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Ebola and ‘African’ Sexuality: Life in the Old Fantasy Yet?


“Ebola can be transmitted sexually for weeks after recovery – education is crucial”, blurts the English Guardian headline of an article written by an academic from an English development institution.

Not one single case of sexually transmitted ebola has ever been demonstrated, in nearly 40 years. The presence of the virus in some form in semen has been demonstrated. But the possibility that the virus can be transmitted via that semen has not. And the author is even, to some extent, aware of this.

So why do the media rant on about sexually transmitted ebola? Could it be a continuation of some of the racist views of Africans that date back many decades, perhaps centuries? Several decades (at least) before HIV was identified, it was assumed that prevalence of certain sexually transmitted infections in African countries, such as syphilis and gonnorhea, was a result of ‘promiscuity’.

More enlightened researchers published papers, also decades ago, arguing that there was absolutely no evidence that levels of ‘promiscuity’ were higher in African countries than elsewhere. Some of them also argued that the conditions of health services, along with the living and working conditions to which people in colonial Africa were subjected, were far more significant factors than sexual behavior.

Some of them were reacting to the efforts of the various different eugenics movements to provide ‘scientific’ evidence for their extraordinary views. However, once HIV was identified and found to be more common in some African countries than anywhere else, the myth of ‘African’ promiscuity returned. And it remains, explicitly or implicity, in HIV policy, journalism, and in much of the academic writing.

The characterization of African people as promiscuous goes hand in hand with the characterization of African men as sexually incontinent, animalistic, uncaring about those around them, particularly their own family members, and completely unamenable to change.

African women are seen as being entirely incapable of resisting the will of the men around them. They are mere victims, misused and discarded, to be ‘rescued’ by decent westerners, if they are lucky. They are then subjected to the pity of their rescuers, the journalists who write about them, and others who think this sort of thing ‘just shouldn’t happen’.

The author claims to have met with members of a women’s ‘secret society’. We are informed that such societies are “ancient cultural institutions found all over Sierra Leone”. We can’t gainsay that if we’ve never been to Sierra Leone, after all, they are secret, although we might ask how secret they are if the author could meet with them.

But, far more important than the claim that ebola is transmitted sexually (and it might be, occasionally), is the tone of the article, about how much women suffer, with the strong implication that this is the fault of Sierra Leonean men. But poverty, bad health, low levels of education, poor living conditions and terrible labor conditions are a fact of life for most people in Sierra Leone, male and female.

Education may be, as the headline says, crucial. But whose education is crucial? Whose knowledge? Whose data? Whose research? This academic seems to have recorded the result of decades of racist informed education, and now presents it to us as the unassailable views of Sierra Leonean women, at least, the ones who belong to these common ‘secret’ societies.

However, there are promiscuous people everywhere, but most people are not promiscuous. There are violent and abusive people everywhere, and the perpetrators may well be more likely to be male than female. But most people are not violent or abusive. Most men are not. And most women are not mere victims of everything that goes on around them.

This is not to say that there are not huge imbalances and great injustices, with many women suffering, often at the hands of men. But whatever strategy may bring relief to the suffering of women and men, it will not be one based on a puerile and reductive belief in the incredible baseness of African men, coupled with the complete inability of African women to defend themselves in any way.

Ebola, HIV, hepatitis, TB and many other diseases can be transmitted in various ways. One of the modes of transmission for all of them is unsafe healthcare, believe it or not. In the case of HIV, such transmission has been strenuously but entirely unconvincingly denied. Sex is one of several modes of transmission for HIV, but it is unlikely to be a significant mode of transmission of ebola.

But transmission of ebola through unsafe healthcare practices appears to be slipping through the net, as academics indulge in their fantasies about an assumed ‘African’ sexuality, along with a great love for seeking (female) ‘victims’ that they can rescue, study, and hopefully write scholarly(ish) papers about. These academics are not just deceiving themselves, they are deceiving those they claim to be concerned about.

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