‘Social Relief’: HIV Hotspots, Truckstop Sex Work and Violence in East Africa



Shanti A. Parikh, Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology and of African and African-American Studies, Washington University, St. Louis

HIV hotspots in Uganda and in much of sub-Saharan Africa have not seen the same reduction in infection rates as the rest of the country, and in fact, infection rates are increasing in some hotspots. Truckstop sex workers and long-distance truckers are reported as having some of the highest transmission rates.  In Uganda, highway sex workers have an HIV prevalence of nearly 9 times greater than current national average (56.5% vs. 6.7%) and long-distance truckers report prevalence ranging from 3.7 to 4.8 times higher than the national average (25%-32%). Key HIV risk factors include labor-related mobility, stigma, poverty, inconsistent condom use, drug and alcohol use, violence, criminalization, dense sexual networks, and lack of knowledge and engagement with HIV services. Recent reports also propose that there is also a general lack of understanding of the dynamics of sexual networking in hotspots that are fueling the spread of HIV.  

This talk uses ethnographic data and interviews with 60 sex workers and 35 truckers and local customers to examine the sex work economy at rural truckstops along the TransAfrican Highway in east-central Uganda. I develop the concept of “moral paradox” to explore the tension between truckstops as being vital to the economy and social life of these otherwise poor towns, but residents also viewing them as leading to moral decline and disease spread. While sex workers (and, to some extent, their mobile clients) are stigmatized, local businesses as well as elected officials recognize the economic and social value of the presence of commercial sex and devise ways to attract such business away from neighboring truckstops. Sex work is also seen as providing “social relief” for local and transient men who would otherwise commit sex crimes against wives, daughters, and other women deemed worthy of patriarchal protection. Within this moral paradox, sex workers become the target of physical and discursive violence, allowing residents and male customers to invent a moral authority and reputation by publicly repudiating and abusing sex workers. I examine how sex workers utilize their networks that expand across connected sex work locations as a form of risk reduction, and how they adapt their practices of intimacy as new technologies such as GPS and mobile phones shorten the length of time and frequency that their customers are stationed at their comfort stop. The ultimate aim of the longer project on which this is based is to develop a 2-way texting application that uses a predictive risk assessment to generate confidential and tailored HIV interventions for highly mobile and vulnerable sex workers and truckers. 

Shanti Parikh is Associate Professor of Anthropology and the Associate Chair of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work focuses on HIV, gender, race, HIV and more recently Covid-19, and the affective economy as fueling vulnerability and risk but also serving as a source of pride, status and protection.  She recently co-edited a collection in American Ethnologist with artists/activists (“artivists”) on the afterlife of Black death and resistance based on the Ferguson uprising in Missouri, a movement that has been called the birth of the 21st-century Black resistance.  



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