I am 28. White. A Female. And a former Peace Corps Volunteer. I am HIV Positive. This is my story of how a few months, a few people, and a few events in Zambia changed me and my life forever. This is the story of how I contracted HIV and brought my Peace Corps Journey to a crashing halt... and how I am working now to pick up and put back together the pieces of my life as a newly diagnosed person living with HIV. This was not the journey I had originally planned... my path has traumatically and dramatically changed... but it is the one I am on now. There is no going back. There is only forward. I welcome you to follow along with me as I attempt to explore this new life ahead of me, whether you are someone from the Peace Corps community, or someone living with HIV. I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions, and opinions. Let us go forward together. To start from the beginning, click here He Gave Me More Than A Bracelet.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Transactional Sex

You may have been asked a certain question before donating blood, or even during a regular doctor's appointment or STD/HIV Testing. That question is "Have you ever received money, gifts, or other things in exchange for sex?" I'm sure most of us respond with an immediate "No" (followed in our heads by "Of course not! I'm not a prostitute!").

If you have ever worked in Africa or the development field, you have probably further discussed or encountered this idea/issue of "transactional sex". We typically define transactional sex as having sex in exchange for money, gifts, goods, or other services.

Today, I want to look at and think about transactional sex in an even broader way... as sex in exchange for something else. Today, I am wondering what really qualifies as transactional sex? What are our different motives for having sex? And are they, at times, transactional?

Have you ever had sex just because you feel lonely? Just because you want a man to hold you or cuddle you? Yes, I have. Sex not for love or even just for the sake of sex, but sex in exchange for cuddling.

Have you ever (even if partially joking) offered a blow job in exchange for a massage or other favor? Yes, I have. I give you something you want, you give me something I want.

Have you ever had sex after your partner brings you flowers, or takes you to a nice dinner, or does something around the house? Yes. Thanks honey, that was so sweet of you, here's my body now. Sex in exchange for nice gestures or household chores.

Have you ever had sex because things in your life just don't seem to be going right, or maybe you feel ugly or unwanted? Maybe you have sex just so that in the heat of the moment, you can hear someone compliment you and tell you that you are sexy. Sex in exchange for verbal praise and validation.

I think that many of us, if we look deep into our past relationships, may find some situations like this. Or maybe not. Maybe it is just me that is screwed up when it comes to sex. Maybe that's how I ended up here in the first place.

Anyways, I urge you to think about and consider your own motivations for having sex. Are your desires for having sex purely about being intimate with your partner? Or are you simply having sex in the search for something else? Are you having sex to fill some other void or to gain something else from it?

This kind of sex usually leaves you feeling just as empty as before. Is it really worth it?


  1. Interesting post. IMO, our culture often does young women a disservice by assuming they only have sex for transactional purposes. How many times have we (as women) heard that we shouldn't "give it up" or "girls just want guys to like them" or "girls with low self esteem are more likely to have sex (thus assuming women have sex to get validation from men)". Never addressing that women as well as men have inherent sexual desires. I feel extremely fortunate that I live in a country, in a time, where I don't have to sell my sexuality/fertility for a roof over my head or food on my plate or to have an acceptable social place as an adult female.

    I don't think you're messed up Jess. I think you're human.

    1. I hit send too soon! (sorry)

      I think you're human, and that human sexuality is extremely complex. Add that into the social messages about what sex SHOULD be, how women (and men) SHOULD act one has to figure how what their sexuality means to them, and how to express it in a way that makes them fulfilled. (sorry iPhone typing sucks).

    2. I agree with the point that people often ascribe motives of self-esteem, loneliness, pressure to women as to why they have sex. I think this has been especially prevelent when discussing the sex lives as Peace Corps Volunteers. When volunteers have sex or get into relationships with host country nationals, it's like the only two possible reasons they every would have are loneliness or out-of-control horomones after living in the bush too long. But no one acknowledges that you might meet someone and truly like them ON THEIR OWN MERITS, despite them being from a different country, despite coming from a drastically different background. That they might have the qualities you want in a partner, even moreso than the potential partners you had met in the Western world.

