Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sex in Africa: Crime, Sin, Censure and Punishment

Disapproval of sex and measures to influence sexual behavior are nothing new. But HIV has been a godsend to those who love to disapprove, and especially those who are involved in measures to control sexual behavior. 'Use a condom so you will have fewer children' can be supplemented with 'also, you will die if you don't'. All sorts of criminal behavior, such as sexual assault and rape, commercial sex work, trafficking, organized crime and intravenous drug use, are associated with what is often just ordinary sex. The mere presence of HIV in a population is seen by the HIV industry as an indication of rampant levels of 'unsafe' sexual behavior. High levels of HIV prevalence can be used as clear evidence of behavior that can only be described as inhuman, except that we don't want to be seen to use such descriptions, thought we don't mind suggesting them.

Failure to provide women with safe sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, even in countries where tens of millions are spent on ineffective HIV 'interventions', is a cruel and degrading form of denial. Failure to provide women with access to safe abortion is just one SRH service the denial of which can result in avoidable illness, suffering and death. In countries where SRH services are poor, inaccessible and unsafe, abortion is often a crime, punishable by law if the woman survives, even if she is seriously injured in the process. It is also a 'sin'. Yet the need for abortion can arise whether the woman has engaged in licit or illicit sex. HIV can be transmitted whether or not there is a crime or a sin being committed. Failure to provide SRH services can also result in serious injury, infection and even death. But those are neither crimes nor sins, it seems.

In countries where SRH services are considered too expensive to provide for everyone that needs them, money can often be found for contraception. Where contraception protects against HIV, this is cited as an additional benefit. But lack of contraception can not be blamed when the most urgent problem is poor, inaccessible or downright dangerous SRH services. Worse still, some forms of contraception are themselves thought to be dangerous, for example, injectable Depo Provera and similar hormonal methods. Implants and other invasive methods are aggressively promoted, like Depo Provera is, where the safety of health facilities can not be guaranteed (by the UN, for example).

Whether HIV and sex are seen as a sin or a crime or both, some countries offer women sterilization; some don't just offer it, they forcibly sterilize the woman, even telling them that it is mandated by law, apparently. In Western countries, where safe SRH services are more widely available, most HIV positive women can give birth to HIV negative babies. Advances have even been made in African countries to reduce mother to child transmission, though not as successfully as in countries where SRH services are accessible and safe. Forcible sterilizations have been carried out in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Namibia and other countries, sometimes using funding from rich countries, where forced sterilization would not even be permitted, let alone seen as necessary.

While it may seem a lot less extreme, the aggressive lobbying and huge amounts of funding available for mass male circumcision, arguably, fits into the pattern of censure and even punishment for sexual behavior. The plan is to circumcise tens of millions of African men in countries where most are denied safe SRH services, indeed, any SRH services at all. The denial of the right to bodily integrity alone, on such a scale, should send out warning signals to those who profess a love for human rights (or even people who would see themselves as opponents of mass, multi-government sponsored oppression). But the less well publicized issue of infant circumcision, which could involve hundreds of millions of people, relates not to prudery about sex, but rather a perverse kind of prudery about the assumed sexual behavior of their parents and the future sex lives of infants, by implication (and sometimes a dangerously misinformed prudery about hygiene).

That these programs are all carried out in African countries is not purely accidental. Sex, after all, attracts censure, justified by reference to high HIV prevalence figures in African countries. The programs are even (sometimes covertly) argued for using vaguely expressed, but nevertheless neo-eugenicist grounds, the foundations of which go back to the days when population control was seen as the obvious paradigm for development (it still is by many institutions); back to the days when independence for African countries was still seen as an experiment doomed to failure (ditto); even to the days when people could openly talk about Africans as if they weren't quite people in the same sense that white people are (whatever about non-white, non-Africans).

HIV allows western institutions to continue with their interference in African countries, backed up by what is a deeply rooted racism, sexism, prudery and disapproval of people considered to be not quite like us, not quite like they 'ought' to be. It continues a long tradition of condemning people, especially women, for normal human behavior, particularly if they experience some kind of injury or are the victim of some kind of anti-social, illegal or otherwise proscribed behavior. HIV is used as just another stick to beat people over the head with, in addition to poverty, illiteracy, poor health conditions, inadequate healthcare, gender and economic inequalities, and much else. Sex is not criminal behavior, nor is illness, and health is not a result of censure, punishment or control.

[For more about non-sexual HIV transmission and mass male circumcision, see the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site.]


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