Young women’s perceptions of transactional sex and sexual agency: a qualitative study in the context of rural South Africa

Meghna Ranganathan, Catherine MacPhail, Audrey Pettifor, Kathleen Kahn, Nomhle Khoza, Rhian Twine, Charlotte Watts and Lori Heise BMC Public Health, 2017; Young women’s perceptions of transactional sex and sexual agency: a qualitative study in the context of rural South Africa

Evidence shows that HIV prevalence among young women in sub-Saharan Africa increases almost five-fold between ages 15 and 24, with almost a quarter of young women infected by their early-to mid-20s. Transactional sex or material exchange for sex is a relationship dynamic that has been shown to have an association with HIV infection.

Using five focus group discussions and 19 in-depth interviews with young women enrolled in the HPTN 068 conditional cash transfer trial (2011–2015), this qualitative study explores young women’s perceptions of transactional sex within the structural and cultural context of rural South Africa. The analysis also considers the degree to which young women perceive themselves as active agents in such relationships and whether they recognise a link between transactional sex and HIV risk.

Key findings

  • Young women believe that securing their own financial resources will ultimately improve their bargaining position in their sexual relationships, and open doors to a more financially independent future.
  • There is a nuanced relationship between sex, love and gifts: money has symbolic meaning, and money transfers, when framed as gifts, indicates a young woman’s value and commitment from the man.
  • The way that transactional sex is positioned in the HIV literature ignores that “exchanges” serve as the core around which romantic relationships are organised.
  • Young women express agency in their choice of partner, but their agency weakens once they are in a relationship characterised by exchange, which may undermine their ability to translate perceived agency into STI and HIV risk reduction efforts.

This research underscores the need to recognise that transactional sex is socially embedded in adolescent romantic relationships, but certain aspects of it make young women vulnerable to HIV, without them explicitly recognising this risk. 

 

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