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Global Health. 2013 Jul 18;9:28. doi: 10.1186/1744-8603-9-28.

"Money talks, bullshit walks" interrogating notions of consumption and survival sex among young women engaging in transactional sex in post-apartheid South Africa: a qualitative enquiry.

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  • 1Health Systems Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa. yanga.zembe@mrc.ac.za



Transactional sex is believed to be a significant driver of the HIV epidemic among young women in South Africa. This sexual risk behaviour is commonly associated with age mixing, concurrency and unsafe sex. It is often described as a survival- or consumption-driven behaviour. South Africa's history of political oppression as well as the globalization-related economic policies adopted post-apartheid, are suggested as the underlying contexts within which high risk behaviours occur among Black populations. What remains unclear is how these factors combine to affect the particular ways in which transactional sex is used to negotiate life among young Black women in the country.In this paper we explore the drivers of transactional sex among young women aged 16-24, who reside in a peri-urban community in South Africa. We also interrogate prevailing constructions of the risk behaviour in the context of modernity, widespread availability of commodities, and wealth inequalities in the country.


Data were collected through 5 focus group discussions and 6 individual interviews amongst young women, men, and community members of various age groups in a township in the Western Cape, South Africa.


Young women engaged in transactional sex to meet various needs: some related to survival and others to consumption. In this poverty-stricken community, factors that created a high demand for transactional sex among young women included the pursuit of fashionable images, popular culture, the increased availability of commodities, widespread use of global technologies, poverty and wealth inequalities. Transactional sex encounters were characterized by sexual risk, a casual attitude towards HIV, and male dominance. However, the risk behaviour also allowed women opportunities to adopt new social roles as benefactors in sexual relationships with younger men.


Transactional sex allows poor, young women to access what young people in many parts of the world also prioritize: fashionable clothing and opportunities for inclusion in popular youth culture. In the context of high HIV prevalence in South Africa, strategies are needed that present young women with safer economic gateways to create and consume alternative symbols of modernity and social inclusion.

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