The politics of differentiation
Language concerning transactional sex served the purpose of demarcating practices and identities that were and were not deemed acceptable. In order to frame such distinctions, participants' drew on narratives for normative, socially sanctioned identities and practices. A primary example of this is how participants in both Lesotho and Madagascar (where the sampling frames captured a more general population) characterized exchange within the context of sexual and romantic relationships as most often motivated by love.
For instance, a young female textile worker in Lesotho explained that she received financial support in exchange for sex within the context of love:
Yes I have [an exchange] relationship, but it is solely based on love. For example, once my child got ill, and my boyfriend took him to hospital and incurred all the hospital costs, he also gives me money when I ask for it, such as assistance with transport money when I'm broke. And this has been the only relationship in this past year.
Additionally, a 29-year-old man recounted having had a relationship "in which I obtained cash" and "had sex about once in 3 months." He explained that he later married this partner.
In Antananarivo, Madagascar, love was the overwhelming narrative for describing the motivation for gift-exchange in the context of sexual relationships and preceded most conversations detailing less socially acceptable motivations. Participants were asked to discuss whether or not they thought there was a link between gift exchange and sex; in almost every case, participants initially insisted that gifts were offered as part of a loving relationship. Even as women (and some men) identified financial support as a key advantage to having a sexual relationship, they simultaneously rejected the idea that most young people are engaged in relationships in order to acquire material possessions. While some men agreed that they might expect sex in return for having offered a gift, for the most part, the narrative was along the lines of the following explanation from a young man from a poor neighbourhood:
For me, it's not because I have given something to a sipa (girlfriend) that I expect to get sex. It depends on the two persons' mentality, on the strength of love that links them.
One focus group discussion in Antananarivo was held with young women who their community had characterized as 'maditra' which translates loosely to 'naughty' or inappropriately behaved. Even for women defined as such, after recounting stories of having had multiple lovers in order to access a better life, these participants argued that a loving relationship should be based on love alone, and that anyone who accepts gifts in explicit exchange for sex is quite simply a prostitute. This insistence is probably at least in part explained by the nature of focus group interviews, which tend to reflect dominant ideologies. The insistence also serves as the basis upon which participants in both South Africa and Madagascar used language to draw boundaries around particular behaviours and to demarcate identities in a way that is consistent with Klesse's (2006) notion of "the politics of differentiation." That is, through their talk about transactional sex, participants drew distinctions between acceptable or desirable behaviours and their alternatives. This differentiation occurred either when discussing their practice of transactional sex as in the South Africa case study, or when discussing their efforts to distance themselves from those whom they perceived to practice transactional sex in the Madagascar case study.
How uku kura makes transactional sex acceptable
In Mbekweni, South Africa, the term 'uku kura' was used by participants to describe transactional sexual practice in a way that differentiated it from prostitution. While focus group participants and other informants were not able to provide the origins of the term uku kura, it certainly enjoyed great popularity in men and women's talk about sexual exploits for material gain in Mbekweni. It is important to note that uku kura was not used to describe the exchange of gifts or money in general romantic relationships, which were perceived to be motivated by things other than money or sex. As for those relationships that were believed to be motivated by money or sex: men who buy women alcohol or food at sheebens and taverns with the sole agenda of having sex with them describe themselves as ones who kura women for sex. In the same vain women who pursued men solely for material gain described this practice as uku kura men for money. The community understanding of uku kura is that women who 'kura' men for money or goods do not necessarily have sex with these men; this is the important distinction used to differentiate uku kura from prostitution, where sex is explicitly exchanged for money. These exchange-based relationships taking place in Mbekweni, namely within shebeens or bars, are similar to those described in other parts of South Africa where these practices have also been portrayed as distinct from prostitution (see: [32, 43, 8, 9]). The differentiation hinges on women's insistence that when a woman has managed to kura a man (trick or seduce for purposes of getting alcohol, money, etc), the sexual exchange is not necessarily mandatory.
