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‘African’ Sexuality: Consensus or Prejudice?


An article by Damien de Walque, entitled ‘Is male promiscuity the main route of HIV/AIDS transmission in Africa?‘, seems curiously behind the times. He refers to the “pervasive if unstated belief in the HIV/AIDS community…that males are primarily responsible for spreading the infection among married and cohabiting couples”.

Disturbingly, de Walque goes on to conclude that, because women are as likely as men to be the infected partner in discordant relationships (where only one partner is HIV positive), both male and female promiscuity must be the main route of transmission. This is by no means the only possible conclusion; far more women than men are infected with HIV in high prevalence African countries, but this could be a result of other risks, particularly non-sexual risks.

However, women being almost as likely as men to be the infected partner in discordant relationships was not a new discovery when de Walque was writing in 2011. Gisselquist, Potterat, Brody and Vachon published an article in 2003 entitled ‘Let it be sexual: how health care transmission of AIDS in Africa was ignored‘, which presents evidence from the 1980s showing that women are almost as likely as men to be the positive partner in discordant relationships. They also show that neither is promiscuity the main route.

The article by Gisselquist et al looks back at papers from the 1980s demonstrating clearly that the bulk of HIV transmission in African countries is not sexually transmitted. Data collected about sexual behavior does not support the view that Africa is exceptional. Rather, data about other risks, such as unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices was either not collected, or was ignored.

Even the abstract gives a good sense of what was going on in the 1980s (and is still going on). I’ll cite it in full, adding italics for emphasis:

“The consensus among influential AIDS experts that heterosexual transmission accounts for 90% of HIV infections in African adults emerged no later than 1988.We examine evidence available through 1988, including risk measures associating HIV with sexual behaviour, health care, and socioeconomic variables, HIV in children, and risks for HIV in prostitutes and STD patients. Evidence permits the interpretation that health care exposures caused more HIV than sexual transmission. In general population studies, crude risk measures associate more than half of HIV infections in adults with health care exposures. Early studies did not resolve questions about direction of causation (between injections and HIV) and confound (between injections and STD). Preconceptions about African sexuality and a desire to maintain public trust in health care may have encouraged discounting of evidence. We urge renewed, evidence-based, investigations into the proportion of African HIV from non-sexual exposures.”

Consensus among influential experts should be based on available data; not only did these experts ignore a lot of available data, they failed to collect a lot of data that could have led to a very different consensus. But several long-held preconceptions, for example, about ‘African’ sexual behavior, may have had undue influence on the consensus of these experts. It is these preconceptions that I am interested in.

By claiming that UNAIDS is going to change its name to UNAZI (as far as I know, they are not going to), I wished to draw attention to the fact that the still current claim that HIV is almost always transmitted via heterosexual contact in African countries (but nowhere else) is based on the preconceived views of some very prejudiced ‘experts’. UNAIDS acquired a consensus of experts who had decided, before the institution was established, that they were going to concentrate almost exclusively on heterosexual transmission, and diminish the role of unsafe healthcare and other non-sexual transmission routes.

The big lie about HIV in ‘Africa’ is that 80% (sometimes 90%) of prevalence is from ‘unsafe’ heterosexual sex, and most of the remaining 20% (or 10%) is from mother to child transmission. This lie emerged in the 1980s, from ‘experts’ who knew that it was a lie. The entire HIV industry is still based on this lie three decades later. As a result, most African people are unaware that unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices may be a far bigger HIV risk than sexual behavior.

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