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Category Archives: media racism

Guardian Angles: Forced Sex to Pay Hospital Bills?


Chatham House has published a paper entitled ‘Hospital Detentions for Non-payment of Fees: A Denial of Rights and Dignity‘, the title being a good indication of what the article is about, and why a leading think-tank concerned with international affairs would research and report on such an issue.

The practice of detaining patients in the grounds of a hospital until they pay their bills, with costs continuing to rise to cover their period of detention, is widespread in developing countries. Many people in those countries see it is unremarkable, even though it infringes on the rights and threatens the health of the poorest and most vulnerable.

Relatively little research has been carried out, so the above paper suggests that its findings represent only a fraction of the severity and breath of the issue. But people can be subjected to all kinds of abuse while being held, aside from the abuse of being detained in appalling conditions.

They can be denied vital health services, forced to live in inhumane and uninhabitable surroundings, subjected to physical, verbal and emotional abuse, without access to assistance or advice, without even the realization that healthcare establishments do not have the right to detain them in the first place.

However, the details given in the Chatham House report do not justify the headline ‘Women in sub-Saharan Africa forced into sex to pay hospital bills‘. The report does list an allegation that patients have “been pressured into having sex with hospital staff in exchange for cash to help pay their bills”, also an allegation about “baby-trafficking”.

The Chatham House report links to what sounds like a very tenuous source for some of its findings, but they also refer to such items as ‘allegations’, as distinct from better supported findings.

The newspaper article also cites several questionable assertions, including one about women having sex with ‘doctors’ for a few dollars to pay off bills that amounted to thousands of dollars, but without flagging up the potentially low credibility of the source.

The newspaper article fits into a pattern of tabloid-style articles citing sources that ostensibly support their title and following assertions; yet, when you look at their sources, these turn out to give little or no support whatsoever. It’s as if the article was published because it could say what the editor wanted to publish, rather than report what the journalist found.

For example, an earlier article from the same newspaper about giving aid in the form of cash transfers is written as if this was found to be one of the most effective ways of providing assistance, but citing a report that came to the opposite conclusion.

The author of the hospital detentions article recently wrote about HIV in the Himalayas, saying that she found that it was all the fault of the men, and that the women just had to put up with it. The men were ‘migrant workers’, who ‘lied’ about how they could have been exposed to HIV, and the woman remained silent, we are told.

And another article in that newspaper blames a rise in HIV transmission on ‘dating apps’, because ‘every app is a dating app’, according to the title. Perhaps this is an instance of what the New York Times refers to as ‘techno-moral’ panic, which can take anything currently fashionable, ‘cyberporn’ in the 90s, chat-rooms not long after that, sexting, online predators, etc, and vent their indignation.

Remarkably, the article about dating apps purported to be about HIV in Pakistan, which is in the lowest quintile for HIV prevalence, globally. Although newspapers cling to the view that HIV is almost always a result of ‘unsafe’ sex, in Pakistan (and most other countries) there is ample evidence that there have been outbreaks caused by unsafe healthcare in some of the highest prevalence areas, as well as in some low prevalence countries (Pakistan, Cambodia, etc).

These journalist are happy to wallow in their favorite fantasies about ‘African’ sexual behavior, dating apps, transactional sex, trafficking and the like, almost as if they have to make up the story before an even less reliable source does so.

At the same time, they distract attention from much more serious, but far less media friendly issues, without contributing anything to the problems that they claim to be drawing attention to in the first place, at least by highlighting topics that have been missed so far, but are in serious need of attention.

It’s the Truth, Bill, But Not as We Know It


Aid given in cash improves health and spurs school attendance, say researchers“, according to a title in the English Guardian. “Foreign aid in the form of cash transfers with no strings attached can improve health and increase school attendance, a study has found”, claims the article. Yet, the conclusion of the study is “The evidence on the relative effectiveness of UCTs [unconditional cash transfers] and CCTs [conditional cash transfers] remains very uncertain“.

The author, Hannah Summers, has been mentioned in a blog post here on the subject of racism, HIV and pathologizing sex, and then in a double take on the same set of issues. On the subject of cash transfers, she writes as if her job, or her newspaper’s future, depend on spinning this hyped strategy, which has been claimed to reduce poverty, influence behavior, improve health, and just about everything desirable you can think of.

No mention is made in the Guardian about quality of evidence gathered by the study, which, in this instance, is astonishing: “Of the seven prioritised primary outcomes, the body of evidence for one outcome was of moderate quality, for three outcomes of low quality, for two outcomes of very low quality, and for one outcome, there was no evidence at all.”

