This article’s central argument is that the close association between sex and gifts–resulting in what has been called “transactional sex”–is a central factor driving multiple-partnered sexual relationships, the principal cause of HIV infection in Mandeni. Transactional sex has a number of similarities to prostitution. In both cases, non-marital sexual relationships, often with multiple partners, are underscored by the giving of gifts or cash. Transactional sex, however, differs in important ways: participants are constructed as “girlfriends” and “boyfriends” and not “prostitutes” and “clients”, and the exchange of gifts for sex is part of a broader set of obligations that might not involve a predetermined payment. The use of the concept “transactional sex” is intended neither to maintain inflexible distinctions between the categories of “prostitution “/”transactional sex”/”non-transactional sex” (indeed, sex, like all embodied practices, is always simultaneously material and meaningful in complex ways), nor to naturalize heterosexual sex, the principal focus of this article.
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