Fish for sex

Have you ever heard that saying, A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”? The cartoon that goes with it, of a fish awkwardly peddling a bike, makes me giggle inwardly.  This post is, unfortunately, a lot less silly than that, but I can’t get the quote out of my head. I recently learned that sometimes, a man needs a woman like a woman needs a fish.  This is a well-documented social behavior called “FFS” or Fish For Sex.

A year ago, the only thought I had about the link between conservation and sex was this: we should try to slow down population growth to reduce pressure on the environment.  Maybe simplistic, but that’s as far as a conclusion as I had come to, and I didn’t bother looking into it further.

And then I met Richard Pollnac, Eddie Allison, and Jamie Bechtel.  I can thank them for educating me on this issue, and I’m going to attempt to explain it here.

My studies are interdisciplinary, which is a good thing for someone like me- who asks so many questions.  So we have these four global pieces of the puzzle that we can kind of categorize like this:

1)   Environmental issue: collapsing fish stocks

2)   Development issue: population growth

3)   Economic issue: poverty

4)   Political issue: conflict over natural resources

Now, let’s add in one more:

5)   Public health issue: HIV/AIDS.

When this was first brought to my attention, I thought, huh? But here’s why we have to add HIV/AIDS to the list:

“Fishing communities in developing countries are among the socio-professional groups with the highest levels of HIV/AIDS prevalence” (Béné and Merten 2008).

Ouch.  So we add into this quintuple-whammy of issues the fact that sometimes women trade sex to obtain fish from a fisherman.  This can happen if women lack the resources to catch the fish herself and also lack the cash to purchase the fish.

Widowed, divorced, or single women are most likely to trade sexual favors for fish. They could be trying to get fish for themselves, for their families to eat, or to re-sell. They are often portrayed as either willing participants or portrayed as the alternative-victims (Béné and Merten 2008). But I could imagine that the situation is not always one or the other.  I have been fortunate enough to have never been in the position where I had to make a decision like this, and I cannot place judgment on the choice a woman would make to feed herself or her children.  In fact, it’s incredibly challenging for me to even imagine how difficult this is on a personal level, so I prefer to step back and examine it from a wider lens.

What I can say is, the trading of fish for sex is clearly connected to all these other global issues.  While 97% of the documented cases on FFS were in Africa and only 3% were in Asia, it seems that there is really not enough documentation of these issues to understand the problem.

I would argue that FFS is actually “hiding” the poverty of women in coastal communities.  FFS is an economic transaction that you won’t see on any ledgers, but it is affecting the spread of HIV/AIDS and hiding the real economics of resource-dependent communities.  “Most of these fish-for-sex transactions involve unprotected sex, putting both parties—the fisher and the fish trader—at risk” (Béné and Merten 2008).

When we evaluate the resources of a coastal community, as I have observed in the Philippines, we might ask questions like “what profit do you normally get for one kilo of fish?”  What we are not doing is asking fishermen “how many times a week do you accept sexual favors as payment for fish?” Is anyone asking women “how many sexual acts do you participate in each week to feed your family?”  For example, if a woman is willing and highly valued as a sexual partner, how many partners on average before she contracts HIV?  If she is not valued as a sexual partner, does she send her daughter to the fishermen instead?  If a fisherman can choose one port over another where to take his catch, does this disproportionately affect the spread of HIV?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think we should be looking for them. At the very least, we need to be putting together the puzzle, piece by piece.


If you are inclined to my main source, it’s called “Women and Fish-for-Sex: Transactional Sex, HIV/AIDS and Gender in African Fisheries” (Béné and Merten 2008).