This is not to say that handing out money to poor people had no discernable benefits. People with more money can, and often do increase spending on things like food, medicine, education, living conditions and a better environment (if cash transfers were ever to reach such dizzy heights).

So it is no big surprise that people with more money, spending more on the above, will have fewer illnesses, improved food security, and perhaps dietary diversity, school attendance, etc. Nor is it a surprise that these improvements can lead to other improvements, given time and persistence.

But is it necessary to carry out 21 studies, involving over a million participants and over 30,000 households to know that poor people need money, and that having more money will have health, education, social, environmental and other benefits?

Is Summers entitled to claim that: “a review published this week flies in the face of criticism from the anti-aid brigade, showing that cash handouts have measurable benefits for some of the world’s poorest people.” Is someone ‘anti-aid’ because they question her spin on this charade?

At times, cash transfers look like a form of pimping. International NGOs and other recipients of funding for cash transfers take a big slice for themselves. Academics get grants for the inevitable studies, some consultants and experts depend on this kind of work for much of their (considerable) income, lots of well paid people are well paid by these ‘initiatives’.

Just in case the similarity to pimping is not clear, cash transfers have been used to induce people, mainly women and girls, to have less sex, to only engage in protected sex, to go to school (said to reduce sex, or ‘unsafe’ sex), etc. If paying for sex is, at least in part, an attempt to control a woman’s sexual or reproductive choices, then so is paying for chastity.

If aid programs in their current forms are working, and need to be expanded, particularly certain types of aid program, why lie about the findings of a systematic review that explicitly questions conditional and unconditional cash transfers, and why would the English Guardian publish this obvious perversion of the findings of a Cochrane Review?

The Story is Father to the Author


The story of ‘How HIV found its way to a remote corner of the Himalayas‘ is related in an article in the English Guardian. It was male economic migrants who went to India and “returned home with a very different legacy to the one [they] anticipated”, infecting their partners, who then had children born with the virus. (But things are now improving because of the actions of the female victims.)

Here’s a comment on an ‘interview’ with one of the males who went to India to work: “Like many other men interviewed in Achham, Sarpa has a well-rehearsed story that explains how he believes he contracted HIV, but it does not involve any sex workers, whom researchers believe are the primary source of migrants’ HIV infections.”

Journalist Kate Hodal doesn’t bother telling us how Sarpa says he was infected, preferring instead to believe the testimony of ‘researchers’. How these researchers know that Sarpa is a liar, along with all the other people they have interviewed (and disbelieved), is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they have some independent explanation or account of the HIV risks that people face in India?

While Sarpa speaks “coolly”, his wife Sita “has had to accept the likelihood [Sarpa] visited Indian brothels”, indicating all this with a shake of her head.

Hodal is clearly something of a psychic, who can know that while Sarpa lies, Sita tells the truth, but without uttering it. Hodal also knows that the opinion of researchers about HIV risks is of more value than the self-reported accounts of people who are infected, or who may become infected.

Meanwhile in Canada, journalist Ashifa Kassam writes about a pop-up restaurant run by HIV positive people. Far from pointing the finger at people with HIV, the article is about ‘challenging stigma’. The words of those interviewed are quoted, and their honesty is not in question.

Population figures, numbers of people living with HIV, prevalence, even the breakdown by gender of those infected, are not vastly different in Canada and Nepal. Although Nepal’s epidemic is usually described as ‘concentrated’, in contrast to Canada’s ‘low-level’ epidemic, the two are remarkably similar in some ways.

In contrast, in Canada, the vast majority of people are infected with HIV through unprotected, receptive anal sex and injecting drug use. But neither of those routes are thought to be so common in Nepal.

However, there is a huge difference in the way HIV in Nepal and Canada are viewed by the media. In Canada, those with HIV are wholeheartedly encouraged to continue their fight against stigma. But in Nepal, the journalist writes something she may have believed before she left her desk: HIV is ‘spread’ by promiscuous men, to unwitting women and children.

HIV positive Canadians can speak for themselves, and are not required to explain or justify their status. But Nepalese men need journalists and researchers to call them out on their lies about how they were infected; and Nepalese women need the same intermediaries to identify them as victims, unable to name the aggressors, or to speculate about how their partners became infected.

HIV: A Rich Seam in a Long Abandoned Mine?


Here’s a stomach-churning quote from The Eugenics Review, 1932: “East Africa [has] a heavily syphilized native population”, where tests suggest that “not less than 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. of the general native population” have some kind of sexually transmitted disease.

