar responses from the girls. I asked two girls to demonstrate how a guy would approach a girl. After the usual compliments about the appearance, one girl immediately said “I will give you ‘gifti’, a phone, a nice dress, some money if you have sex with me.” Later in our discussion about contraceptives, the same girl said “if my boyfriend asks me to have sex without condom, I will do it without it.” The general consensus was that the condom use is not at the female’s discretion.

Transactional sex, sexual intercourse driven by material exchanges, is quite common in sub-Saharan Africa. A study done in Mwanza, Tanzania found that 75% of sexually active teenage girls received a gift or money at their first intercourse.  The figure decreased slightly to 70% concerning the most recent sexual intercourse (Wamoyi et al. 2010). Women use the value of gifts to measure love and commitment and men use the women’s willingness to have sex to measure love. When a man gives a woman a gift, she is expected to sleep with him. If he fails to “complete what he wants,” he faces social taunting among his peers that he is not a ‘real man’ (Maganja et al., 2007).

Of course transactional sex is not limited to low-income countries. Even in the richest parts of the world, people exchange sex for luxury goods and a sense of security. In poor regions with high HIV prevalence rates like sub-Saharan Africa, however, transactional sex poses an even higher threat to one’s wellbeing and health because the chance of HIV infection is greater. Women are especially at risk. In sub-Saharan Africa, 74% of young people aged 15-24 years living with HIV are female (UNFPA 2006). In addition to being biologically more susceptible to HIV infection than men, women’s disenfranchised status in society heightens the risk of contracting HIV. When sex is directly exchanged for money or other resources, women can lose the ability to negotiate safe sex or sexual exclusivity in both committed and casual relationships.

Seeking material goods, young women engage in sexual relationships with older men, a population with a high prevalence of HIV. Nancy Luke found that men in Kisumu, Kenya practice unsafe sex “in those partnerships that combine large age and economic disparities” (Luke 2005). Out of 1,052 men interviewed and 1,614 partnerships studied, the mean age difference between nonmarital sex partners was 5.5 years. A 2007 study in Uganda found that a majority of girls have sex to pay for school fees and supplies and mothers encourage girls to do so (Jones and Norton, 2007).

Women’s economic vulnerability is at the heart of the matter. In The Invisible Cure, Helen Epstein writes that sex has often become the only currency in places of dire poverty. Of total students enrolled in higher education, only 17% were girls in Tanzania (Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, 2006). In an economy with little formal employment opportunities for the uneducated, women’s chances of being financially stable are slim.

Without proper education, many girls get married at a young age. The lack of access to and control over household income leads many women to engage in transactional sex to cover both emergency and discretionary costs. A recent study by Jonathan Robinson and Ethan Yeh on “Transactional Sex as a Response to Risk in Western Kenya,” found that women were more likely to seek casual sex for money on the days when a household member falls sick. The greater the financial strains that one faces, the riskier the sex that she would accept.  Not only were they more likely to have sex  with casual partners, but the probabilities of having unprotected sex and anal sex increased by 19.1% and 21.2 % respectively to meet the medical expenses. Unprotected anal sex is one of the most high-risk sexual activities for HIV transmission for both the insertive and the receptive partner. 

Transactional sex due to poverty dramatically increases the risk of HIV infection, which further debilitates women’s economic prospect. In addition to the existing HIV/AIDS interventions such as behavioral change, contraceptive promotion, and ARV treatments, a renewed focus on economic empowerment is necessary. When women are financially independent, the need to use sex as currency or tolerate sexual infidelity is reduced. Economic empowerment can start from small steps. Providing school supplies and uniforms for girls, lending microloans to women to generate income, and making formal banking possible for low-income women to encourage institutional saving are effective ways to change the circumstances that drive women to put themselves at risk of engaging in transactional sex.  

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