/ 18 December 2023

Taken by storm: Why climate change makes transactional sex more common

Climate Change And Sex
Researchers say transactional sex will become more common because of a rise in climate change-related droughts and floods. (A.Davey)

Trading sex for survival or a better life depends on supply and demand — and researchers think both sides of this coin will grow because of a rise in climate change-related droughts and floods. 

Transactional sex — trading sex for food, money or luxury gifts — is different from sex work because the reward is implied rather than agreed upfront for a specific price, such as when someone sells sex as their job, and often comes with an expectation of care. 

But transactional sex can be risky sex — especially because this type of relationship is commonly seen in (often rural) societies where men have more power than women when it comes to money and decision-making. 

Because women in such communities frequently depend on men for money, food or other forms of support to live, such as accommodation or transport, in these arrangements, they have little power to negotiate the use of condoms or monogamous relationships for safer sex, for example. 

Moreover, although women may regularly have sex with the same partner, men, because of having more power in their society, often have more partners than women, studies show

Put together, it means women have a higher risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection such as HIV — and little recourse.

In impoverished, rural communities that depend on growing crops, rearing livestock or catching fish for food and earning income, people’s livelihoods can be threatened by climate disasters such as droughts, floods and storms. Research shows that during natural disasters like these, transactional sex becomes more common, because people have to resort to other means to get by when their crops or livelihoods have been destroyed. 

And because of the link between transactional sex and risky behaviour, rates of infections such as HIV can increase.

For example, in Haiti, a poor country in the Caribbean, where women have little power and gender-based violence is rife, a 2020 study looked at how a devastating hurricane in 2016 affected transactional sex.

Results showed that women whose household income was badly affected because someone in their family had died or was injured during the storm, were almost 60% more likely to engage in transactional sex than those who were not hit as hard. 

Interestingly, income loss or not having enough food not only led to higher rates of transactional sex, but also strengthened the link between trading sex and surviving, with women who are less able to buffer the financial shocks that come with extreme weather disasters being more vulnerable to sex-for-support exchanges.  

Africa at risk

Scientists say that extreme weather events such as droughts and floods will happen more often — and are already on the increase — as Earth’s climate patterns change because of global warming. According to the World Bank, 42 countries in sub-Saharan Africa will be among the countries hardest hit by the effects of changing weather conditions. 

This will be bad news for Africa, not only because of the direct impact these events will have on people’s livelihood, but also because of the hidden effects.

In Africa, small-scale farming supports about 60% of the population. Women often work the fields, harvest crops and fetch water, but generally do not own the land. When harvests are threatened, families’ livelihoods are too. 

If getting by means having to engage in unsafe sex, as is often the case in sex-for-goods trades, a woman’s chance for getting HIV increases too. And with Africa representing about two-thirds of the global HIV burden, climate change — through a complex interaction of health and social factors — will keep the continent  stuck in a loop of poverty and underdevelopment.

Supply and demand

Research from Malawi, where a large part of the population depends on small-scale, rain-fed farming, has looked closely at the link between transactional sex and survival. Over the past decade, the country has been hit by cycles of devastating floods and droughts, with crop failures between 2014 and 2016 leaving about 7 million people without enough food. 

When such climate shocks threaten the size of a harvest, transactional sex increases. 

For example, researchers found that in Malawi, for women working in agriculture, a six-month drought doubled their chances of practising transactional sex. Men who didn’t work in agriculture — and whose income was safer because they were not directly affected by the climate shock — were twice as likely to have a transactional relationship with a woman whose livelihood depends on farming  because they had the material means to reward women who needed to survive. 

The study also found that this effect was seen more with women who did not have an education and so had an even smaller chance of finding a job outside of agriculture. 

Lindiwe Sibiya, a researcher from the Africa Health Research Institute, says they’ve seen how climate pressures can affect people’s views on trading sex for survival when they’re poor and have few prospects for finding jobs. 

She works with communities in a rural part of northern KwaZulu-Natal, close to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, where a long period of below-average rainfall about eight years ago meant that water was scarce, despite the area historically being known for a subtropical climate with fairly high rainfall

“[Transactional sex relationships] don’t need any documentation or any level of education,” explains Sibiya. “So, [people might say]: ‘If I’m in dire need of water, for example, or an air conditioner or just a fan, and I don’t have the money to buy this stuff, and can engage in a relationship with someone who can provide these things for me, then why not?’”

Breaking the cycle

Although controversial, studies have shown that cash transfers — which is when aid organisations or governments give people an amount of money to help them survive — can help to ensure that people don’t have to turn to transactional sex to get by.

In a study from Kenya, for example, researchers found that in a programme in which schoolgirls received cash handouts or sexual health education, more stayed in school and fewer resorted to transactional sex as a way to improve their lives than those who didn’t get any formal financial support or sexual health education. 

But cash transfers can be a contentious form of humanitarian help because the positive impacts might not last or they might drive young people to simply aspire to a more materially wealthy life, critics say. However, evidence from programmes where these money handouts are managed well, show they can support girls to stay in school, keep them safe from HIV and help them to have more say in their sexual health. 

In some communities, this can set up a positive feedback loop, not only by lowering the number of financially driven relationships but also by improving education levels among girls and so empowering women to become better skilled and have a better chance of getting jobs, and so allowing them to break free of poverty. 

“Personally, I believe drought and climate change promote sexual transactions and relationships based on expected gains,” says Sibiya. “Our community has very high rates of poverty, so selling sex [in some form] becomes the survival of the fittest.”


This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.