At that time, several conditions were mistaken for syphilis (or other STIs). For example, yaws and endemic syphilis, neither of which are sexually transmitted. Prejudices about ‘African’ sexual behavior were used to prop up beliefs about prevalence of STIs (and prejudices about STIs proped up beliefs about sexual behavior).

You might think that things would have moved on a bit, what with eugenics no longer having the cache it had in the thirties, right? But the received view of HIV in high prevalence countries is that 80-90% of transmission is a result of sexual behavior, mostly heterosexual behavior.

From this ‘expert’ opinion about ‘Africa’, it is assumed that high HIV prevalence indicates high rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior, and that high rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior (or rates that are assumed to be high) indicates high HIV prevalence, or that prevalence will reach high levels in the foreseeable. It’s pretty easy to spot the pig-headed circularity in the argument.

So, how far have we moved on 80 years after the Eugenics Review quote, above? Here’s Catherine Hankins, from the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development (formerly a senior officer in UNAIDS):

As Hankins surmises, in some cultures what you do with your sexual partners over time is different. In the West we tend to be serially monogamous.

In Africa, if you’ve had sex with someone at some point, the door isn’t considered closed on picking up on that relationship again.

“Take a middle-class African businessman. He has had five women – nothing excessive. But the pattern we find is that he has a wife. He also has an on-off affair with an office colleague. He also has what the French call a ‘deuxième bureau’ – a mistress who might have a child. And once a year he goes back to his home village and has sex with his original village sweetheart. Then he gets HIV from a bar girl on a business trip.

“Within a year he may have infected four other women. Now, if I’ve had five sexual partners and catch HIV from the fifth, as a western woman I’m unlikely to return to the other four and infect them!”

You might object that it is unfair to criticize what is clearly just an opinion, however ‘expert’. But policy is based on such opinions, HIV programs are guided by them, enormous amounts of money are spent (entirely in vain) on them. Worse still, the scientific data so assiduously collected shows that Hankins is as wrong as the eugenicists. Ostensibly, at least, Hankins was responding to scientific findings, published in a scientific journal, not to someone’s opinion.

You can look through any Demographic and Health Survey you like, where you will find numerous tables about sexual behavior, family life, people’s ability to recall selective tidbits about HIV, etc, but you will not find a country where a large number of people have lots of sexual partners, or engage in sexual activities considered to be unsafe.

In addition, the circularity mentioned above comes across very clearly in Hankins’ invective: HIV prevalence is high because rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior are high, and we know about sexual behavior because HIV prevalence is high. Hankins clearly believes all these prejudices that she expresses about sexual behavior among ‘Africans’!

Three countries account for about one third of all HIV positive people, globally; South Africa (6.8m), Nigeria (3.2m) and India (2m). The same three countries also accounted for more than half of all aids-related deaths in the past few years. It is notable that prevalence is low in India, at less than 0.3%. This compares to about 3% prevalence in Nigeria, and about 19% in South Africa, more than 60 times higher than in India (and it can rise to well over 100 times higher in certain demographics).

Whatever is behind the huge rates of HIV transmission in these countries, which tend to be concentrated in certain geographical areas and populations, it is likely to be something that is amenable to scrutiny, whether it involves the copious quantities of sex that UNAIDS would claim, or something else, for example, dangerously low standards of hygiene and infection control in some health facilities.

Hankins seems intent on mimicking the media approach to HIV, concentrating on relatively rare and infrequent phenomena (deliberate transmission, ‘virgin cures’, fake healers, ‘traditional’ practices, etc), but failing to notice the appalling conditions in healthcare in some of the areas worst hit by HIV. What is it that is deflecting attention from everyday phenomena, allowing such extreme views to prevail, but failing to reduce infections in the worst hit areas?

Mandatory HIV Tests: Shouldn’t Zambians Decide?


The Lancet has an article by Andrew Green about the recent decision of the government of Zambia to introduce mandatory HIV testing in all government health facilities; if they visit a clinic, they must agree to be tested. Green urges against mandatory testing, using the often heard claim that people will be reluctant to go to health facilities if they think they will be compelled to take a HIV test.

It is argued that people could feel ‘stigmatized’ if they are found to be HIV positive, or perhaps even if they are just tested for it. Indeed, the orthodox view of HIV is that it is almost always sexually transmitted in African countries, and that there are excessively high levels of ‘promiscuity’ (in case you were wondering where the stigma comes from). Popular supporters of the orthodoxy Avert.org, write: “Unprotected heterosexual sex drives the Zambian HIV epidemic, with 90% of new infections recorded as a result of not using a condom”.

