A number of studies have found that African women engage in transactional sex which can be defined as “non-commercial, non-marital sexual relationships motivated by the implicit assumption that sex will be exchanged for material support or other benefits”.
An analysis of 339 research articles on the nature and motivations for women’s participation in transactional sex in sub-Saharan Africa has identified three types of transactional sex; ‘sex for basic needs’, ‘sex for improved social status’, and ‘sex and material expressions of love’. It is worthwhile noting that transactional sex is seen as distinct from commercial sex work—in which the exchange is explicit and sex is immediately remunerated.
In terms of sex for basic needs, women and girls are vulnerable victims who have little choice, but to exchange sex for money, food, or other material support as a result of their economic and social marginalisation. Attention is given to gender inequality, women’s economic dependence on men, and the different impact of economic changes on men and women. For example, in contexts where many men are absent due to labour migration, women are described as using multiple sexual partnerships to get hold of resources.
This approach also emphasises women’s lack of power in sexual relationships and describes women as victims of men’s privileged status. To tackle this kind of transactional sex, HIV prevention efforts could seek to develop economic empowerment or provide financial resources, so as to reduce women’s economic dependency on men.
“Sex for improved social status” is when young women wish to differentiate themselves from poorer people or feel peer pressure to have a lifestyle similar to that of wealthier friends. In these scenarios, women’s roles are as active, sometimes powerful, agents in transactional relationships—women use their erotic power to charm wealthier men and get hold of resources. Some locally used expressions imply that it is the woman who is in control—she is “milking the cow”, “de-toothing” or “skinning the goat”. But often when women have entered into a relationship, women may have little say over when sex takes place or whether condoms are used.
This type of transactional sex suggests that the small micro-loans or cash transfer interventions such as that used to prevent ‘sex for basic needs’ may not provide enough cash to meet women’s consumer needs. Prevention programs that target ‘sex for improved social status’ should work with women to help them influence safer sex.
‘Sex and material expressions of love—men sometimes offer gifts not necessarily as exploitative, but as expressing commitment. “How would I know he likes me if he does not buy me nice things?” asked one Ugandan woman in a study. The idea that ‘real men’ provide for their girlfriends and wives.
Interventions that target ‘sex and material expressions of love’ would address fundamental gendered belief systems, especially those that position women as sexually subordinate to men who provide material support. n