Transactional sex and bartered sex: Is there a good reason to distinguish from commercial sex?

When we study things, we name them, but when we live things we usually don’t. I had a weird date the other night, I thought the girl was out to get something from me or We have a great relationship; I love to cook and he fixes my computer. Labels potentially applied include transactional sex, barter, survival sex, girlfriends, sugar daddies and sugar mommies, jaboya, something-for-something love, husband-wife relationships, free love, opportunistic sex, exploitation, enjo kosai – and a lot more, believe me. The other week I used a couple of tags myself whilst commenting on a poster exhorting fishermen not to exchange their fish for sex.

Some wrote to me to say Those women are not sex workers, they are fish traders, but they are poor and can’t pay the fisherman money so they offer him sex in exchange for fish. Well fine, but what’s the motivation for making this distinction? Is it to keep these women free of the whore stigma? Is the idea that to be properly commercial transactions must involve coins and bills? And that everything else is barter? And is barter somehow okay because it doesn’t involve filthy lucre? (note barter’s image in a white person’s context, where it’s called the no-cash economy).

Let’s look at this logically: If the fisherman gets money from these women, the transaction is considered okay. Now what happens if he takes candybars for his fish, is that not okay, because he’s supposed to be getting money? Or is fish for candybars okay but fish for, say, a shoulder massage not okay, again because he’s not getting money? Or is a shoulder massage all right, too, because it’s a service that helps him feel better, but fish for sex isn’t because presumably he doesn’t need sex to feel better? You see the problem? You might think that labels and names clarify different actions, but typical comments about transactional sex from cultures where it’s common refer to the blurry line dividing it from sex work or prostitution. On top of that, one commentator says ‘some women and men who have sex in return for gifts, money and the like would not classify themselves as sex workers although they might be’. So who is deciding which label applies and for what reason?

The main point I want to make is: To attempt to distinguish these human situations with labels contributes to the idea that there is something about sex-money exchanges that is utterly different (perhaps scary or terrible) and that women who do that are set apart from everyone else. That is a very old-fashioned and stigmatising view we should avoid. Unfortunately it’s also misleading to try to distinguish clearly between wholly involuntary, passive transactional women and wholly free, active sex workers. It’s all much more interesting and muddled than that.

Now about the fish transactions:

Recent studies in Botswana, Swaziland, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania have shown associations between acute food insecurity and unprotected transactional sex among poor women. Fish for sex deals are also common in Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria, where women fish traders meet incoming boats and sleep with fishermen for a favorable price.

This could be interpreted to mean that fish traders do pay with coins and bills in part but supplement them with sex, in order to pay less out in money. Or it could mean that because they have sex with the fishermen they get more fish in exchange than if they hadn’t had sex with them.

A programme in Uganda calls this kind of transaction Something for Something Love, said to be a relationship where sex is given in exchange for favours, money or gifts. I suppose this name was invented to distance the topic from previous labels, but note that now money is explicitly mentioned – this isn’t just barter. The posters used in this campaign depict a young woman whose real love rejects her because she’s had something-for-something-love, a girl who saves her friend from getting into a car with a man holding out a mobile phone, a man whose wife leaves him because he’s bartered something for money with another female  and so on.

Young people are often pressured to do things that they would not normally do, like having unwanted or unprotected sex. These relationships usually cause problems for young people including unplanned pregnancy, dropping out of school, abortions, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Violence is common in Something for Something Love, especially if the young person refuses sex or tries to end the relationship. For adults, Something for Something Love often results in broken marriages or violence if the wife or husband learns about it. Something for Something

Others – not surprisingly USAID amongst them – go to the extreme and label transactional sex exploitation

The first phase of the initiative is now underway and focuses on sexual exploitation, including transactional sex. Transactional sex refers to exploitative relationships where sex is given in exchange for favors, material objects or money. PEPFAR message

Health programmes that want to prevent the spread of hiv tend to link this something-for-something love with Young Empowerment and True Manhood. These are all well-intentioned efforts, but the moralistic messages end up excluding a lot of people who don’t experience all this as oppressive or exploitative.

There is also a confusion about whose point of view we are taking and whom we are trying to protect.

  • The original poster wants the fisherman to get money for his fish, not sex, the protection sub-text being that if he avoids sex he’s less likely to contract venereal diseases or hiv (and have more money to buy things he needs).
  • Others want the girls and women not to exchange sex for fish, for moral and the same health-protection reasons – sometimes assuming that the fishermen are coercing them.

