Why do some women engage in transactional sex? Some unconventional economic research worth reading

From Jon Robinson and Ethan Yeh, an excellent new paper:

Why do women engage in transactional sex? While much of the explanation is that sex-for-money pays more than other jobs, we use a unique panel dataset constructed from 192 self-reported diaries of sex workers in Western Kenya to show that women who supply transactional sex develop relationships with regular clients, and that these clients send transfers in response to negative income shocks.

Regular clients are the primary source of inter-person insurance that women receive, and women report in a separate survey that client transfers are an important reason that they participate in the market.

This is one of the more thoughtful and innovative data collection efforts I know of.

Field economists (including me) can learn something here: our entire body of research does not need to rise and fall on large-N, two-panel surveys.

Another new paper of Jon’s, with Pascaline Dupas:

This paper studies the microeconomic impacts of the political crisis and civil conflict that immediately followed the December 2007 Presidential Election in Kenya.

Income, expenditures, and consumption dramatically declined for a broad segment of the rural population for the duration of the conflict. To make up for the income shortfall, women who supply transactional sex engaged in higher risk sex both during and after the crisis.

While this particular crisis was likely too short for these behavioral responses to seriously increase the risk of HIV or other STIs for these women, such responses could have long-term repercussions for health in countries with longer or more frequent crises.

Overall, our results suggest that social unrest can be an important channel through which political instability can affect long-term outcomes such as health.

John and Pascaline and I were all RAs in the infamous Busia in 2003. Ethan arrived shortly thereafter. They, apparently, made better use of their time than I did…

P.S. I feel that some enterprising JPALer should update the Busia wikipedia page to highlight it as Ground Zero of the RCT in development movement.

8 thoughts on “Why do some women engage in transactional sex? Some unconventional economic research worth reading

  1. Ha! I’m surprised you guys don’t accost me more for that.

    Note to self: never again buy beef in an open air market in Busia then walk around until you find some guy with a meat grinder, then serve to all your friends.

  2. i always welcome research that takes the transactional sex conversation away from the moralists and puts it into an economic perspective. refreshing and more more meaningful for anyone working with sex workers to improve their lives and protect their rights.

  3. Professor Blattman,

    These papers look fascinating. It does bring to mind a question I have started thinking about more and more recently, of how to know when quantitative or qualitative research is more appropriate. Past development economics courses that I have taken seemed to provide evidence from time to time that quantitative large-N surveys yielded better and more accurate results of what was actually going on than anecdotes from the field. I don’t think this was necessarily a point either professor was trying to make, but I picked it up nonetheless. Any thoughts you have on this would be appreciated.

    Thank you very much, and keep up the great work!

  4. 2003 as ground zero for RCTs in development? Progresa in ’97 was randomized, and Ravallion sneered when I implied that was one of its special characteristics. Am I missing something?

  5. Because sexworkers can earn to buffer from shocks, does this make it a desirable job option? Did this research improve their lives? Perhaps leading to sex worker stimulating policies so people (oddly enough mainly women – why don’t more men opt for this career path I wonder?) had a ‘decent’ income? Is trying to see if sex workers have alternatives unmeaningful and moralistic? Gee, Lu – what bizarre reverence for economic research as ‘meaningful’.

  6. Little late on the follow up here, but partially my response is “duh” — anyone who had read “Hustling Is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl” (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0226103528) would know that.

    Of course, it’s always good to have statistical data to confirm what should have been obvious. :)