Monday, January 16, 2017

Dear Researcher, What Kind of Whore am I?

My last blog post was about a researcher who seems to have found what she was looking for (young girls who claim to have had sex for money to buy sanitary towels) and now uses the finding to get publicity and, presumably, funding, or justification for funding if she has already received some.

Ten percent of the 15 year olds, allegedly, made this claim, which amounts to fewer than 20 people from a survey of 3000. But the researcher took what they said at face value because they were saying the right thing. The researcher is selling menstrual cups (specifically, mooncups) in a high HIV prevalence area.

Another piece of research looked at serodiscordance, where each partner in a couple has a different HIV status, one positive and one negative (or they are each infected with a recognizably distinct viral type). It was found that more women than men are in discordant relationships, which is taken to indicate that women are more 'promiscuous' than men, or more 'promiscuous' than previously assumed.

The researchers concluded that "due to social desirability bias, women in stable relationships practice concurrent partnerships more than reported". In other words, the women whose partner was HIV negative but who were themselves HIV positive 'lied' about their sexual behavior.

The researchers, following the received view of HIV, believe that the virus is almost always transmitted through heterosexual sexual intercourse in high prevalence countries in 'Africa', but not in most countries outside of 'Africa'. Therefore, HIV positive women in a discordant relationship must have been lying.

In the mooncup research, the researcher believed what was heard, and reported it as she heard it. But in the serodiscordance research the researcher did not believe what was heard, so it was classed as a 'bias', no different from saying that those women were lying.

Although there are all kinds of names for various different biases that plague certain kinds of research, it's a bit harder to find names for the biases of researchers, who go into the field armed with their prejudices and the findings that they (and probably their funders and institutions, etc) seek, and proceed to grab what fits their preconceptions, discard what doesn't, and put a spin on anything else that can be salvaged.

A very disturbing paper claims to identify three paradigms of 'transactional sex', for those who thought it only referred to sex for money. They identify:

Sex for basic needs
Sex for improved social status
Sex and material expressions of love

So there you have it! Since the study is not about people who are seen as straightforward sex workers and people who are married, it's difficult to imagine what proportion of females could not be associated with any of these categories. Some authors on the subject conclude that females who don't receive anything for sex (and, I guess, some who do), are coerced into having sex.

This is about sex in 'African' countries, by the way, so you don't need to start thinking about any time you may have had sex that some zealous researcher could fit into one of their little boxes, unless you are 'African'. Of course, if you are male (and 'African') then you are likely to be a John or a sexual abuser.

So how can you tell if you have had sex for reasons that the researcher can not classify as transactional or forced, how to tell if you are a prostitute, a victim, a John or a sexual abuser? Or, looking at it another way, if you are not from an 'African' country, neither are you married, nor a sex worker, have all your sexual experiences been of a kind that these researchers might approve?

Those writing on the subject often talk of females lacking power, and of the intervention they are researching, such as marketing mooncups and the like, as 'empowering'. Indeed, the subject of power often arises in discussions of HIV in 'Africa'. As if we (the reseachers, NGOs, etc) have power and we are looking for downtrodden victims upon whom we may bestow it, if they just give the right answers to our questions (we can also tread down those awful men, too).

Shockingly, these well funded researchers really do wield great power in developing countries. They define what kind of person you are, a victim, an abuser, a prostitute, a john, and they tell others how to use these definitions, giving them a small share of their funding if they allocate people to the correct boxes.

The same researchers decide what they will accept as a valid response, on the one hand, and what they will put down to bias on the other, effectively calling the respondent a liar, unable or unwilling to accurately describe how they see themselves and their place in their own environment.

There are some who seem to go to the field with a blinkered view of HIV in high prevalence African countries, where they refuse to accept evidence that doesn't fit their preconceived notions of 'African' sexuality, where sex is generally paid for (somehow) or forced, always 'unsafe', rarely (if ever) for pleasure and certainly not for love. If you are a HIV positive 'African', heck, even if you just have sex, you are (probably) a whore or a john.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Questionable Research: Are Menstrual Cups A Hard Sell?