Sometimes you don't have to sleep with the person you are 'kura.' There are ways of running away from him or dumping him.
However, many participants admitted that in reality avoiding having sex with a man you have 'kura'd' is extremely difficult and rare, particularly because of the real threat of violent retribution for such attempts. The ambiguity created by the possibility of multiple outcomes enables the perception of uku-kura as different from commercial sex work and, as such, less stigmatizing. The fact that the practice of uku kura is also governed by shared implicit (rather than explicit) understandings between the two parties who are engaged the exchange of sex for gifts/money is another differentiating factor that allows it to be perceived differently from prostitution or formal exchanged-based transactions.
To this end, use of the term uku kura achieves a paradox of both hiding and revealing what might otherwise be deemed stigmatized behaviour in the study community. Indeed, it is these nuances in the understanding of the term uku kura that may enable transactional sex to flourish in Mbekweni.
The subtlety of these nuances is noteworthy. For example, when asked to describe what sex for money or material exchanges entailed, young women participants provided responses such as, "Selling sex for cash", or:
If there was like a freeway that is full of cars from Cape Town, she would go and stand there. Chippas [a local and very popular shebeen] is full of Cape Town cars so she is going there.
These examples reflect a deliberate, conscious and intentional use of women's sexuality to procure money or materials. Other participants likened the attracting factors (e.g., many cars from the urban centre representing the availability of wealthy men) that characterize the local environment where they go to sell sex (e.g., the bar, Chippas) to the 'red light districts' of the city where sex workers sell sex in nearby urban centres, Cape Town and Mfuleni. However, these same women would not permit labelling their practice as prostitution. When asked how this practice is different from prostitution, participants further conflated the two concepts. For example, one participant explained that uku kura is not prostitution by stating:
You are not standing on the freeway... . You are not wearing any miniskirts [symbol of prostitution in their judgement].
The subtle distinction in how these women understand uku kura compared to prostitution may be too nuanced for easy understanding by an outsider. However, this observation may offer an important message about how young women own the terms and meanings that they use to define their sexual behaviour. For a sub-population that has historically had its actions ruthlessly regulated and the meanings of right and wrong defined for them, this might be interpreted as an impressive act of defiance. The mechanisms that have led to young women's apparent sexual and social boldness in this community are not yet clear and present opportunities for further study.
The mpanataka the materialiste and the foza orana in Antananarivo
In Antananarivo, Madagascar, identities that were associated with transactional sex practice were identities that participants carefully distinguished from their own practice; and made clear efforts to denounce. Below we describe three such identities and practices: materialiste, foza orana and manataka.
Similar in some respects to uku kura, participants used the term manataka, which means to exploit or swindle someone, from 'manataka paosy' (to tear open a pocket). Until recently, the connotation applied specifically to women who swindle or exploit men. More recently the term has been applied to both women and men who exploit the opposite sex for their money. Even more specifically, the term also refers to exploitation in order to purchase 'lamaody.' Lamaody (from the French la mode), loosely translates to 'fashionable,' and referred primarily to trendy clothing, the latest technology, and to having a trendy or modern lifestyle.
In the more common conceptualization of manataka, participants explained that a girl finds a young man and flirtatiously convinces him to buy her a sought-after lamaody item. If the young woman succeeds at this game multiple times, she could be described as a mpanataka (one who manataka[s] someone). The term itself does not connote sexual exchange; rather, it simply means 'swindle.' However, there is enough implied sexuality that those labelled as mpanataka are not well viewed, at the very least because their behaviour is disingenuous. If, however, sex is explicitly exchanged in return, the woman is no longer a mpanataka, but a prostitute. As one high school girl explained:
Participant: ...if there isn't any sex at all, then it's like she is just a mpanataka. Often there isn't any sex when it's like that, but it depends on the girl...
Interviewer: But what if there is sex?
Participant: Well, then it's the same as her being a mpivaro-tena (prostitute).
