This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico
Alejandra* is not a sex worker. She doesn't have sex with strangers in exchange for money and she doesn't stand on a street corner at night waiting for clients. But she did recently spend half an hour having sex in exchange for free internet. The thing is, her salary doesn't cover certain things she wants—like a marble coffee table, bottles of whiskey, a washing machine, or wifi. Alejandra also loves having sex—as long as she gets to choose her partner, of course. She, and a growing number of Mexicans, combine the two by trading goods and services for sex.
[Translation from Spanish: I fix stuff in exchange for sex
I can fix electric equipment, clear computers from viruses and spyware, and help with the set up, etc.
For: sex. I fix your stuff in exchange for sex without commitment.
Exchange rate: electronics and informatics]
Bartering might be an ancient form of transaction predating the concept of money, but these days, if you want a driving lesson from someone in exchange for half an hour with your body, you just go online. It's something that happens everywhere in the world, but is a more common occurrence in developing countries—like my home country of Mexico.
I wanted to know what is being bartered for what exactly, and what kind of people are into it, so using the name "Pancho" I created a fake account on Mexican Craigslist pages, Facebook, and the Spanish bartering website ofrezcoacambio.com. Craigslist is not a particularly wild place as far as sex bartering websites go—for instance, during my research, I came across a woman who wanted to exchange sex for a conversation about literature. She described herself as a "lonely soul who won't look down on other people" and "a writer struggling to make a name for herself." Her ad wasn't explicitly bartering sex, but was featured on the 'personal' section of Craigslist, just under the 'Woman Looking for Man' and 'Casual Encounters' tabs.
[Free!!! Unemployed gardener...
Free!! Gardening for sex. If you are discreet, contact me...
...gardener offering his services to women between 18 and 50 years old in exchange for sex. I can clean your garden and prune your trees for free, barter, economic aid, whatever you wanna call it. Discretion. Age: 40]
The second most important barter network in Mexico is ofrezcoacambio.com. Even if most of its users seem to be from Spain, there is no shortage of Mexican ads. Here, you will mostly find horny gardeners, computer nerds, and plumbers offering to fix your garden, your tablet, or your pipes asking for a little affection in return. You'll find them by typing the word "sex" in the search bar.
But the best place to get something in exchange for sex in Mexico is Facebook. A couple of years ago, a guy named Alex* created a closed group for that purpose. The description reads: "NO MONEY... only stuff or services for sex. Anyone offering to pay with money will be banned. We're nice, respectful people. It's up to each member to decide whether the deal is fair or not, and if he or she is willing to accept it. No inbox stalking! If you do that, you will be deleted and banned from the group. People under 18 are not allowed. If you find a member who is not serious or fails to pay, please report him/her."
This is where I met Alejandra, a 26-year-old girl whose apartment is filled with stuff she got in exchange for sex, from her bed to the wifi she's connected to while chatting with me. It was hacked from a neighbor by a nice young man who charged her 30 minutes of sex. "I don't consider my self a sex worker. I don't charge. People just give me stuff for sleeping with whomever I want," she messaged me.
My interaction with the group was cut off when one of the members found out my profile was fake and decided to ban me, only three days after I was accepted.
While Alejandra offers half an hour of sex in exchange for an internet password, most people who offer sex for services in Mexico are in a deeply vulnerable situation. Many women living in extreme poverty do it to cover their basic needs. A paper published by the National Institute of Public Health, titled "Compensated Sex: A practice at the heart of young Mexican women's vulnerabilities (STI/HIV/AIDS)," explains that side of sex barter.
"In the study conducted in the state of Guadalajara, a focus group noted the following situations in which sex for services occurred: 'young, heterosexual men having sex with men in exchange for gifts,' 'unpaid prostitutes—young women having sex in exchange for goods or services,' or 'young women willing to have sex in exchange for a dose of any drug,'" reads the report.
Another factor that adds to the vulnerability of the men and women who offer sex on these terms is the social stigma. "Culturally, it's quite hard for young women in Mexico to accept they had sex outside the traditional framework, let alone to accept – even for themselves – that they had sex in exchange for something. They risk the social stigma from they outside world, like being called gold diggers or whores – two terms used by the young men within our focus groups," read the report.
In one interview cited by the report, a woman says: "...there's always the fear of being left with nothing. There aren't many jobs at all, and the ones that are there are usually pretty terrible. So when an opportunity comes, sometimes you just have to accept it [and have sex in exchange for something]."
The line between barter sex as a coercive and a non-coercive act is thin. Most studies into moneyless sex transactions show that the act itself is deeply rooted in the combination of poverty, Western consumerism, and the glaring economic gap between men and women.
"Internet service costs at least 500 mxn ($27), and this guy hacked a password for me so I could use my neighbour's wifi in exchange for sex. It's the best investment I've made in my life," says Alejandra.
* Names have been changed