Not a member?     Existing members login below:

Research Transactional sex amongst young people in rural northern Tanzania: an ethnography of youn

Wamoyi et al. Reproductive Health 2010, 7:2
Page 2 of 18
exploit their partner(s)' [17], and no self-respecting
woman would have sex for free. Hunter argues that trans-
actional sex in KwaZulu-Natal is attributable to gendered
material inequalities, a particular construction of mascu-
linity, but also 'the agency of women themselves' [3],
while Leclerc-Madlala [18] argues that in Durban women
see transactional sex as a 'normal' part of sexual relation-
ships motivated to acquire the commodities of moder-
nity. A recent study contrasted policy makers' views of
transactional sex in rural Malawi, as driven by survival
needs, with the views of the rural women themselves,
who said that they are also motivated by attractive con-
sumer goods, passion and revenge [19]. In a review of
both quantitative and qualitative studies of age and eco-
nomic asymmetries in young women's sexual relation-
ships, Luke concluded that:
'girls have considerable negotiating power over cer-
tain aspects of sexual relationships with older men,
including partnership formation and continuation;
however, they have little control over sexual practices
within partnerships, including condom use and vio-
lence.' [10] (pg 67).
As de Zalduondo and Bernard have argued, attributing
transactional sex to economic adversity:
'implies an apology for sexual-economic exchange
where none is needed. ....The inference that all
instances of sexual-economic exchange are inherently
demeaning (and thus probably involuntary) seems to
underlie an undifferentiated treatment of the topic in
the public health literature.' [20] (pg158)
An anthropological review noted the 'predominantly
neutral' attitudes to prostitution in sub-Saharan Africa,
and 'a relatively instrumental view of sex within mar-
riage... It is the filiation of children rather than payment
in cash which distinguishes wives, prostitutes and others.'
[21] (pg 424). This fits Caldwell et al.'s overview [22] that
'sex is seen as a service which women render to men in
return for cash and support.... ' (summarised by Heald
[23]: 490).
The tendency for the issue of sexual exchange to
become polarized, in particular given the 'essentialisa-
tions' spawned by debate over Caldwell's 'African sexual-
ity' thesis [24], makes it easy to overlook that there are
generally several, overlapping motivations for sex.
Although this paper is concerned with material motives,
we do not want to suggest that, if they exist, they are to
the exclusion of other motives such as physical pleasure,
reproduction, self-esteem, love or establishing and main-
taining relationships for other non-material reasons.
Setel's [25] ethnography from Kilimanjaro Region, Tanza-
nia, provides a detailed analysis of how these diverse
motives shape sexual relationships.
Until the last decade, most research in sub-Saharan
Africa on sexual transaction focussed on urban areas and
commercial sex work [21], rather than transactional sex
in rural areas, yet the majority of the population are rural.
In Tanzania, for example, 70% of people live in rural areas
[26]. Furthermore, most qualitative research on young
people's sexual relationships has been conducted with
secondary school students (e.g. [1,15,27,28], yet in East
Africa only 5% to 25% of young people reach secondary
school [29] and they are likely to be highly untypical in
terms of relative affluence and ways of thinking about the
future. In Tanzania, as a whole, the figure is 6% for males
and 5% for females [29], and even lower in rural areas.
Most qualitative studies collected data through group dis-
cussions, which may bias findings towards normative
beliefs [9,10], and we are only aware of two other studies
employing any participant observation [18,19].
With quantitative studies the validity of sexual behav-
iour data is highly problematic [10,30,31], and must be
treated very cautiously. Furthermore, survey questions
rarely investigate the type of gifts provided or the context
of gift giving [10]. This means we have little idea about
the proportion of relationships that involve transactions,
and to what extent the transactions are specific induce-
ments for sexual access [10].
The aim of this paper is to examine young rural
women's motivations to exchange sex for gifts or money,
the way in which they negotiate transactional sex
throughout their relationships, and the implications of
these negotiations for the HIV epidemic. The findings
come from an ethnography of young people's sexual
behaviour in rural Mwanza Region, northern Tanzania.
Most of the data come from participant observation with
young people who had not attended secondary school,
and most were unmarried.
Conceptual framework
Although we recognise that sexual relationships are com-
plex phenomena influenced by a multitude of factors at
macro-social, micro-social, psychological and physiologi-
cal levels [32], this paper is restricted almost entirely to
social factors. At a macro-level the social factors shaping
sexual relationships generally give men greater power
than women and create the material and ideological con-
ditions that encourage transactional sex. Although inter-
related, they can be broadly divided between economic
factors, kinship factors and normative factors. At a
micro-level the factors shaping the relative bargaining
power of (potential) sexual partners can be divided
between their individual attributes, which generally per-
sist over time, and the specific circumstances of a partic-
ular sexual encounter. At this level the different
dimensions of power sometimes benefited women. The
different levels of influence are summarised below, more
space being given to the macro-social factors since the