Zambia ranks 7th in the world by HIV prevalence, around 13%, and 9th by number of people infected with the virus, about 1.2 million. The epidemic in Zambia probably started before the 80s because it had already reached 9% prevalence by 1990. Prevalence has stood at over 10% for about 25 years. It peaked in the mid 90s, so it has only dropped by a few percentage points in the past two decades. Population growth would suggest that new infection rates have not dropped at all.

Health Minister Chitalu Chilufya told Green “We can’t continue doing things the same way and hope that things will get better”. Chilufya is a doctor, not just a politician, and it’s hard to disagree with his response. What has been done so far has failed. The epidemic has remained ahead of the HIV industry, with 60,000 new infections a year, far outnumbering the 20,000 deaths from AIDS. Maybe it’s time to do something different?

Green cites the World Health Organization as an authority for the view that testing should not be mandatory or coerced. But where does the view that people will stop going to health facilities come from? Is there any country that has made testing mandatory, and found that people stopped seeking healthcare of any kind? Perhaps people are more reluctant when it comes to HIV because they know that it is seen as an indication that they have been ‘promiscuous’. Might they be more willing to be tested if WHO drops their mantra about sexual transmission?

Cuba is an example of a country that has taken a very different path from almost every other country when it comes to HIV, and healthcare as a whole. Most countries are heavily influenced (dominated?) by the WHO, or by US funding and HIV ‘policy’. But things in Cuba couldn’t be more different from Zambia, and sub-Saharan Africa more broadly, with one of the best controlled HIV epidemics in the world.

The UNAIDS current ditty is ‘90-90-90’, at least 90% of HIV positive people tested, at least 90% of those found positive on medication and at least 90% with an undetectable viral load by the year 2020. So, what is their strategy to achieve this, aside from assuming that everyone should continue to copy all the failed strategies of the US, hoping that things will be different for them?

Targeting people thought to be at risk of HIV purely on the basis of their perceived levels of ‘promiscuity’ means those infected non-sexually, or at risk of being infected, will be missed. Unless they start to estimate non-sexual transmission sources, and start to reduce transmissions of this type, untold numbers of Zambians will be infected, and can go on to infect others, directly or indirectly.

If the orthodoxy are confident that 90% of HIV infections are sexually transmitted, they have nothing to lose by tracing people’s contacts, sexual and non-sexual. This doesn’t violate anything. HIV positive people have a right to know how they were infected and HIV negative people have a right to know how to protect themselves from risks. But if Zambia ‘returns to the flock’, and keeps all testing voluntary, what rights might this threaten?

If contacts are not traced, many people won’t know what the risks are, and therefore how to protect themselves. HIV positive people won’t know for sure how they were infected. According to the Lisbon Declaration on the Rights of the Patient, people are entitled to be informed of things like this by their health facilities, by healthcare personnel. People are also entitled to accurate health information and education. Where is this accurate information to come from if health facilities don’t collect it, or if it is never analyzed or followed up?

People have a right to know about hygiene, safety and infection control in health facilities, and similar information. It would be obtuse to argue for a right to health or healthcare, but against ensuring safe healthcare. In any population, including Zambia’s, there are unexplained transmissions. Examples include HIV positive virgins (who were not infected through mother to child transmission), HIV positive people who have never had sex with a HIV positive person, HIV positive people whose only sexual partner has tested HIV negative, HIV positive infants whose mother is negative, etc.

Green seems to be arguing on behalf of an orthodoxy that is afraid people will realize that there are non-sexual risks, as well as sexual, and that people have been systematically denied their right to this information. He seems to want to help cover up the fact that possible non-sexual infections that may point to unsafe healthcare, for example, have never been investigated in high HIV prevalence countries, or any countries whose HIV strategy is entirely dominated by the WHO, CDC, UNAIDS and the like.

Rather than challenging opposition to mandatory HIV testing, perhaps Zambia could investigate possible healthcare associated transmission of HIV. There is no violation involved if non-sexual contacts are traced, such as unsafe healthcare, traditional practices, or even cosmetic practices, such as tattooing. If Zambia doesn’t do something different, the epidemic could follow the Lindy Effect, lasting another 40 years. But the matter should be decided by Zambians, not by The Lancet.

Is that Guardian Article Really Racist?