In May of 2016, the English Guardian gushed:

The 2015 study that they carried out is more careful in some ways. "Caution is suggested in interpreting the data provided, and particularly for analyses on low prevalence behaviors such as sex for money for sanitary products." The study also reveals that the number of 15 year olds who claimed to have had sex to get money, specifically to get sanitary pads, was fewer than 20.

Another Guardian article appeared in the last few days on the same subject. The articles are both promoting a menstrual cup as an alternative to expensive, disposable sanitary pads, or similar ware.

Access to sanitary ware is vital for the health and welfare of girls and women, and making devices like the menstrual cup available is an excellent alternative to the ridiculously expensive disposable sanitary ware available in most places.

But if it's a right, and vital for health, why dress this up as an attempt to 'rescue' 15 year olds who are said to be resorting to ‘transactional sex’ just to purchase sanitary pads? One of the researchers also claims the girls are often coerced into having sex.

Back in sensationalist mode, the recent Guardian article cites the same author and study:

Note, 3000 women, but fewer than 200 15 year olds. Both Guardian articles are about having sex for money to buy pads, rather than having sex in return for pads. But the abstract of the 2015 article seems to blur this distinction, which I would argue is an important one if we are to judge whether this research is useful, however abused, or highly questionable.

There is also an article from a 2013 study, for which Phillips-Howard is a contributor, which clearly talks about both, having sex for money to buy sanitary ware and having sex for sanitary ware.

However, the 2013 article is quite different because it states that "Girls reported [my emphasis] 'other girls' but not themselves participated in transactional sex to buy pads, and received pads from boyfriends." Claiming that other people do this may indicate that the respondent has simply heard such things, perhaps from peers, teachers, various sources of information about sanitary matters, or even presentations about HIV.

Going back to the two possible phenomena, sex to get pads (from sexual partners) and sex to get money to buy pads, do either of these stand up to scrutiny? The first seems unlikely on the basis of other claims and findings made in the literature cited, such as that few people want to talk about menstruation; males don't at all, even many females generally don't.
Do men buy sanitary pads as gifts for their sexual partners? I imagine this is rare. I have bought sanitary pads in East African shops and people don’t hide their reactions. Perhaps it happens.

Claims about girls engaging in 'transactional' sex can be found throughout the HIV, health, development and anthropological literature, all over the place. Sex in Africa is a common obsession among academics, journalists, policy makers, civil servants, Guardian readers, etc. There are claims that some girls have sex for status, food, mobile phones, phone credit, just about anything that a girl may want (or that they may be said to want).

Is it credible that lots of girls have 'transactional' sex for money, which they then use to buy sanitary pads? Well, again the articles state several reasons to think that they don't, or don't do so very much. After all, they have families with small incomes, they need to buy food, to pay bills, including school fees. Would they prioritize sanitary pads, having gone as far as to engage in 'transactional' sex?

The literature goes from claiming that girls say other girls have sex for sanitary pads or sex for money to buy sanitary pads, to claiming that 10% of 15 year old girls claim that they have had sex for money to buy sanitary pads.

By my reading, the causal link between engaging in 'transactional' sex and purchasing sanitary pads is lost if the girls don't have sex in return for the pads. But if the claim is that they have sex for the pads then the literature itself undermines the claim that some men are happy to purchase them as gifts in return for sex.

We can’t rule out the possibility that someone has engaged in ‘transactional’ sex for money to buy sanitary pads, nor the possibility that someone has done so in return for sanitary pads. But Phillips-Howard's claim that girls are literally selling their bodies to get sanitary pads looks more like a desperate attempt to shore up poor quality research than a genuine argument for the benefits of providing girls in developing countries with the most appropriate means to ensure menstrual hygiene.