The right kind of sex

The feminine ideal and transactional sex: navigating respectability and risk in Swaziland.

Fielding-Miller R, Dunkle KL, Jama-Shai N, Windle M, Hadley C, Cooper HL. Soc Sci Med. 2016 Apr 7;158:24-33. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.04.005. [Epub ahead of print]

Women who engage in transactional sex are not only at increased risk of HIV and intimate partner violence, but also face social risks including gossip and ostracism. These social and physical risks may be dependent on both what a woman expects and needs from her partner and how her community perceives the relationship. Gender theory suggests that some of these social risks may hinge on whether or not a woman's relationship threatens dominant masculinity. We conducted a qualitative study in Swaziland from September 2013 to October 2014 to explore transactional sex and respectable femininity through the lens of hegemonic gender theory. Using cultural consensus modeling, we identified cultural models of transactional sex and conducted 16 in-depth interviews with model key informants and 3 focus group discussions, for a total of 41 participants. We identified 4 main models of transactional relationships: One typified by marriage and high social respectability, a second in which women aspire towards marriage, a third particular to University students, and a fourth "sugar daddy" model. Women in all models expected and received significant financial support from their male partners. However, women in less respectable relationships risked social censure and stigma if they were discovered, in part because aspects of their relationship threatened hegemonic masculinity. Conversely, women who received male support in respectable relationships had to carefully select HIV risk reduction strategies that did not threaten their relationship and associated social status. Research and programming efforts typically focus only on the less socially respectable forms of transactional sex. This risks reinforcing stigma for women in relationships that are already considered socially unacceptable while ignoring the unique HIV risks faced by women in more respectable relationships.

Abstract access [1]

Editor’s notes: Adolescent girls and young women are at a disproportionate risk of HIV infection when compared to their male counterparts. Transactional sex is associated with gendered HIV vulnerability in sub-Saharan Africa and is also associated with intimate partner violence. While economic exchange is present in many relationships, adolescent girls and young women are required to navigate a line between acceptable and unacceptable economic dependence. This line is further complicated by the fact that in much of the world, the notion of ‘men as providers’ is considered the norm. 

The findings illustrate, as with previous research, that women’s economic dependence in relationships was seen to be a risk. So too was social pressure. Women whose relationships manifested an emphasised femininity used health protection strategies that did not jeopardise their relationship (for example always being sexually available) so as to maintain their social and economic stability. Health protection strategies of women, whose relationship was deemed less acceptable, were more mixed.  They may have been less able to negotiate condom use or sexual encounters if they were financially dependent on their partners. But they may also have been more willing to leave a partner or demand condom use. Women who were ‘too independent’ were condemned and stigmatised by community members because of their threat to male dominance.  Programmes designed to reduce risk associated with transactional sex may have greater impact if they focus on the power dynamics created by gender norms. This may be more effective than focusing on the exchange of gifts or money within a relationship. It is important to pay careful attention to local understandings and interpretation of women’s financial, sexual and romantic obligations. We also need to understand women’s motivations for entering or remaining in sexual relationships.

Africa [6]
Swaziland [7]
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