Accusations of racism against the two journalists (Samuel Okiror and Hannah Summers) who put their names to an article entitled “‘Why are you having sex?’: women bear brunt of Uganda’s high HIV rate”, and even The Guardian itself, may sound unwarranted, insolent, even arrogant. Is The Guardian guilty of ‘deep racism in patologizing sex’?

No questions are raised about the long held assumption that HIV is ‘all about sex’. The authors seem to make the same assumption themselves. They don’t question people’s right to health information and to health education, which sex education is only a part of. These rights are very clearly stated in the World Medical Association’s Lisbon Declaration on the Rights of the Patient.

What about Uganda’s ban on sex education? The Guardian could have mentioned that, if they feel that this is so relevant to HIV. The tone and content of sex and sex education articles tend to be quite different when they are about sex in a UK or non-African context. Similarly with ‘Aids and HIV’. In the UK, people have a right to privacy, for example, but not in African countries, where a HIV positive diagnosis is assumed to indicate ‘unsafe’ sex, regardless of what the person may report.

The Guardian doesn’t wag its finger at adult men who have sex with adult men and tick them off about their ‘promiscuity’. But finger-wagging at adult men and women in high HIV prevalence countries in parts of Africa is routine, as if they are behaving like disobedient children. The Guardian doesn’t seem to notice these double standards.

The question ‘Why are you having sex? You should be married’? is said to be an instance of discrimination against young females who attempt ‘to access HIV prevention services from the health sector’. But the Ugandan health sector is shaped and funded by an international community that insists that HIV is all about sex. The ‘stigma’ to which the article alludes comes from the HIV community, from the media, from governments and international communities.

Why more young girls than young boys: “Health experts have attributed the disparity to the fact men tend to have more sexual partners, so a man with HIV would spread the infection to more people”. Aside from the logistics of that ‘expert’ opinion, it also seems to be based on the assumption that sex is usually instigated by men, with women usually being unwilling victims, that men are ‘more promiscuous’ than women, etc. Or perhaps those assumptions are totally absent?

While we are questioning differing prevalence rates by gender, what about some of the other figures gathered for Uganda and elsewhere (see Uganda Aids Indicator Survey, 2011 and others)? For example, why are there often large numbers of HIV positive virgins, who were not infected vertically? There have been cases of babies who seroconverted even though their mother were not infected. Some babies have infected their mothers, through breastfeeding. Many HIV positive women have one partner, who is seronegative.

There are so many discrepancies, aside from ones relating to sexual behavior, or appearing to. Why is high HIV prevalence clustered in just a few places in most countries (Kenya is a good example)? Why are rich people more likely than poor people to be infected? Why are employed people more likely to be infected than unemployed people? What difference does religious belief system make?

What is it about location, environment, economic circumstances, employment status and other factors that results in very high HIV prevalence in some countries, but not in others? The stock response from UNAIDS tends to be about differing ‘sexual mores’, differing sexual ‘mixing’ behavior in urban and rural areas, wealth inequalities (which result in more rich people paying for sex and more poor people engaging in paid sex, apparently), etc. It’s as if sexual behavior is the only determinant of HIV exposure and status, uniquely so among diseases, a complete epidemiological anomaly, and only in (some) African countries.

Instead of concentrating on sex alone, perhaps we could examine conditions in health facilities, and differing levels of access to health facilities, differing quality in health facilities, where only those with money, insurance, even transport and good infrastructure, can access? Some people are in a better position to protect themselves from non-sexual exposure to HIV, if only they also had access to accurate health information. Health funding, insurance and access will only improve health if it is high quality and safe healthcare.

The title and overall tone of the Guardian article concludes that ‘it’s all about sex’, before anything else appears. No argument is given for their conclusion. Asia Russell of Health GAP is right to warn that the figures are for prevalence, an indication of how many people are infected with HIV in a population or group. This is not as useful a measure as incidence, which estimates how many people were newly infected with HIV, usually in a period of one year.

But neither prevalence nor incidence figures are relevant to the content of the article because the factoids are either based on opinion, or they are commonly held assumptions (some would say ‘prejudices’). These include assumptions about ‘African’ sexuality, attitudes towards women, underage sex, intergenerational sex, ‘promiscuity’, sexual practices, ‘African’ masculinity, the status of women, etc.

The article is about The Guardian’s and its authors’ prejudices, not about Uganda, HIV or ‘Africans’. Presumably it contributes to, and also concurs with, the prejudices of Guardian readers, what they expect and perhaps enjoy reading about HIV, and sexual behavior in ‘Africa’.

