Rethinking Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Settings: Reflections for the way forward

Transactional Sex (TS) is often used as an umbrella term to encompass a wide range of practices ranging from sex work to sexual exploitation and abuse. TS is typically framed in humanitarian settings through reductive lenses that portray the person engaged in them as without agency, forced into “negative coping strategies” by a larger crisis. Academics and practitioners have challenged these dominant framings in the Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Contexts panel as part of the 6th International Humanitarian Studies Conference. The presentations highlighted both the complexity and the nuanced nature of TS in different contexts, and common trends spanning a broad spectrum of humanitarian and displacement settings, including Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), France, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, Switzerland, Syria, and Turkey. The panel offered a reflection of the ideologies and frameworks implicit in humanitarian operations, which can blind us to the diverse needs and strategies of those engaged in transactional sex.

Transactional sex in humanitarian contexts: contemporary paradigms and interpretations

Transactional sex is the exchange of sex for cash, goods, services, commodities, or privileges. It is often framed by humanitarians as a form of violence in and of itself. Characterised by victim/saviour relationships and rescue narratives, these problematic and essentialising representations can have real world implications on policy and programming, along with unintended, often negative impacts on the lives of those engaged in them. To further complicate matters, there is a lack of conceptual clarity, and standardised and consistent use of terminology, such that what many describe as “transactional sex” is commonly conflated and used interchangeably with survival sex, sexual exploitation and abuse, sex work or sex trafficking.

Transactional sexual relationships exist on a spectrum encompassing various states of consent, power, emotional attachment, economic compensation, and social acceptability. All panelists highlighted that the lived experiences of those engaged in transactional sex do not align well with these monolithic representations, and are rather shaped by numerous structural factors, relating to historical pathways of patriarchy, conflict conditions, and other social, economic, and individual factors that often intersect with intimate consensual relationships. There is growing recognition that interpretations of transactional sexual relationships are culturally determined and constructed, and that this work involves complex negotiation of strategies of agency. Transactional sex occurs against a backdrop of gendered social norms, which are constantly shifting, and may vary between and within countries and communities.

Limitations and challenges of the current discourse

This is not to say that transactional sex is necessarily a safe or desirable livelihood strategy. Transactional sexual relationships are shaped by various structural drivers and conditions that are often created by migration, and aid policies and politics, among other inherent power disparities that entail risks of gender-based violence, and negative impacts on sexual and reproductive health. However, it is crucial to recognise that individuals weigh such risks in relation to their own lives and define what safety and protection means for them. This is further shaped by other factors relating to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, social and cultural factors, and disability, for example. Research and empirical insights from practitioners are increasingly challenging the erasures of non-heteronormative experiences of transactional sex and calling for more intersectional approaches in research and programming.

People engaging in transactional sex and civil society groups, including human rights defenders, health advocates, sex worker-led organisations, NGOs, and grassroots movements, have already provided rich empirical insights and recommendations across a wide-range contexts, which, however, have not been taken up meaningfully by the humanitarian community. For example, in the post-panel Q&A it was highlighted how the Women´s Refugee Commission (WRC) Working with Refugees Engaged in Sex Work: A Guidance Note for Humanitarians, issued in 2016, might have been overshadowed by the #Aidtoo movement in 2017, and how a moral panic seldom allows for nuance and complexity. Moreover, we may also need to recognise that not all those who engage in TS identify as sex workers, and humanitarian actors do not necessarily see TS as sex work, which may be why such guidance can be interpreted very narrowly.  More recently, UNHCR and UNFPA launched the operational guideline Responding to the health and protection needs of people selling or exchanging sex in humanitarian settings  (2021) which will hopefully provide a clearer framework going forward in this regard.

The way forward: Rethinking transactional sex policy and programmes.

It is crucial to examine whose knowledge, voice, and power drives policy – or lack of it – on issues around TS, and how people engaged in TS in humanitarian settings, including migrants and refugees, become problematised, supported, and intervened upon by institutions based on vulnerabilities associated with and/or biases regarding gender, sexual behaviour and orientation. It is worth reflecting on why some experiences are omitted or marginalised, and how conditions of vulnerabilities are created by these very same institutions.

