Let's Talk (Intelligently) About Sex

What is the Relationship Between Transactional Sex & STDs?

An Overview of Transactional Sex

Transactional sex is an umbrella term used to describe the ways in which people exchange sex for money, drugs or other things they need. Although all sex is transactional to some degree, the term is usually only used when sex is actively used to acquire money, goods or other services. In other words, it’s used to describe sexual relationships that have an economic motivation, at least part of the time.

According to this definition, a woman hoping that a passionate night will encourage her husband to do the dishes more often is not considered to be engaging in transactional sex, but a man who is trading sex for housing or drugs is. The difference is that in the first circumstance, the woman isn’t trading sex for material support or economic reasons.

Is Transactional Sex the Same as Prostitution?

There are many forms of transactional sex, and prostitution is only one of them. Individuals who exchange sex for drugs are engaging in another well known, high risk form of transactional sex. But there are also forms of transactional sex that are less obvious and more insidious. These range from clear-cut, “sugar daddy” or “sugar mommy” relationships, where young men and women explicitly agree to exchange sexual favors for housing and gifts, to more complicated relationships in which an individual enters into a sexual relationship with someone primarily to get out of a bad situation, such as an abusive relationship with a partner or family member.

It’s worth noting that, although marriage in the United States is culturally constructed as a loving relationship that two individuals have decided to enter into because they care about each other and want to build a life together, economic factors actually play a startlingly large role in women’s decisions to marry and stay in relationships. Several studies have found that financial considerations play a significant role in how and when women, particularly poor women, chose to start and end their relationships. In the end, many relationships are motivated at least in part by economic necessity.

What are the Risks of Exchanging Sex for Money or Drugs?

Leaving aside political, legal and social concerns, there are a number of risks associated with transactional sex. The biggest risk is that individuals may not be empowered to negotiate condoms, talk to their partners about testing, practice other forms of safe sex, or even refuse sex that they find dangerous, unpleasant, or unwanted. The power differentials inherent in transactional sex therefore increase their risk of acquiring a number of STDs, including HIV.

People engaging in transactional sex are also at increased risk of interpersonal violence and drug use. These are both factors that further increase the chance of acquiring HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases.

Why Do People Engage in Transactional Sex?

There are a wide number of reasons that people engage in transactional sex, although the vast majority fall under the general category of economic insecurity. When people do not have the money to access safe housing, sufficient food, and other necessary or desired resources, sex can seem like an easily available and effective commodity to exchange in trade. Furthermore, formal sex work can be both higher paying and more flexible than many other income earning opportunities available to young people, particularly those with lower levels of education and training, which can make it a very attractive option.

Sources:
Bilardi JE, Miller A, Hocking JS, Keogh L, Cummings R, Chen MY, Bradshaw CS, & Fairley CK. (2011). The job satisfaction of female sex workers working in licensed brothels in Victoria, Australia. J Sex Med. 8(1):116-22.
Dunkle KL, Wingood GM, Camp CM, & DiClemente RJ. (2010) Economically motivated relationships and transactional sex among unmarried African American and white women: results from a U.S. national telephone survey. Public Health Rep.125 Suppl 4:90-100.
Hankins, S. & Hoekstra, M. (2011). “Lucky in Life, Unlucky in Love?: The Effect of Random Income Shocks on Marriage and Divorce.” J. Human Resources. 46:403-426
Ozler, B. (2012). “What do people mean when they talk about ‘transactional sex’?” Retrieved December 7, 2012, from http://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/what-do-people-mean-when-they-talk-about-transactional-sex
Sherman SG, Lilleston P, & Reuben J. (2011). More than a dance: the production of sexual health risk in the exotic dance clubs in Baltimore, USA. Soc Sci Med.73(3):475-81.
Tsai AC, Hung KJ, & Weiser SD. (2012). Is food insecurity associated with HIV risk? Cross-sectional evidence from sexually active women in Brazil. PLoS Med. 2012;9(4):e1001203.