      This is not directed to Jess, who actually did touch on this subject some in an earlier post when she wrote about the lack of support and resources volunteers got for navigating HCN relationships. It's hard to talk to people about these issues if they just brush you off "oh you're just lonely. Go do yoga and write a letter to your mom instead."

      I'm sure I'm getting off topic so I'll shut up now, but as someone who had a relationship with a HCN and is now in another cross-cultural relationship (and both times, I was hell-bent against dating someone from a different culture but fell for their intelligence, humor and kindness) this is something that has been in the back of my mind since I started reading this blog and I think it's a topic that deserves some discussion.

    3. I don't think you are off topic, but this is Jessica's blog so she is in charge!

      I have no doubt that as a PCV, or anyone living in another country, could meet someone for whom they develop genuine feelings/connections and form a real romantic relationship. Despite "cultural differences" humans are more a like than they are different. Not to say different backgrounds does not bring relationship challenges but (I say this as a non PCV) the fact that relationships can/do develop does not surprise me in the slightest.

      However I do not know what the Peace Corps can or should do to help adults navigate these relationships. Is it the role of the Peace Corps to help volunteers, who are adults navigate relationships with nationals being that said private relationships are not a part of their duties as a volunteer?

      I don't claim to have answers.

  2. I think a lot of it also has to do with the way sex is talked about in our society/media. I teach Sex Ed and you should see some of the responses I get from middle schoolers and adults alike! The junior high kids are the ones I teach, but when I tell people I teach Sex Ed, it's like I'm a perv or something!

    I have to say though, sex, at least in our society, is treated in such a weird manner. There is this sexual undercurrent running under everything (using boobs to sell cars, for example), but once sex is explicitly mentioned (or, to continue with boobs, once a woman gets her breat out to feed her child), all hell breaks loose. It's like, we are supposed to know it is there, but act like we don't. A case of the Emperor's New Clothes I suppose.

    1. M.F. you are so correct. Sex is used to sell almost everything, because its assumed that sex is a universal human desire. Yet when it comes time to talk about sex in factual, direct, scientific terms, people freak out!

      Breastfeeding is not sexual in the slightest, but because our culture says "breasts are sexual" people freak out at the sight of a woman breastfeeding (even though she is often showing less skin than a swimsuit cover model). What a great example.

  3. I think that sex is some that one should decide when to do it, and for what purpose, regardless of what society might say about it.

    That being said, if you're offering your body to someone just so that you can have someone tell you you're beautiful, or to have someone hold you ... then that's a psychological problem relating to your self worth, or lack thereof. There are plenty of other ways to fell loved, or to cuddle with someone without having to have sex to do so. If you think that the only way you are going to get someone to tell you they love you, or like you, or etc. is by giving them access to your body, then you need some serious help to boost up your self worth and confidence in yourself.

    Now, if you're in a relationship with someone, and they bring you flowers, and you just decide to have sex with them, then I don't see anything wrong with that. However, if you think that everytime that person does something nice for you, you have to have sex with them, then there's something wrong with your train of thought.

    Sex is something that is intimate, and should be enjoyed and wanted (for the right reasons) by both parties. Someone throwing themselves at someone else just so that they can have a few minutes of cuddling times, is wrong.

    You should seriously bring this up with your therapist, because having sex just so that you stop feeling lonely is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.

  4. Many of your posts seem to be driven by a very secular point of view. Do you have a belief system? If not, do you think it might be time to change your worldview and look through a different lens?

    1. Samantha, are you saying there is something wrong with secularism? As an optimistic atheist fully committed to improving life wherever I go, I take a lot of offense to that accusation.

    2. I have to say, I'm with M. F. on this one. Obviously Jessica has a 'belief system'. If you've been reading her blog at all you'll see her writing and general attitudes are defined by compassion, love, kindness, joy, honesty, patience, etc. I think the lens she's looking through is just fine--in fact, I think many people could learn a lesson from her.

