Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

Do myths about African sexuality hurt the fight against Aids?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Q: How many sizes do penises come in?

A: Five — “small”, “medium”, “large”, “extra-large”, and “does that come in white?”

That is a very funny joke, yes

African men have been the subject of European myth-making since the very earliest days of contact between the two continents. One of the hardiest and most enduring myths is that African sexuality is somehow different to its European counterpart. Such comparisons are not altogether unflattering to African men, tinged as they are with a certain fascination and awe. One can’t entirely blame African men for becoming complicit in this myth-making. Who wouldn’t want to be known as bigger, better, more potent, more virile, and more active than everyone else?

It's true - a six-pack is the least of my assets

When I was researching my MA dissertation on colonial women writers in the Eastern Cape, I was struck by the combination of fascination and repulsion these women demonstrated toward Xhosa men. They were continually awed by their impressive physiques and by the size of their … spears. And no, that’s not me being facetious. The literature is full of references to long Xhosa spears dangling perilously closely to the skirts of prim Victorian ladies. If the sexual innuendo were any more obvious, it would be dancing the samba in a G-string and pasties.

She was just fine until those Xhosa warriors walked past

But that was then and this is now. Surely white people are over this obsession by now?

Apparently not. The fascination with African sexuality is undimmed, and goes hand in hand with a strong desire to police it. Thus when public figures such as Steve Hofmeyr and Naas Botha are shown to have had unprotected affairs they become national icons. But when Jacob Zuma and Fikile Mbalula do the same, the media trot out phrases like “irresponsible in our current climate” and “setting a bad example”. Black men are seen as carriers of disease in a way that their white counterparts simply are not.

The last few weeks have seen a resurgence of public utterances supporting the contention that African sexual behaviour is driving the HIV/Aids pandemic in Africa. We’ve had Helen Zille’s now infamous “why should we pay for irresponsible sexual behaviours?” tweets, and more recently Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi declaring that “HIV/Aids is a gender-based disease that is spread by men, but suffered by women”.

Motsoaledi’s statement has been publically celebrated by black and white women alike, and he has been lauded for “finally speaking the truth”.

Fortunately, before the demonisation of African men could run entirely out of control, a corrective was administered by Francois Venter on Politicsweb. Venter argues with admirable calm the sheer improbability of the notion that African male sexual behaviour is single-handedly responsible for the fact that HIV infection rates in Africa are wildly higher than anywhere else in the world.

I like to think that if HIV/Aids were spread by sneezing, scientists would not have spent so much time urging African men to change their sneezing habits — to sneeze in one direction only, to sneeze less often, to sneeze into a tissue — and more time investigating why the virus was having such an utterly devastating effect on one particular region of the world. Have we been so blinded by the legacy of Victorian myth-making about African male sexuality that we can’t see past it? Have we simply swallowed the myth whole and allowed ourselves to believe that one segment of the human race somehow practises utterly different sexual behaviour to everyone else?

Just think how improbable that is for a moment. Sexual activity is one of the great human levellers, along with eating and sleeping. Is it really even slightly likely that one continent is doing it completely differently to all the others? How did we ever let ourselves get seduced by this red herring?

As Venter argues, it appears increasingly obvious that something else is at play here. I am not a scientist and cannot begin to guess what that might be. Suggestions have been floated such as a genetic predisposition to succumb to the disease, regional differences in the virulence of HIV strains, co-morbidity and the presence of other infections, the debilitating effects of poverty, and so on and so forth. It seems to me that these possibilities should be earnestly and energetically investigated with a view to finding the real reason why Africans are so hard hit by Aids.

The importance of spreading awareness and behaviour-modification programmes can obviously not be overstated, because the one thing that is not in doubt is that HIV/Aids is spread primarily by sexual contact. It has been pointed out to me that Venter doesn’t mention the high levels of sexual violence against women in South Africa, and the possible role that this may have in spreading the disease. But that fails to explain why a country like Botswana, which doesn’t have anything like our sexual violence statistics, should be even harder hit by HIV/Aids than we are.

It is a tremendous shame that the “African promiscuity” model as an explanation for HIV/Aids in Africa has been so unquestioningly accepted for so long. We can only be grateful that it is now being properly interrogated and that other explanations are finally being sought.

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