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Sexual Stereotyping and Relative Discomfort


In an article about a nightclub in the south of England, where couples can go one night a month so that the woman can have sex with black men while their male partner watches, Afua Hirsch is not so much concerned about the behavior of the clubbers as she is about the sexual stereotyping and racist assumptions that go with the concept of a ‘Black Man’s Fan Club’.

Someone accompanying the author objects to the fetishization of black men and women that she experiences when she goes to swingers events, elsewhere. Another woman finds that, while many black men have relationships with white women, black women tend to be ignored, by white and black men.

The article mentions sexual stereotypes about male and female black people and some of the problems this can give rise to, noting assumptions about black women having ‘voracious sexual appetites’ and the men being well endowed, dominant, having ‘better rhythm’, etc. It is suggested that even some black people, especially men, buy into this ‘hypersexuality myth’.

Without wishing to diminish the importance of highlighting this crude sexual stereotyping of ‘African’ sexuality and sexual behavior in rich countries, I’m surprised that the author doesn’t take the article in the direction of some of the, arguably, more serious consequences of this kind of ‘exceptionalism’.

For example, most HIV transmission in rich countries, such as the US, is found among men who have sex with men; a smaller proportion is a result of reusing injecting equipment by intravenous drug users. Among heterosexuals, transmission is far lower. But in high HIV prevalence African countries the bulk of transmission is among people who neither engage in male to male sex, nor inject drugs.

Extremely high rates of transmission in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa are attributed to this same set of assumptions about ‘African’ sexuality. We are told stories of vicious, predatory males having frequent and reckless sex with women who are depicted at times as being innocent victims, but at other times as having an amazing sexual appetite.

Even articles that need not mention sexual behavior, or need not concentrate on it almost exclusively, often do so when the context is a high HIV prevalence African country. For example, a study about women being held in hospitals until bills are paid makes brief mention of a claim that someone had sex with a doctor to help cover her bills. But an entire newspaper article about the report revolved around that claim.

Another newspaper article pathologizes sexual behavior in Uganda by depicting it as the main reason for the extremely high rates of HIV transmission there. While the risk of being infected with HIV is much higher in Uganda than in most other countries, sexual behavior there is unremarkable, with a few people engaging in a lot of sex, but most people not doing so.

Another example, although there are plenty around, of sexual behavior being exceptionalized and pathologized in African countries is an article about 15 year old girls ‘selling their bodies to buy sanitary pads’. A very small number of 15 year old girls surveyed made the connection between transactional sex and sanitary pads, but the newspaper article revolves around the claim.

Afua Hirsch is right about this racial stereotyping being demeaning, insulting and completely unacceptable, whether in a predominantly white and rich country or in a non-white and poor country. It could be argued, however, that the extent of racial stereotyping about sexuality and sexual behavior in the latter contexts is far more profound, even that it is dehumanizing. Or is it less remarkable because it’s ‘over there’ and not ‘right here’?

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