Transactional sex will continue to be a coping strategy for many individuals who make complex decisions and tradeoffs in humanitarian and displacement settings. Sometimes it may be the least risky option compared to the available alternatives. Bringing in the perspectives from and lived experiences of people engaging in transactional sex offers a crucial step in understanding their lives, decision-making process, desires, needs, or wants, and understanding. This includes, for example, the structural conditions and policies imposed by governments and humanitarian institutions that drive people into this practice, as well as considerations about whether they want to continue to engage in transactional sex safely or find other strategies. Ensuring sustainable and inclusive programming, and refraining from causing harm by perpetuating stigma and exclusion, centres on this more holistic reimagining of the issue of transactional sex as a complex social phenomenon.

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About the authors:

Clea Kahn has nearly 25 years of experience in the humanitarian sector in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. She holds an LL.M. in international human rights law, an MSc in psychology, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in counselling psychology. Clea focuses on protection of civilians, gender-based violence and migration/refugee issues, and is a member of the ListenH project: Livelihoods and transactional sex in Humanitarian Crises. She can be contacted at cleakahn@cleakahn.com.

Michelle Alm Engvall is a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in sex work and humanitarian action. Her research focuses on how framed understandings of transactional sex influence policy and programming and how this can lead to unintended consequences for affected populations. She can be contacted at michelle.a.engvall@gmail.com

Shirin Heidari is a senior researcher at the Global Health Centre, and research affiliate at the Gender Centre, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. She is the principal investigator of a multi-country multi-disciplinary research on transactional sex and health repercussions in forced displacement. She can be contacted at: shirin.heidari@graduateinstitute.ch

Megan Denise Smith is a humanitarian worker and gender-based violence specialist with ten years of experience working with migrants and refugees in Bangladesh, Egypt, Lebanon, Rwanda, and the UK. She is currently based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) where she has managed IOM´s GBV programming as part of the Rohingya refugee response since 2017. She can be contacted at megandenisesmith@gmail.com

Dorothea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University. Her focus is on aid-society relations: studying how aid is embedded in the context. She coordinates the ListenH project: Livelihoods and transactional sex in Humanitarian Crises. Email: hilhorst@iss.nl Twitter: @hilhorst_thea

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1 Comment
  • Marcel Leh
    April 5, 2022

    Merci pour vos importantes contributions.
    Je suis doctorant en Sociologie du genre et de la sexualité, j’écris ma thèse sur le sexe transactionnel chez les filles en situation de confiage à Bouaké (Côte-d’Ivoire).
    La documentation sur le sexe transactionnel en Côte d’Ivoire est quasi inexistante. Le pays enregistre pourtant un taux élevé de nouvelles contaminations chez les adolescentes âgées de 14 à 24 ans. Si les populations clés, ont longtemps porté le chapeau foyer de contamination, d’autres comportements à risques observés au sein de la population générale, notamment chez cette frange d la population, reste sous-documenté et même minimisé par les politiques et programmes de lutte contre le VIH/SIDA.
    Je suis pratiquement à la fin de ma thèse. Mes recommandations sont multiples et débouchent sur la mise sur pied d’un projet de recherche d’envergure sur le sexe transactionnel pour apporter une solution au VIH/SIDA d’ici 2030 en Côte-d’Ivoire.
    Jeune chercheur, novice, je voudrais donc m’allier à des chercheurs expérimentés et spécialistes de la question pour voir naître et prospérer ce projet.

    Je vous prie Mesdames, veuillez accorder de la considération et une suite favorable à mon message.

    M. LEH Bi Zanhan Guy-Marcel
    Doctorant en Sociologie du genre et Sexualité
    Université Alassane Ouattara | Bouaké
    Laboratoire Santé Sexualité Genre et Développement (LA2SGED)
    guylehbi10@gmail.com
    (225) 0777134459/0102183649