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Can transactional sex ever foster genuine emotional intimacy?

Tan-colored painting of Cambodian dancers. from: PWCD - Transactional Sex.


Written by: Ellie Trotman

Transactional or ‘commercial’ sex is a worldwide phenomenon that occurs when a person engages in sexual activity in exchange for material goods. However, transactional sex does not automatically mean prostitution. A prostitute is a person who engages professionally in sexual activity in exchange for payment, and is a more ‘western derived category with a narrow and morally laden’ meaning (Leclerc-Madlala, 2003, p215.). There are many forms of transactional sex – including Sugar Daddy relationships in Kenya, professional girlfriends as found in Cambodia and sex workers in the Dominican Republic and Brazil. Unlike prostitution, the ‘exchange of gifts’ in transactional sex/ relationships ‘is part of a broader set of obligations that might not involve a predetermined payment’ (Hunter 2002, p.101 as cited by Leclerc-Madlala). However, the distinctions between these categories are not watertight and sometimes depend on a persons’ self-identification (Hoefinger, 2011). Similarly, people who engage in ‘commercial sex’ are usually doing so to satisfy their wants, not their needs. A person’s basic needs are defined as food, money, and shelter – whereas their wants can range from new clothes and visas to genuine love and intimacy (Leclerc-Madlala, 2003).


Potential Distinctions…

Professional girlfriends in Cambodia are officially employed as ‘bar hostesses’ and aim to date rich, usually western men in order to receive material gifts. This is a simplified explanation when in reality, these Cambodian women create relationships to obtain money, wealth, visas, and ultimately love. Hoefinger states there are three criteria for a woman to be a Professional girlfriend: “(1) relying on the formation of these relationships as a means of livelihood and their motivations are initially materially-based; (2) they engage in multiple overlapping transactional relationships, usually unbeknownst to their other partners; (3) there is a performance of intimacy, whereby the professed feelings of love and dedication lie somewhere on a continuum between genuine and feigned, and where meanings of the term ‘love’, itself, range from sexual, passionate and/or romantic – to caring, respectful and appreciative.” (Hoefinger, 2011, p.246). Hoefinger defines this type of ‘transactional’ sex/ relationship as one that is initiated by ‘their initial material motivations in gaining something from the intimate interactions, be it gifts, money, drinks, or even houses and opportunities to travel´ (Hoefinger, 2011, p. 246). However, these Cambodian women (professional girlfriends) also hope to find love within these relationships and wish to ultimately marry their western boyfriend.

By Oeur Sokuntevy ‘Maneater’ via Culture Trip

The Value of Western Boyfriends…

As western boyfriends are not actually ‘clients,’ a professional girlfriend has a choice in who she initiates a relationship with – a person she could see potentially fulfilling all the above needs (Hoefinger, 2011). Therefore, does this not imply that genuine emotional intimacy can emerge from these relationships and types of transactional sex? After all, emotional intimacy is one of the key desires of a professional girlfriend when pursuing a western boyfriend as well as more material gifts. Whilst society may try to label these women as ‘broken,’ TURN PAGE

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