The article does not draw attention to the fact that the health workers (ostensibly, those purveyors of (institutionalized) stigma and discrimination) make no mention of unsafe healthcare, ‘informal’ or unofficial healthcare, traditional healthcare and similar practices, cosmetic practices (such as tattooing) and others that could, however inadvertently, result in exposure to HIV contaminated blood.

At the end of the article we are told that the Ugandan health ministry has called for “concerted efforts from all stakeholders for scale-up of evidence-based interventions for sustainable HIV epidemic control”. But if those ‘evidence’ based interventions refer to the same prejudices and assumptions as the Guardian article, they will have no impact on transmission rates. What’s the point in scaling up interventions that have failed?

It’s the assumptions that are wrong, not the data. Prevalence rising or falling, incidence rising or falling, female rates higher or lower than male, none of these data can tell us how people are being infected with HIV. There is data suggesting that it’s not all about sex, but this is being ignored or reinterpreted.

The racism of The Guardian has disastrous consequences for people in high HIV prevalence countries. But the realization that HIV is not all about sex can only have positive consequences: people’s exposure can be reduced, perhaps totally eliminated. Accurate health information and health education, to which everyone has a right, can achieve this. Well informed, educated patients and healthcare practitioners can take action, raise awareness and change things for the better.

The Deep Racism of Pathologizing Sex


What are the assumptions behind an article entitled “’Why are you having sex?’: women bear brunt of Uganda’s high HIV rate”? Firstly, the bulk of HIV transmission is assumed to be a result of ‘unsafe’ heterosexual behavior. Secondly, the number of infected females outnumbers males by almost 2:1, but this is blamed on ‘male sexual behavior’ (white people protecting black women from black men, etc?). Thirdly, all ‘Africans’ engage in massive amounts of sex. Fourthly, ‘unsafe’ sex is the rule. Fifthly, they start young…the list goes on.

This claptrap is mixed in with pseudo-science: there is no evidence that a majority of HIV transmissions in African countries are a result of ‘unsafe’ heterosexual sex, only a lot of ‘expert’ opinion; indeed, the evidence shows that the majority of transmissions are very unlikely to be a result of ‘unsafe’ sex.

Figures cited for percentages infected, males and females infected, etc, are not incorrect, that’s not why I call them pseudo-science. The sleight of hand lies in the fact that they purport to bear some relation to the levels of sexual activity that would be required for Uganda’s epidemic to be overwhelmingly a result of heterosexual activity.

More than 80,000 Ugandans were said to have been newly infected in 2015. Given estimates that suggest the risk of transmission from a male to a female for penile-vaginal sex is 1/1,250 and the risk for a female to a male is 1/2,500, those 80,000 newly infected people could represent well over 100,000,000 sex acts.

The Guardian further claims that girls between 15 and 24 years old are infected at a rate of 570 per week, reflecting a further assumption, that sexual debut tends to be at an exceptionally young age in Uganda (not true, according to most research). Most young girls have not had hundreds of sexual experiences, even girls in their 20s. Some may have, but most have not.

Most people do not have hundreds of sexual experiences every year. That’s true in every country in the world, even in countries where The Guardian would have us believe they do, countries where HIV prevalence is high. A minority of people may have a lot of sexual experiences, a small minority, according to the copious quantities of data collected by some of the best funded HIV NGOs (hundreds of surveys here).

There are two blatant non sequiturs behind articles like this: one, sexual activity is an indication of HIV prevalence, and two, HIV prevalence is an indication of levels (and perhaps types) of sexual activity. Neither of these are supported by the evidence, only by the assumptions, the prejudices, the deeply held racism of the media and the international HIV industry.

One of the most egregious consequences of these racist views is that a lot of money and effort have been expended on useless ‘abstinence only until marriage’ programs (which could be better referred to as ‘abstinence only until death’). An update to an earlier meta-analysis of such programs concluded that:

“U.S. abstinence-only-until-marriage policies and programs are not effective, violate adolescent rights, stigmatize or exclude many youth, and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes. Adolescent sexual and reproductive health promotion should be based on scientific evidence and understanding, public health principles, and human rights.”

The Guardian article is pure speculation, with a handful of figures thrown in. There is the ever-present ‘expert’ opinion about why more women than men are infected, etc, but the only constant throughout the article is racism, about ‘Africans’, their implied sexual behavior, their attitudes towards women, especially young women…the rightness of the HIV industry and the wrongness of all ‘African’ people.