    3. I have sex because I want to believe that someone needs me. That's why by the age of 20 I slept with 32 people..

    4. I'm with Samantha on this one.Although I don't think the answer is a belief system per say. I think Samantha was referring to a relationship with God. The one who created her and gives her grace, love, compassion, honesty, joy etc. Remember that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Even atheists who finally come to terms with the truth are accepted along with those that have always known.

    5. Can't you all just leave religion out and let her write what she wants without some religious nut telling her to pray in their god... she is old enough to make decisions. Read the blog without judgement or move on!

  5. You are welcome to improve your life and do whatever you wish. This comment has nothing to do with you. As a non-believer I do not expect you to understand my comment

  6. Anonymous: "having sex just so that you stop feeling lonely is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

    Really? Then there are lots of people in the world partaking in a behavior that you would characterize as ridiculous. And anyone having sex for reasons of emotional insecurity needs serious help and should bring it up with their therapist. So... basically most people in the world should be seeing their therapists about their sexual behavior....

    Look, there are definitely degrees of emotional dependence on sex, and I'm not saying sex is a productive response to loneliness - in fact there is evidence that casual sex at least is highly counterproductive, and perhaps this is what you were trying to say? Yet it is certainly not an uncommon response, nor abnormal, nor one requiring in the cases Jess writes about, the "serious help" you speak of.

    There is actually ample research to back the claim that casual sex is a fairly common response to loneliness, and I suspect research on sex in committed relationships could reveal some of the same dynamics:

    Levinson, Jaccard, and Beamer, 1995, Older adolescents' engagement in casual sex: Impact of risk perception and psychosocial motivations, Journal of Youth and Adolescence

    "For women, there was also evidence that casual sex attitudes are also rooted in beliefs that sex will reduce loneliness."

    Or for the cross-cultural viewpoint:

    Fekadu, 2001, Casual sex-debuts among female adolescents in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Ethiopian Journal of Health Development.

    "Some of the reasons for sexual debut were identified, with 'maintaining relation with male partner's (51%), 'for the sake of passionate love'(45.8%), and 'to overcome loneliness' (40%) as the three most important reasons."

    Human sexuality is complex and I think Jess is spot on here. Few people (well, the majority of women at least) have sex strictly for sexual pleasure, just as few have sex strictly for loneliness - the motivations mix together, perhaps with a primary motivation taking over. For many it is difficult to separate the sexual from emotional needs and even in a healthy, committed relationship, sex of course takes on certain dimensions of emotional need fulfillment. And in unhealthy committed relationships sex can be just as damaging as in casual encounters.

    I think Jess is right that sex often has transactional dimensions that we don't always think about, and having sex motivated mostly by loneliness is not an abnormal practice. I do think it can be stigmatized, however, which perhaps makes us less willing to recognize and admit it.

  7. Sex was created by God for a man and woman who are married. God has the patent on sex and when we mess with His patent we get in trouble. Transactional sex was never a part of the plan and never will be.

    1. God created sex for a man and woman who are married? My Bible must've been missing the part where Adam and Eve get married (maybe that's in the prequel?)... transactional sex on the other hand makes quite a few appearances in the Bible, see for example: Mary Magdalene.

    2. Yea you must be reading the wrong bible. Adam and Eve were married, by God himself and Mary Madeleine was a great story of redemption just like I hope Jessica's will be! Go Jessica!

    3. Really, for most women of the church (and still in a lot of churches) marriage was completely transactional. Many churches still consider the women moving from the protection of her family to protection of her husband. I am not saying that is the only or primary motivator now, but in the past it was. Saying you need to be a good wife to be able to have sex to be able to get into heaven is indeed a transaction. You are giving your body to get to heaven.

  8. I don't think you have a "screwed up" attitude towards sex... people have sex for reasons other than just sexual pleasure all the time - it's a way to show intimacy, to show someone you care about them, and to let them show you that they care too, and there are a lot of other reasons.

    I'm currently living abroad in a developing country myself... I definitely relate to the loneliness you described in your previous blogs... living and working where I am is great, but it can be extremely difficult too. Reading this blog has really helped me on some of my bad days, just so you know.