Negotiating the price for safe sex: A study among rural sex workers in Zimbabwe

The price of sex: condom use and the determinants of the price of sex among female sex workers in eastern Zimbabwe.

Elmes J, Nhongo K, Ward H, Hallett T, Nyamukapa C, White PJ, Gregson S. J Infect Dis. 2014 Dec 1;210 Suppl 2:S569-78. doi: 10.1093/infdis/jiu493.

Background: Higher prices for unprotected sex threaten the high levels of condom use that contributed to the decline in Zimbabwe's human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic. To improve understanding of financial pressures competing against safer sex, we explore factors associated with the price of commercial sex in rural eastern Zimbabwe.

Methods: We collected and analyzed cross-sectional data on 311 women, recruited during October-December 2010, who reported that they received payment for their most-recent or second-most-recent sex acts in the past year. Zero-inflated negative binomial models with robust standard errors clustered on female sex worker (FSW) were used to explore social and behavioral determinants of price.

Results: The median price of sex was $10 (interquartile range [IQR], $5-$20) per night and $10 (IQR, $5-$15) per act. Amounts paid in cash and commodities did not differ significantly. At the most-recent sex act, more-educated FSWs received 30%-74% higher payments. Client requests for condom use significantly predicted protected sex (P < .01), but clients paid on average 42.9% more for unprotected sex.

Conclusions: Within a work environment where clients' preferences determine condom use, FSWs effectively use their individual capital to negotiate the terms of condom use. Strengthening FSWs' preferences for protected sex could help maintain high levels of condom use.

Abstract  Full-text [free] access

Editor’s notes: This study addresses a relatively neglected issue of how payments for commercial sex among rural sex workers are determined, and which factors are important to price negotiations. In this study from Zimbabwe, the participants were grouped into “more professional”, both the last two clients were commercial, (FSW2) and “less professional”, one of the last two clients was commercial (FSW1). The “more professional” sex workers effectively negotiated transactions, with unprotected sex increasing the mean payment by almost a half, compared with protected sex. This differential pricing was not seen for the “less professional” sex workers, perhaps reflecting limited capacity to negotiate with clients. This study demonstrates the importance of strengthening preferences for protected sex, among female sex workers, including among less visible sex workers. Such strategies may include enhancing social capital and collective action, e.g. collective price-fixing to reduce competitive pressure to engage in unsafe sex. 

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