Sexually-transmitted debt

People who live on low incomes frequently have debts. On the one hand, this is hardly surprising — few among the poor have savings available for “rainy days”.  If the car breaks down or the furnace stops working, borrowing may be the only way to fix the problem. On the other hand, credit is far less available to people on low income because of their limited ability to repay loans.  That said, people regularly move into and out of poverty, so the poor often carry debts that were incurred when their income was higher.

While the debts of the poor vary in size and source, one particularly salient form of debt is called “sexually transmitted debt” (or, far less colourfully, “relationship debt”).  Bob Klotz, a Toronto lawyer who is an expert on the topic, cites a  definition that appears in a 1994 report by the Australian Law Reform Commission, a definition that seems to repeat one from an earlier Australian conference paper:[1]

 … the transfer of responsibility for a debt incurred by a party to his/her partner in circumstances in which the fact of the relationship, as distinct from an appreciation of the reality of the responsibility for the debt, is the predominant factor in the partner accepting liability.

Much of the legal discussion of sexually-transmitted debts (STD) deals with those who guarantee loans taken by their partners for business purposes.  For the poor, as documented in a qualitative study in the United Kingdom, it is credit cards that more often generate problems.[2]  If one partner is unable to get a card, the other partner has difficulty resisting the request to “simply” add his or her partner as a secondary cardholder.

As Klotz (and others) have pointed out, the law must balance two conflicting points of view in dealing with sexually-transmitted debt.[3]  The “public” face of the law tends to treat individuals, male or female, as fully rational, fully capable and fully aware of the responsibilities they take on. In the “private” sphere, however, women are much more likely to face physical and emotional abuse and to be financially dependent on their partners. Those who find themselves in this situation are likely to agree to joint responsibility for debts, judging the risks of not agreeing to their partners’ demands to be greater than the risks of later being held liable for the debts.

Another common form of debt among the poor arise when people fall behind in rent or utility payments. More about that later.


[1] Klotz, R.A. 2008. “Sexually-Transmitted Debt”. Paper presented at the National Family Law Conference. Deerhurst, Ontario in July 2008. Retrieved from http://www.divorcemate.com/library/FLC%20Sexually%20Transmitted%20Debts.pdf. The report from the Australian Law Reform Commission can be found at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/alrc/publications/reports/69part2/#Contents and the citation to the conference paper appears at Note 1176.

[2] Dearden, C., J. Goode, G. Whitfield, & L. Cox. 2010. “Credit and debt in low-income families.” Joseph Rountree Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/credit-debt-low-incomes-families

[3] Klotz, op. cit, p. 5. See also Kaye, M. 1997. “Equity’s treatment of sexually transmitted debt”.  Feminist Legal Studies Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 35–55.

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About Saul Schwartz

Professor School of Public Policy and Administration Carleton University Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6 Canada
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