If this sort of article is to be believed, all sex is wrong in Africa, it’s all ‘unsafe’, it should all stop. The men are cruel, the women are powerless victims and only non-Africans can diagnose what is going on there, phrenologize the population, profile the groups, strategize their rehabilitation and save them all from damnation (‘Shut up and get back in your pigeon-hole, we were right all along!’).

The assumption behind this Guardian article is that HIV is almost always heterosexually transmitted in African countries, and the only way this could be true is if ‘Africans’ really are as promiscuous, impervious to reason, cruel and thoughtless to those around them and, frankly, primitive and uncivilized, as the age-old prejudice says they are. As long as it’s about ‘Africans’, you can insinuate these things as often as you want in the mainstream media.

This kind of article can give the impression that apartheid never ended in South Africa. Instead, it spread all over the world, affecting people from African countries and people of African origin. Africans are still apart when it comes to HIV, infected in numbers that are orders of magnitude higher than among non-African people. ‘Explanations’ of high HIV prevalence tell us that ‘Africans’ really are different, that non-Africans don’t behave the same way when it comes to sex, that there really is something ‘other’ about heterosexual sex among black people. Pure racism.

Voice of America: Masters of Clickbait


According to an article in Voice of America “Women and girls as young as 12 from Kenya’s countryside are being forced into sex work to support families affected by prolonged drought.” The title of the article calls this ‘survival sex’, a popular media trope. The article goes on to claim that the area in question here, Turkana, “suffers from Kenya’s second-highest HIV infection rate”, and attributes this to the IRC (International Rescue Committee).

This popular coupling of sex and HIV, spiced up with mentions of sex tourism, underage girls and the ‘survival’ element, is ubiquitous in the media. Even specialist publications about HIV seem obsessed with sexually transmitted HIV, to the exclusion of infections through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic care and traditional practices, which can all run the risk of coming into contact with blood. This can result in transmission of viruses such as HIV, hepatitis C and various others.

Two questions arise from this VOA article alone: first, what proportion of HIV is transmitted through sex, and what proportion is transmitted through other, non-sexual routes? And second, what is the relationship between food shortages and poverty in general on the one hand, and risky sexual behavior on the other?

In answer to the first question, VOA or the IRC, whoever came up with the figure, is wrong about Turkana having the second highest HIV prevalence in Kenya. The highest prevalence figures can be found around Lake Victoria, with Homa Bay having the highest, at 26%. National prevalence is said to be 5.9%. In comparison, prevalence in Turkana is 4%, and is claimed to have halved in the past few years.

Which leads to the answer to the second question: if poverty and food shortages have been increasing in Turkana for the last few years and HIV prevalence has been dropping, that may suggest that the correlation between the two is negative. Of course, what we really need to know is whether incidence, the percentage of new infections, is increasing or decreasing (along with an indication of how all these people are being infected, of course).

The VOA article goes on to mention sex tourism, ‘survival sex’, child sex, how little money those involved make, how they are exploited and often make no money at all. It’s extraordinary how data collectors can know so much, apparently, and yet still know next to nothing about how people are being infected. Immense amounts of data are regularly collected about sexual behavior in high HIV prevalence countries, always showing that the majority of people have sex, but also showing that only a minority have a lot of sex, a lot of partners, engage in practices considered risky, etc (you’ll find hundreds of reports on the DHS website).

The article mentions another dubious figure, this time from UNICEF: “In 2008, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimated that 30 percent of girls in coastal Kenya were forced into prostitution.” This makes it sound like 30% of all girls in coastal areas are forced into prostitution; the claim is probably that 30% of people working in prostitution were forced. The second version is still highly questionable, though typical of UN offices, but the first version is simply not credible.

There is no intention to dispute claims that there are food shortages, poverty, prostitution, HIV and many other severe problems in Kenya and elsewhere. But the desperate attempt to connect HIV with sex, and adding in as many shocking practices as possible to help readers swallow the claim, distracts attention from how people are being infected; it distracts attention from unsafe and insanitary conditions in healthcare facilities (and, probably to a lesser extent, from dangerous cosmetic and traditional practices).

This VOA article is disingenuous in not checking its claims against readily available data. The IRC, like all international NGOs, is anxious to increase funding, and reducing HIV transmission, poverty and food insecurity are all laudable aims. But the sloppy sensationalism in the article also leaves the impression that the claimed concerns about the dangers of ‘survival sex’, child sex tourism and child prostitution are being inflated for fundraising purposes. It also raises important doubts about what proportion of HIV is sexually transmitted.

Dear Researcher, What Kind of Whore am I?


