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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Ties of Dependence: AIDS and Transactional Sex in Rural Malawi


Patron-client ties and a moral obligation to support needy kin are central to African social life, and are usually understood as operating in a very different realm than the exchange of sex for material support that Western observers have labeled “transactional sex.” Believed to be a major driver of the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, transactional sex is usually seen as akin to prostitution, a degraded form of sexual expression forced on vulnerable women by economic desperation. Based on evidence from rural Malawi, we argue that the exchange of sex for money is better understood as one of the many ties of unequal exchange in which Malawians and other Africans engage.

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