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‘African’ Sexuality: Colonial Trope or New Racism?


An article entitled ‘Colonial tropes and HIV/AIDS in Africa: sex, disease and race’ discusses the “idea of Africa as a place where health and general well-being are determined by culturally (and to a degree racially) dictated modes of sexual behaviour that fall well outside of the ‘ordinary’”. It raises some welcome questions about the claim that HIV is almost all caused by heterosexual behavior, but only in ‘Africa’.

The authors continue: “By analysing historical responses to these two pandemics [syphilis and other STIs on the one hand and HIV on the other], we demonstrate an arguably unbroken outsider perception of African sexuality, based largely on colonial-era tropes, that portrays African people as over-sexed, uncontrolled in their appetites, promiscuous, impervious to risk and thus agents of their own misfortune.”

This blog, and a small number of people writing about HIV in African countries, share Flint and Hewett’s disgust for “the promulgation of the European idea of African men as over-sexed and, by implication, predatory and dangerous and African women as over-sexed, promiscuous and shameless”. But the HIV bigwigs do not apologize for institutionalizing such prejudices, and never have.

While Thabo Mbeki was disingenuous to claim that HIV does not cause AIDS, Flint and Hewitt support his claim that “the outsider view of Africans remains one of people who are ‘diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral [and] sexually depraved’”. The HIV industry has a tendency to brand anything they see as questioning their rigid stance as ‘denialist’. Mbeki’s questions remain unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, by an industry that refuses to apply scientific methods in a region where the overwhelming majority of HIV positive people live.

Flint and Hewitt continue: “HIV/AIDS discourse can be seen to have slotted into an existing colonial narrative of the mysterious, unknowable and, above all, different, that was primed to accept the notion of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa as a ‘disease of choice’ (with corresponding notions as to combating this perceived choice) – in remarkable contrast to ideas as to HIV/AIDS epidemiology and prevention outside the continent” [my emphasis].

The industry had to tone down their notions of ‘good AIDS/bad AIDS’ in western countries; fashions change (or ‘are changed’). But it was (almost) all ‘bad AIDS’ in ‘African’ countries, all someone’s own fault, all ‘avoidable’, if people would just follow advice to abstain, be faithful, avoid ‘traditional’ practices, embrace western style healthcare (albeit without western standards of safety, hygiene, funding or staffing).

The attitude towards HIV in ‘African’ countries was especially reinforced by massive sources of funding, such as PEPFAR, “a programme influenced by and largely delegated to faith-based organisations, which engendered it, at times, with something of a crusading missionary outlook. Its emphasis on abstinence and fidelity suggested strongly that each person was broadly responsible for their own individual ‘salvation’: to be infected with HIV implied moral slippage”.

Flint and Hewitt have squeezed a lot into a paper that covers so many issues, spread over a long period. However, I think they have neglected a few things that might have altered their conclusion, considerably. Firstly, they mention (in a footnote) David Gisselquist’s contention that the HIV pandemic could not have been caused by sexual behavior alone, and that unsafe healthcare practices might explain a significant proportion, perhaps even a larger proportion than sexual behavior.

With the realization that the pandemic could not have been caused entirely by ‘African’ sexual behavior, isn’t there an immediate and urgent question about what else may have been involved? Reference is made to the preponderance of epidemiologists and other interested parties with their snouts in the trough, but the sheer weakness of the evidence for this assumed ‘African’ sexual behavior must also be examined. Epidemiologists have made it clear that they are certainly not going to revise their views and consider unsafe healthcare, or anything else.

Secondly, I would also question Flint and Hewett’s claim that the line running from colonial bigotry about sexual behavior in Africa to today’s HIV industry’s institutionalized racist narrative of the HIV pandemic is ‘unbroken’ (and they do say ‘arguably’). The vitriolic hatred shown by people writing about sexually transmitted infections, ‘African’ sexuality and many other subjects was clear enough in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, continuing up to WWII, at least. But, I would argue, things changed.

There was a phase of gradual enlightenment among writers of medical papers in the three or four decades preceding the identification of HIV as the virus responsible for AIDS. Flint and Hewitt even cite an early paper from one of those whose views were based on his own research in African countries, Richard Robert Willcox [obituary]; and there were others who brought greater humanity to ‘colonial’ medicine, which had previously been viewed as just another instrument of control. One example from Willcox will have to suffice for now.

Far from blaming STIs entirely on those who contracted them and transmitted them, Willcox and some of his contemporaries wrote that there are promiscuous people everywhere, and that STIs are mainly found among promiscuous people. But they also made it clear that the majority of people are not promiscuous; several of them might even have admitted that people in Africa were no more likely to be promiscuous than people elsewhere, which is anathema to the HIV industry.

Thirdly, Flint and Hewitt don’t mention that many earlier estimates of diseases, assumed to be sexually transmitted, were distorted by the inability to distinguish non-sexually transmitted yaws and other diseases from syphilis. Figures purporting to show massive levels of endemic syphilis were not just exaggerated by the eugenicists, they were also empirically incorrect. Willcox knew that, as did many of his contemporaries.

Outbreaks of STIs could also be explained by poor treatment programs, insanitary living conditions, labor conditions (especially in mines, armies, etc), resistance to medication, shortages in supplies, unsafe conditions in healthcare facilities, changes in epidemic patterns, lack of skills among personnel involved, shortages of skilled personnel, etc. Outbreaks of HIV could also be explained by such factors, if only more epidemiologists would accept that there is no disease that has a single cause, a cause entirely isolated from all other determinants of health, and that this unprecedented circumstance can only be found in certain African countries (a fifth of ‘Africans’ live in a region where HIV positive people make up 0.06% of the population).

Numerous factors involved in STI epidemics, only a some of which are mentioned above, were recognized by many pre-HIV era writers. Therefore, those blaming disease outbreaks on ‘promiscuity’ and other ‘African’ behaviors, were bigots, not badly informed commentators. Some time after WWII, ‘colonial’ views about ‘African’ sexual behavior, at least in medical literature, became less common. It took a few decades, of course. But by the 1980s, when AIDS was recognized as a syndrome and HIV was identified as the cause, unbigoted views were frequently expressed about STIs and ‘Africans’.

The extreme views of today’s HIV industry are not, I would argue, a clear continuation of colonial bigotry. Following three to four decades of increasing scientific rigor (and decreasing institutional racism), the emerging HIV industry of the 1980s had to develop its own form of racism. Many of the earliest proponents had little or no connection with the colonial past, although they adopted several of its more egregious ‘tropes’, being compatible with some of the extreme political and social attitudes also emerging at the time.

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