If money is scarce, then people may barter. The fishermen ‘sell’ the fish for sex, and the women sell the fish for money in the marketplace – and it’s quite possible that some customers who want to buy fish from the women traders could offer *them* something other than money, some other object or service the traders want. Money can therefore be seen as the means to cut through the need to find exactly matching offers. It doesn’t have to become so symbolic that we hasten to say which people are *not* prostitutes. Could the subject get more complicated? You bet.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

7 thoughts on “Transactional sex and bartered sex: Is there a good reason to distinguish from commercial sex?

  1. Marc of Frankfurt

    The problem of stigma (in prostitution) is deeply routed in power and hence money. Not only sex. The sex taboo is encrypting the power (and gender) issue beneath.

    Money makes everything comparable and increases competition between incomparable values and globally, but money still is more worth than goods and they often more than services. Money rules the world. Besides the luxury, freedom and economic growth it enables, money is on the other hand the reason for non sexual prostitution (of values) and alienation of humans.

    So receiving money gives you more choices (and white money with bills more choices than black) and having and taking the choice to reinvest gives you the choice of becoming a business owner, producer or finally capitalist. And only dealing with money is called the choice of being a speculator or banker or member of the finance capitalistic elite. They may be motivated or attracted by dangerous economic bubbles (25% roi and more). Much bigger then the older Marxist surplus crises as we got to know now.

    The intrinsic hardly understood laws of money markets (under revision by national economists;-) are the reason for the creation of steeper uneven wealth distribution. Money is accumulated on one side and large parts of society have been drained off the money flux. Then barter is the simple last solution (workers can only sell their workforce or body). Other solutions are, regional and complementary money systems, time money, super Tobin tax, basic income grant, micro credits, anarchosyndicalistic revolution (cf. Spain 1936-9) etc..

    But what is money is not fully understood or agreed upon. Money is not only symbolized and standardized value to make exchange, but is credit. The paper bill is the contract of issued debt and the will to repay it that what the receiver and we all need to trust in. Hence only the solvent can receive credit i.e. have money.

    So nowadays there is no need for slavery, trafficking in persons or feudalism and modernism arrived, since the money system has fully developed (compound interest, money creation, fractional banking, two level central bank trust system, us$ reserve currency).

    Putophobia to control sexuality and especially women is a gamesmanship for the morally inclined.
    Class-ism and intersectionality are the broader picture.

    The re-allocative power for sex traders can only be fully converted, when the-poor-by-money-but-rich-by-sex-appeal are aware of the clandestine mechanisms of money, power and stigma and be better educated on how to advance step by step to become independent, sustainable economic players.
    That is the ultimate measure to empowerment strategies.
    Much to learn for the helper industrialists too.

  2. Tracy Quan

    This is great stuff, Laura – and very au courant. From the highbrow to the low, everyone seems to be obsessed with this. I had fun with the latter here:

    But we count on you to bring gravitas to these issues. Congrats on the Swiss gig!

  3. dorisdaylight

    So basically transactional sex is OK in any circumstance? I don’t agree with the moralising tone or the shaming of sex workers, but COME ON no one should be forced to exchange sex for goods because of their economic situation. I also believe that transactional sex is a form of sex work.

  4. laura agustin Post author

    No, no kind of sex can be said to be always ok, in any circumstance. The difficulty is drawing up definitions and categories that label all people of a certain age or economic level as forced – or anything else.

  5. Pingback: Mall Girls (Galerianki): Polish Teens Exchange Sex for Smart Phones | Human Stupidity: Irrationality, Self Deception

  6. Kalika Gold: VirginWhore

    This is a very interesting article. Where do you draw the lines between survival sex, barter sex and sex work, or are they all the same thing? I feel that lots of people don’t want to use the word “prostitute” for themselves because of the stigma associated with it. Students who have sugar daddies don’t think of it as sex work (I also remember a Huffington Post article by a former sugar baby, she didn’t classify it as sex work. Another HuffPo article talked about prostitutes potentially using SeekArrangement as if sex workers and sugar babies were two different things. And John (the Escort Lover) who blogs about his adventures with escorts and sugar babies, says that sugar babies are different from sex workers. So, I think its complex, but one thing I do believe is that if the term ‘sex worker’ was used instead of ‘prostitute’, many more people would call themselves sex workers. Especially if the stigma was removed. I mean, stuff like dinner and a movie with expectation of sex afterwards, or buying a boy/girl drinks all night, isnt that a kind of sex work that most of us have done.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      I’m not in the line-drawing business, myself. The term ‘sex work’ is celebrated by some who sell sex who want to professionalise and normalise the job. The term is rejected by lots of others who may be carrying out the same activities more or less. The point isn’t to force all to use the same ‘correct’ term for all types of sex-exchanges. It’s to show exchanges are normal and ubiquitous.


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