Transactional sex and sex work are defined as mutually exclusive in both popular parlance and scholarly debates in South Africa, and yet this qualitative study based in Johannesburg suggests that the lines between these practices are blurring under neoliberalism, as poor women are forced to rely extensively (and sometimes exclusively) on sexual exchange to support themselves and their families. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of gift exchange, the paper argues that the historic institutions of trust and reciprocity upon which transactional sex relies are threatened by the precarity instigated by neoliberalism. As a result, poor women’s habituses have been destabilized. They respond by buttressing symbolic distinctions that are no longer supported by structural scaffolding and incorporate imaginary identifications of an idealized time when South Africa had full employment and stable gender customs, as melancholic loss. The faltering of the symbolic economy of gift exchange affords women both increasing freedom and precarity. Overall, the project contributes to our understanding of how relations between intimacy and the economy are reconfigured in the face of structural crisis and how this shapes peoples’ subjectivities.
American Journal of Cultural Sociology – Springer Journals
Published: Sep 2, 2016