Unlike Mbekweni, in Antananarivo there is no term that denotes the practice of sexual exchange for goods other than prostitution. Once sex is involved, prostitution is the only label from which to choose. There are, however, additional labels given to women who, as one participant characterized it, "use any means possible" to obtain lamaody.
The label 'materialiste' captures one such identity. This identity describes women, and sometimes men, who seek relationships in order to access money or goods. Male university focus group participants expressed disdain for those who re-arranged their priorities such that material goods trumped the sanctity of women's chastity in Antananarivo. Women who "lay down their body...for the love of lamaody" were contrasted with women who engage in exchange relationships for their livelihood (e.g. to obtain school fees). As one young man explained:
...women are becoming nothing more than materialistes, ... driven only by money...They materialize their relationships without any consideration for love, self-pride, they just let money prevail ... they go out with someone just to satisfy their needs, ... to be able to keep up with lamaody and to get whatever they want to have. ... if the girl does that only for lamaody, it's not at all acceptable...if she were doing it to make a living, then I wouldn't mind.
The young man's explanation above echoes many others' words, and could be interpreted as a moral indictment of 'consumption sex,' but a tolerance for 'survival sex.' His ideas reflect the normative view in Antananarivo of women who seek material goods through relationships as pursuing the wrong ends, using the wrong means.
Women who might be identified by others as materialistes were even quicker to distance themselves from this identity. After describing a materialiste as someone who goes out with someone "not out of love" but in order to "get nice clothing and the like" one university woman focus group participant was then asked if she knew what might influence that practice. Her response illustrates her effort to 'other' this identity:
It's not ... that we, because it seems very disdaining and that's very annoying! ... a university girl should not have such a mentality, but those who do that are women who do not have ... any mental development, and ... are narrow-minded!
Another term in recent increasing circulation among young people in Antananarivo illustrates the sometimes negative connotation ascribed to both material goods as well as the women who use 'inappropriate' means to seek them. The word foza orana - literally a recently discovered invasive species of crayfish - came to refer to items that are deemed to be prevalent and of poor quality. One frequent usage is to describe a cheap cell phone: "mobile foza orana."
More recently, the term has been applied to (primarily) women who have multiple sexual partners, or who have sexual partners in order to access money, materials or lamaody. The implication being that such women are also both plentiful and 'cheap.' The term foza orana is like the other expressions, evolving in its meaning and scope. The dynamic nature of the meaning of the term was perhaps more obvious with foza orana because it is such a new concept - the crayfish itself, now a ubiquitous menace, was only discovered in 2006. Upon reflection and discussion, in some focus groups, participants agreed that foza orana was an emerging synonym for low-class prostitute. For others, it was an identity that was distinct from prostitution. In summary, mpanataka was not always ascribed to women who seek lamaody, but appears to be adapting such a connotation; materialiste was characterized as a more recent expression, in line with a perceived increasing importance placed on women's quest for consumer goods; and foza orana is the newest addition to the lexicon, and appears to characterize the perceived increasing scores of poor women seeking support through sexual exchange. For everyone, these expressions captured identities from which to distance oneself.
Gender, agency and power
The terms uku kura in South Africa, and manataka and materialiste in Madagascar all share an implicit but important assumption: in the relationships or identities denoted by these terms, women exploit men using their sexual power, to their financial gain. What has yet to be made explicit, however, are the even more fundamental underlying realities: women are relying on their sexual prowess largely in the absence of alternative forms of income generation. Furthermore, these practices occur in the context of patriarchal norms and structures that continue to place women in positions that are politically, economically and socially inferior to men. Women in Mbekweni, South Africa, for example, spoke of their conquests and of the sexual pleasure they derived from their relationships with casual lovers or with younger male partners, leaving the impression of themselves as powerful sexual agents. However, when men spoke, and when women described the finer details of their sexual liaisons, it became clear that there were real limits to the agency of these women. Women and men's discourses about how transactional sexual relationships are formed and conducted provide evidence both of women's power as sexual agents, and its limitations.
