Research Article: Constrained relationship agency as the risk factor for intimate partner violence in different models of transactional sex

Date Published: March 16, 2018


Author(s): Rebecca Fielding-Miller, Kristin Dunkle.


Women who engage in transactional sex are more likely to experience intimate partner violence (IPV) and are at higher risk of HIV. However, women engage in transactional sex for a variety of reasons and the precise mechanism linking transactional sex and IPV is not fully understood. We conducted a behavioural survey with a cross-sectional sample of 401 women attending 1 rural and 1 urban public antenatal clinic in Swaziland between February and June 2014. We used structural equation modelling to identify and measure constrained relationship agency (CRA) as a latent variable, and then tested the hypothesis that CRA plays a significant role in the pathway between IPV and transactional sex. After controlling for CRA, receiving more material goods from a sexual partner was not associated with higher levels of physical or sexual IPV and was protective against emotional IPV. CRA was the single largest predictor of IPV, and more education was associated with decreased levels of constrained relationship agency. Policies and interventions that target transactional sex as a driver of IPV and HIV may be more successful if they instead target the broader social landscape that constrains women’s agency and drives the harmful aspects of transactional sex.

Partial Text

Transactional sex has received a great deal of attention as a driver of HIV and gender-based violence (GBV) in sub-Saharan Africa in the past two decades. While the initial impetus behind this focus was laudable — an epidemiological need to differentiate “informal” sexual exchange from “formal” sex work — the focus in intervention and international circles appears to have drifted over time from a necessary specification of a particular relationship type to something of a moral panic over “vulnerable victims” and their predatory, exploitative male partners (Stoebenau, Heise, Wamoyi, & Bobrova, 2016). This may in part reflect a certain level of societal discomfort with women’s sexuality that does not conform to gender normative patterns (which is to say, submissive and sexually available to a single partner (Schippers, 2007)). Transactional sex in sub-Saharan Africa covers a wide and complex range of relationship types and sexual practices (Stoebenau et al., 2016), but it can best be understood as the informal exchange of sex for money or material support. While distinct from sex work in that neither party typically considers the relationship a commercial exchange (Stoebenau et al., 2016), transactional sex relationships that are operationalised as “the exchange of sex for money or material goods” may double women’s risk of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa (Wamoyi, Stobeanau, Bobrova, Abramsky, & Watts, 2016), and has been significantly associated with heightened intimate partner violence (IPV) and GBV in cross-sectional studies (Dunkle et al., 2007; Dunkle et al., 2006; Jewkes, Morrell, Sikweyiya, Dunkle, & Penn-Kekana, 2012; Jewkes, Sikweyiya, Morrell, & Dunkle, 2011).

Receiving more material support from a sexual partner was not significantly associated with an increase in intimate partner violence after controlling for women’s constrained relationship agency. In fact, receiving more items that were more culturally valuable was associated with decreased emotional IPV. Our findings suggest that the harmful link between transactional sex and IPV, which has been consistently demonstrated in the literature, may in fact be a product of the broader social landscape in which these sexual-economic relationships are situated rather than the simple acts of financial support and/or gift giving.

Our study demonstrated that constrained relationship agency, not transactional sex, was the strongest predictor of all forms of IPV in the past 12 months. The simple act of receiving financial support from a partner does not appear to increase Swazi women’s vulnerability to IPV, and may in fact be associated with decreased emotional partner violence. Circumstances such as poverty, hunger, or family pressure may limit a woman’s ability to exit a violent relationship, or motivate her to initiate a relationship with a man she may otherwise avoid. Interventions designed to target the link between IPV and transactional sex will be most effective if they target the social landscape that constrains women’s agency, rather than whether or not she receives gifts or material support from a male partner.




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