Reconsidering Gendered Sexualities in a Generalized AIDS Epidemic

By Christie Sennott and Nicole Angotti

In the rural area of Mpumalanga Province, South Africa that we study, HIV is estimated to infect 1 in 5 people. Many researchers have studied the social, biological, and behavioral factors that contribute to HIV infection and the consequences of high mortality from AIDS-related diseases. Yet, less attention has been paid to how people actually living in communities affected by HIV/AIDS talk about the epidemic in everyday life—a useful way for understanding how men and women experience a significant threat to their lives and the lives of those around them.

HIV/AIDS is a unique type of threat: it is transmitted sexually, potentially fatal, and therefore has wide-reaching consequences for men and women’s sexual lives. Whereas several studies have found that individuals work to “reaffirm” or recuperate long-standing norms governing gender and sexuality when those norms are threatened, we find that HIV/AIDS – which threatens not just individual lives, but also relationships, families and communities – provokes reconsideration of gendered sexualities at the community level. We define reconsideration as the processes through which men and women debate, challenge, make sense of, and attempt to come to terms with the social norms circumscribing gendered sexual practices. Our focus on reconsideration shows the multiple voices and commentaries on HIV/AIDS that are circulating in the community, and that ideas about masculinity and femininity are complex, contradictory, and evolving in everyday conversation and interaction.

Our data are ethnographic and collected by men and women from the community. Over several months in 2012, a local team of “insider ethnographers” wrote field notes capturing conversations about HIV/AIDS that they encountered in public settings, such as large community events like village meetings, and other venues where interaction is commonplace, such as at bus depots and at church. These data are ideal for understanding local ideas about threats like HIV/AIDS because they are captured in real time and show the multiple perspectives that come to bear on the social experience of living amid an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Two examples from our data illustrate what we mean by reconsideration of gendered sexualities. In one field note, an ethnographer encountered a group of men doing construction work near her home and chatting about how best to spend their paychecks. One of the men boasted that he spends his money on supporting his extramarital girlfriends because, he argued, men need variety in their (sexual) “diet” to remain satisfied. A second man disagreed; he intoned that sleeping with other women recklessly is a sure way to get HIV and die early, leaving behind one’s wife and children. A third man corroborated the need for multiple sexual relationships, noting that life is short and death is inevitable. The men’s conversation shows reconsideration of dominant gender norms: while some men argue that sexual variety trumps self-protection, others believe it will lead to an untimely death to AIDS and ultimately endanger one’s family.

In another field note, an ethnographer observed an exchange between a group of younger and older women at a local soccer match. The older women chastised the younger women for wearing mini-skirts, which they argued intentionally invites sexual attention from men. The younger women responded defiantly that sometimes “’whores’ can’t get HIV” and those who wear long skirts (more modest clothing) can also get raped. After witnessing this exchange, the ethnographer and a group of her friends weighed the value of following their elders’ admonition of sexual modesty, even if it restricts young women’s sexual agency and casts unfair judgment on them. The initial exchange and the debate that followed it show evidence of reconsideration, as women question and evaluate gender norms proscribing modesty and dutifulness for women.

These examples show how, through conversation and interaction, men and women grapple with a significant threat to their lives, relationships, and communities. Our data also show how HIV/AIDS both catalyzes, and features into, discussions about the type of (gendered) person that men and women want to be or expect that others should be. Ideas expressed in day-to-day conversations are indeed significant: as seminal researchers have argued, they may provide the very foundation for social change.

Nicole Angotti is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Assistant Director of the Center on Health, Risk and Society at American University. She is also a Visiting Researcher at the MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt) at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Her substantive research focuses on sexual health in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the social and institutional dimensions of public health interventions; HIV risk across the life course; and LGBT populations and politics. Christie Sennott is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Purdue University. She is also a Visiting Researcher at the MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Her research interests are in the areas of gender, sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, and family formation processes. Their article can be found in the December 2016; 30 (6) issue of Gender & Society here


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