Men's discourse in Mbekweni: Objectifying the 'hunters'
Men who spoke about their involvement in transactional sex in Mbewkeni frequently revealed how they objectify and dehumanize women in these relationships. Overall, young men's talk about young women in the context of transactional sex was characterized by descriptive words such as 'fresh,' 'raw,', 'steak.' The word 'fresh' denotes the preferred younger age category. 'Raw' refers to their preference for sex without condoms. 'Steak' frames young women as a commodity. Two examples use these terms in context:
These older men drink a lot of whisky and brandy so they always want steak, they want it raw! Strictly!
This babe is fresh. She's has beautiful thighs, light skin. No, this babe, I am pouring into her raw!
Men's description of these sexual exchanges portrayed a picture in which the men were hunted and then seduced by young women. The seduction was described in terms parallel to how one might appraise a piece of meat and, based on the appeal of this product, the men would then be seduced into paying what was necessary to mark this prize. This payment often took the form of buying alcoholic drinks for the women, after which the men explained that they would take charge in determining where, when and how the sexual encounter was to unfold. Men frequently portrayed themselves as in control of a rather unemotional event, as suggested by one male participant's comment, "Then I fucked her and that's it, and then she gets out." Thus, in Mbekweni, men's talk about transactional sex further calls into question women's actual power during these exchanges.
Women's discourse in Antananarivo: On gendered-expectations and agency
In Antananarivo, a different set of perspectives was revealed during discussions among different groups of women about gift-exchange within sexual relationships. The issues at their core were commentaries on women's power and autonomy- what women cannot and should not do versus what women can and should do for themselves. For example, in one focus group among young women from a poor neighborhood, a debate was raised over the notion of whether or not a woman can deny sex to a man who has given her a number of gifts:
P3: If he ... like ... buys you stuff, he buys, he buys... and you always take it, and then he asks you...to have sex, and you refuse. You are obliged... In the end, he will force you because you always refuse, you spent his money.
P1: ...but, but, you see, P3, ... you are not obliged to accept and take his gifts! ... You know, it's yours, it's up to you to refuse or to accept!
After two women reflected on the implicit obligation to have sex with a man who has provided you with gifts, a third participant insists that a woman is never obligated to have sex, particularly if she never 'enters the game.' It is contextually important that the women in this exchange were extremely resource-deprived and some had young children, factors that limit real 'choice.' Even so, the notion of whether or not a woman needs such gifts was what distinguished the consensus reached between the focus group of maditra women (some of whom were university students) as compared to the (general focus group of) university women. Women identified as maditra justified their involvement with multiple partners by referring to women's unequal gendered position in society. The assumption that women cannot and should not get as far ahead as their male counterparts forms the basis of the following young woman's explanation for sexual experimentation with a foreign man:
He can provide everything that I need! Because here, it's not..., because look at the issue! Life is getting much harder. One can no longer cope with it. It doesn't mean that one will misbehave, but just mmm..., one has to think about it... Whatever saves you and allows you to succeed. It's true that you are studying very hard but there's no job either, you're a woman, so you have to get support from a 'vady' (spouse).
This sentiment that women must rely on men was contested by the university women focus group participants who argued instead that they can and should be self-reliant. Here, women are reflecting on whether or not it is problematic if women seek relationships with men in order to access lamaody:
P2: It's not good... because .... you should at least make some efforts for yourself, but should not always wait for the others...
P6: ...you are no longer, you are no longer resourceful. You then become dependent! Dependent on the man. But if you don't do that, you work hard, and have a good job, something acceptable!...and that's it.
This notion of the possibility of self-reliance distinguishes these women's discourses. Women in the maditra focus group situated themselves within unequal gendered power relations, and find a creative, yet negatively socially sanctioned path to success through multiple partners and transactional sexual relationships. Women in the latter focus group, however, rejected this premise, suggesting that with their human capital, women can now achieve material success without dependence on men.
This notion was also present among some women in the Mbekweni case study, many of the young women who engage in transactional sex view their ideal world as one where young women are self-reliant and financially independent. However, these notions co-exist with the acknowledgement of a different reality, which sees young women as anything but self-reliant. In light of this tension, the participants of one focus group lamented the effects of transactional sex on their self-esteem, sense of worth and empowerment.
