Previous research has documented the practice of transactional sex in sub-Saharan Africa and its association with gender-based violence, gender inequalities and HIV risk. At the same time, it has been suggested that women may use transactional sex to obtain a greater sense of control over their lives and their sexualities, and to garner access to resources. The aim of this study was to better understand the practice of exchanging alcohol for sex in alcohol-serving venues in a township in Cape Town, South Africa. Data were collected between June 2009 and October 2010. Six venues were included and observations were conducted in each for four one-week periods over the course of a year. In-depth qualitative interviews included 31 women and 13 men whom interviewers had observed as regular venue customers. Follow-up interviews were conducted with 24 respondents to explore emerging themes. Interviews were recorded and transcribed. Using a grounded theory approach, Atlas.ti was used to code transcripts, field notes, and analytical memos written about each document. Results revealed that alcohol was commonly used as a currency of sexual exchange in this setting, and both women and men understood that accepting alcohol from a man implied consent for sexual favors. Women reported a sense of agency in participating in the transactional sex dynamic, especially when they were able to manipulate it to meet their own ends without fulfilling the men's sexual expectations. At the same time, data revealed that the norm of transactional sex reinforced the undervaluing and commoditization of women. As identified elsewhere, transactional sex put both women and men at greater risk of HIV through multiple partners and inconsistent use of condoms, and the possibility of rape. Interventions are needed to address sexual risk behaviors and substance use within this context to prevent new HIV infections.
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