Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sex, Christians and Abstinence

Christians are unique in the animal kingdom in that they only experience the desire and even gain the ability to have sex once they are in a relationship of a sort that is approved by their church. If you don't believe me, just read a copy of a Christian bible. Ok, you have to interpret it a bit, but you'll find it there if you want to, and many people want to.

Or perhaps you would not take advice about sex from people who claim to only indulge in sexual intercourse for purposes of procreation? They are the last people I would ask for such advice. It is not supposed to be enjoyable and it is not even supposed to occur at all until approved by the church through marriage vows. Oh, and if you do 'transgress' you must feel terribly guilty and confess to someone who is probably exactly the same as you.

It's been a long time since (my last confession?) I have blogged as I have been travelling a relatively short distance very slowly. That's public transport in East Africa. And since I have reached my destination, Kigoma, Western Tanzania, there has been no electricity. The internet cafe I am writing from is supplied by a diesel generator that shudders and threatens to cut out at regular intervals. So I'll have to keep this posting short.

Several papers I have read on HIV transmission mention lack of diversion or entertainment and boredom as one of the factors in transmission. The man I am staying with mentioned the boring evenings several times and we killed some time by working late, by candle light, taking a long walk, stopping in a pub for a soda and chatting. But we would both have preferred to do something more entertaining or even just read with real electric lights.

Reading is not a big thing in Tanzania. It's very hard to get books and many people have difficulty with reading large amounts of text. So I don't even expect a big demand for books to develop any time soon. TV is popular but those who can afford TV may not be able to afford a generator to run it. Radio is a possibility, but evening with so few things to do and so little money to spend inevitably leads people to pursue cheaper and more readily available activities.

But there doesn't need to be a power cut or lack of things to do for sex to be an option, it's not just a way of filling in time. People don't need to list sex as a hobby no more than they need to list eating. They won't die if they don't have sex but nor will sexual desire go away. In fact, the desire for sex will not go away even if a load of Christians shout very often and very loudly about how you will die if you have sex of a sort they don't approve of.

One of the most extraordinary consequences of the HIV pandemic is the reaction of the Christian churches. They have been preaching abstinence, restraint, poverty and whatever else while practicing the opposite for two thousand years. They manage to attract the poorest people to give away a large chunk of their pittance to a church that lives in splendour. And they are supposed to abstain from their natural desires because of the dogma of people who, very often, know little about abstinence.

Even ostensibly secular states, such as the US, have spent millions of dollars at home and in developing countries on 'abstinence only' sex education. The word 'abstinence' is not just the absence of sex, a run of bad luck, perhaps. It refers to a decision to not have sex until marriage. The word has inherent religious and moral connotations. The policy has been a failure in the sense that most pledgers have sex as much as non-pledgers. In fact, many pledgers soon deny that they took a pledge. Worse still, the pledgers are less likely to use condoms or any form of birth control.

Here in East Africa, I have come across many interpretations of 'sex education', 'abstinence', moral issues, etc. There are those who teach 'abstinence' without even telling people what sex is. Of course, they know, vaguely, what sex is. But they are supposed to be teaching sex education. The word 'abstinence' is not clearly understood by people but even if plain English was used (without the religious and moral baggage), it seems difficult to comprehend the imperative to avoid doing something when you don't know what that something is.

Sex education programmes need to be mindful of what sex is, especially for those who claim not to indulge in sex. HIV is spread, to a large extent, by sex between heterosexuals. But people can be taught what sex is, what sexually transmitted infections are, how to ensure that you don't take risks that might result in unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection, etc. And the conditions of people's lives, the conditions that determine when, where and how sexual intercourse takes place, these have little to do with sex.

So if people are too squeamish or moral or religious or whatever to talk about sex, and I really think they should avoid the subject, they could better spend their time and money on infrastructure, poverty, gender inequality, poor health and education and many other areas of people's lives. It could be claimed, by the way, that many orphanages, schools and hospitals are run by religious institutions. But the money they spend represents a fraction of the money extracted from church followers. In areas like Kigoma, perhaps some of the churches could consider 'tax exemptions' or monetary rebates from the very poor.



KenyaLuv said...

Throwing out abstinence would be stupid. Why not using many methods to fight the disease. You cant expect the church to endorse adultery though. thats just unrealistic.

Simon said...

Thank you for your comment. I am not advocating 'throwing out' abstinence. First, use a term that doesn't have the moral and religious connotations of abstinence. Second, get rid of 'abstinence-only' programmes, which promote abstinence as the only option with little or no information about alternatives. Third, teach about sex and safe sex as well, otherwise 'abstinence' doesn't mean anything.

In addition, you should check up rates of 'adultery' in Kenya (another things I am not advocate). In most areas, it is married people who are at greater risk of becoming infected with HIV. Even unmarried women who have many partners are not as likely to become infected with HIV as married women in Kisumu, for example. This raises questions about the protective benefits of Christian marriage and the effectiveness of Christian moralising about sex and HIV to date.

I agree, there are many methods to fight HIV. Those include economic, health, educational, infrastructural, technological and other methods, such as condoms, something the Christian churches have been particularly resistant to.

Anonymous said...

Hi Simon, amazing post!! And really amazing blog. Fair play to you. I'm learning a lot from your posts, fascinating to hear such an intelligent insider's perspective. Thanks and keep it up.


Simon said...

Steady on old girl! Thanks Siobhan, likewise. I look forward to reading more of your blog. We have the issue of sustainability in common. I hope I can get time to visit you in Ireland when I'm next in Europe. Meantime, love to you all. S