Reversals in gendered power
In both Madagascar and Lesotho, rapid economic transformation has led to a hollowing out of more traditional sources of employment for men. In the case of Lesotho, this is particularly apparent with the decline in the mining sector that has taken place almost simultaneous to the rise in employment options for women within the textile industry. Madagascar has seen declines in the benefits to traditional pathways to success through higher education . It is in this context that we can view the emerging evidence in both of these study sites that men are also now engaging in transactional sex as recipients.
This finding is particularly striking among the semi-structured interviews in Lesotho with 12 male and 12 female textile workers. Participants were asked if, since becoming employed at the factory, they had begun a relationship or had sex with someone because of the expectation of being provided with material goods (in particular: food, cosmetics, clothes, cell-phone, transport, school fees, money for rent, and money for tuition, somewhere to sleep, or money). Of the 24 respondents, 2 women and 5 men answered that they had engaged in such transactional arrangements. While the women versus men ratio of positive replies was noteworthy, so was the way in which men and women described these relationships in similar ways using similar terms. For example, one man explained how he acquired money through a sexual relationship:
To tell the truth, it happened. I was expecting that person to provide security so that when need arises she can always help me with the money.
Another male participant explained:
Yes, I used to share ... problems with her. I had two of these partners. I sleep with her once in a month, she provided me with food, clothes, school fees, money for rent, cash.
These accounts suggest that transactional sexual relationships may be serving as a form of social insurance, providing a needed distribution of a small pool of economic capital so as to provide many families with the essentials they need.
In contrast, in Antananarivo there is a term utilized to describe men who are supported financially by women who engage in transactional sex or formal sex work (See ). These 'kept' men are labeled jaombilo. Relationships between female sex workers and jaombilo throw off traditional understandings of gender relations. Men and women participants expressed similar concerns that jaombilo disturb the normative gendered-structure in Madagascar and is therefore a socially dangerous identity. As one university man explained:
It's not acceptable if a man does that as it's truly his personality which is at stake. I say that because for us Malagasy, the man is the head [of the family] though if one does that, it's the woman who becomes the guide for everything because [you have become] her property.
The perceived increase in these gender-dynamic reversals are challenging gendered norms and understandings in Madagascar, but they are unlikely to go away as long as the economy remains unstable and continues to expand in low-skilled jobs that cater to women at the expense of higher paid opportunities that once traditionally catered to men.
In considering these three case studies together, this article offers a more complex view of transactional sex in context and illustrates how similar sets of macro-level inputs interact with unique socio-cultural and political trajectories to generate different realities. It must be re-emphasized, however, that the data in these studies were not intended for direct comparison. The methodologies and goals in each case study were unique.
Although in Mbekweni there is a (perhaps appropriate) sense that transactional sexual behaviour is normative, it is also the case that the methods used to locate research participants actively sought young women and men who were engaged in transactional sexual activities.
The Antananarivo case study, however, sought to assess the extent to which transactional sex was being practiced within a sample loosely representative of the total population of the city. The focus group methodology, used in both cases, is one that tends to excel not at unearthing individual or even collective experience, but rather a sense of normative value systems and understandings. Therefore, the fair amount of 'othering' reflected upon in these focus groups cannot be used to gauge actual prevalence of behaviour. That said, within Antananarivo, the survey data support the assertion that very few women engage in formal transactional sex or multiple sexual partnerships (0.80% and 5.5%, respectively).
The case of Lesotho is different in that it did not set out to understand transactional sex at all, yet participants raised this issue in the context of broader discussions. It is therefore important to resist extrapolating these findings to generalizable distinctions between the countries or the study sites incorporated in this work. It is equally important to recall that the discourses captured here reflect a specific point in time and are extremely dynamic. The term foza orana, for example, is in evolution; the identities it reflects are constantly being re-negotiated.