May 1, 2009

Let’s talk about… sex!

When I was a teaching assistant for an introduction to political science course in college and leading a discussion section on some of the challenges confronting Africa, I asked, “Why is HIV epidemic in parts of Africa but not Canada?” One student slouched in the back of the classroom raised his hand. “Because Africans have more sex?” (What he said was somewhat cruder actually.)

The inescapable fact about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa is that the primary means of transmission is heterosexual intercourse. That means any conversation about HIV is necessarily also a conversation about sex. Of course, it makes many people - including me, with my years of safe church training - uncomfortable to discuss sex and that impedes conversations about HIV.

I don’t know if I have special insight into the matter but I’ve been reading Edwin Cameron’s Witness to AIDS recently and he keeps discussing the complicated relationship between HIV, race, sex, and stigma in Africa and that sparked a few thoughts. Plus, people ask me about this quite often, it seems, so surely someone is interested somewhere.

One major question in explaining why HIV is epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa is whether or how it is related to different sexual practices or mores among Africans. This is what my erstwhile student was getting at and it is a very contentious issue. Helen Epstein’s book The Invisible Cure says Africans have sex differently than, say, Westerners and that explains the epidemic. Eileen Stillwaggon’s book AIDS and Ecology of Poverty says it is not a factor.

The people I have met in Itipini are not, I think, any more promiscuous than anyone else their age I’ve met in other places I’ve lived. I haven’t done an exhaustive survey of the sexual habits of everyone I’ve ever met everywhere I’ve ever lived but I think - based on what I see and hear and understand - that people in Itipini largely have one sexual partner at a time and that they are faithful to that person for an extended period of time.

What makes sex different in Itipini - and many parts of Africa - is that there is less privacy attached to it. This is for a very obvious reason. When a family of six, say, lives in a 10 foot by 10 foot shack with one or two beds jammed together, the older siblings are going to know exactly when and how their younger siblings were conceived.

I’ve asked some of my cultural interpreters in Itipini about this and they say this is just taken for granted. One told me that when she was growing up and living with her aunt temporarily, her aunt brought her boyfriend home and they started having sex in a bed just a foot or two away from where my friend - then 8 or 10 years old - was sleeping. My friend says she lit a match, looked over at the bed, and asked her aunt why she was crying and moaning. “As you can imagine,” my friend told me with a grin. “They were not very impressed with me.”

What I don’t have a good grasp on is how that firsthand knowledge of sex affects children as they grow up. I have seen young children striking sexually suggestive poses at times in Itipini, as if in imitation of their parents or older siblings, but I wonder if that’s a universal thing now, given the hyper-sexualization of western/global culture. I usually try to put a stop to it. But I wonder how many parents in Itipini do that. Children in Itipini are allowed to run freely from a shockingly young age. There are reasons that can be a good thing but it also means that there aren’t often parents around to put a stop to behaviour I would deem inappropriate. I saw two young boys, both three, the other day with their pants off peeing by the side of the road the other day. They both had conspiratorial grins on their faces that said they knew they were up to no good and were enjoying getting away with it. I told them to put their pants on but that was about all I had the vocabulary for.

And that’s a major problem. If I want to be relevant to the challenges facing people here, sex is obviously something I need to be able to talk about. But talking about sex in one’s own language is hard enough; in another language, it is enough to be paralyzing. For one thing, how do you figure out the right vocabulary, words that are neither distantly medical nor vulgar or rude? Then add in the gender overlay, that I am a young man talking primarily with young women about this, and then the power overlay, that I am educationally and economically more powerful than everyone I talk with, and it’s enough to make me just want to give up, which is what I mostly do.

Just one of those ongoing challenges in Itipini.