Benefits and constraints of intimate partnerships for HIV positive sex workers in Kibera, Kenya
Ngugi, Elizabeth N
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Introduction: Research on the intimate partnerships of female sex workers (FSWs) tends to focus on the risks associated with these relationships. This paper takes as its starting point that the situation of FSWs is better understood by including knowledge of the benefits of their intimate partnerships. Specifically, we employ the conceptual framework provided by emergent research examining intimacy as a complex fusion of affective and instrumental dimensions among sex workers. This perspective allows us to frame information about FSWs ’ intimate partnerships within a behaviour-structural approach that is helpful for identifying how intimate partnerships can be a source of both benefit as well as increased risk to FSWs. Methods: Our results are based on a mixed-methods study carried out in the summer of 2011 in Kibera, Kenya. We conducted face-to-face interviews (n=30) with a non-probability sample of FSWs stratified by age who self-identified as Human Immune Virus positive (HIV+). We asked about participants ’ involvement in current and past intimate partnerships, and whether these relationships had a positive or negative impact on their health and well ‐ being. Results: Participants currently in intimate partnerships had fewer clients and thus lower incomes than those without intimate partnerships. Participants presently with partners were also more likely to receive some financial support from partners, to report lower intimate partner violence, and to narrate higher partner emotional support and greater assistance with medications. These participants were also more likely to have disclosed their sex work and HIV+ statuses to their partners. Intimate partnerships, on the other hand, showed increased risk of economic vulnerability and emotional dependence for FSWs. This became especially problematic for those participants in fragile relationships. Despite these variations, none of the differences between the two groups were statistically significant. Conclusions: Intimacy and transactional relations are bound up with one another and intersect with the structural realities and vulnerabilities; this is the case for sex workers in well-resourced and resourced-constrained countries alike. Rather than treating intimate partnerships as distinct from transactional relationships, FSWs ’ relationships should be viewed on a continuum of risk and support.