My last blog post was about a researcher who seems to have found what she was looking for (young girls who claim to have had sex for money to buy sanitary towels) and now uses the finding to get publicity and, presumably, funding, or justification for funding if she has already received some.

Ten percent of the 15 year olds, allegedly, made this claim, which amounts to fewer than 20 people from a survey of 3000. But the researcher took what they said at face value because they were saying the right thing. The researcher is selling menstrual cups (specifically, mooncups) in a high HIV prevalence area.

Another piece of research looked at serodiscordance, where each partner in a couple has a different HIV status, one positive and one negative (or they are each infected with a recognizably distinct viral type). It was found that more women than men are in discordant relationships, which is taken to indicate that women are more ‘promiscuous’ than men, or more ‘promiscuous’ than previously assumed.

The researchers concluded that “due to social desirability bias, women in stable relationships practice concurrent partnerships more than reported”. In other words, the women whose partner was HIV negative but who were themselves HIV positive ‘lied’ about their sexual behavior.

The researchers, following the received view of HIV, believe that the virus is almost always transmitted through heterosexual sexual intercourse in high prevalence countries in ‘Africa’, but not in most countries outside of ‘Africa’. Therefore, HIV positive women in a discordant relationship must have been lying.

In the mooncup research, the researcher believed what was heard, and reported it as she heard it. But in the serodiscordance research the researcher did not believe what was heard, so it was classed as a ‘bias’, no different from saying that those women were lying.

Although there are all kinds of names for various different biases that plague certain kinds of research, it’s a bit harder to find names for the biases of researchers, who go into the field armed with their prejudices and the findings that they (and probably their funders and institutions, etc) seek, and proceed to grab what fits their preconceptions, discard what doesn’t, and put a spin on anything else that can be salvaged.

A very disturbing paper claims to identify three paradigms of ‘transactional sex’, for those who thought it only referred to sex for money. They identify:

Sex for basic needs
Sex for improved social status
Sex and material expressions of love

So there you have it! Since the study is not about people who are seen as straightforward sex workers and people who are married, it’s difficult to imagine what proportion of females could not be associated with any of these categories. Some authors on the subject conclude that females who don’t receive anything for sex (and, I guess, some who do), are coerced into having sex.

This is about sex in ‘African’ countries, by the way, so you don’t need to start thinking about any time you may have had sex that some zealous researcher could fit into one of their little boxes, unless you are ‘African’. Of course, if you are male (and ‘African’) then you are likely to be a John or a sexual abuser.

So how can you tell if you have had sex for reasons that the researcher can not classify as transactional or forced, how to tell if you are a prostitute, a victim, a John or a sexual abuser? Or, looking at it another way, if you are not from an ‘African’ country, neither are you married, nor a sex worker, have all your sexual experiences been of a kind that these researchers might approve?

Those writing on the subject often talk of females lacking power, and of the intervention they are researching, such as marketing mooncups and the like, as ’empowering’. Indeed, the subject of power often arises in discussions of HIV in ‘Africa’. As if we (the reseachers, NGOs, etc) have power and we are looking for downtrodden victims upon whom we may bestow it, if they just give the right answers to our questions (we can also tread down those awful men, too).

Shockingly, these well funded researchers really do wield great power in developing countries. They define what kind of person you are, a victim, an abuser, a prostitute, a john, and they tell others how to use these definitions, giving them a small share of their funding if they allocate people to the correct boxes.

The same researchers decide what they will accept as a valid response, on the one hand, and what they will put down to bias on the other, effectively calling the respondent a liar, unable or unwilling to accurately describe how they see themselves and their place in their own environment.

There are some who seem to go to the field with a blinkered view of HIV in high prevalence African countries, where they refuse to accept evidence that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of ‘African’ sexuality, where sex is generally paid for (somehow) or forced, always ‘unsafe’, rarely (if ever) for pleasure and certainly not for love. If you are a HIV positive ‘African’, heck, even if you just have sex, you are (probably) a whore or a john.

Questionable Research: Are Menstrual Cups A Hard Sell?


In May of 2016, the English Guardian gushed:

“‘Girls are literally selling their bodies to get sanitary pads,’ says Dr Penelope Phillips-Howard. ‘When we did our study in Kenya, one in ten of the 15 year old girls told us that they had engaged in sex in order to get money to buy pads.'”

The 2015 study that they carried out is more careful in some ways. “Caution is suggested in interpreting the data provided, and particularly for analyses on low prevalence behaviors such as sex for money for sanitary products.” The study also reveals that the number of 15 year olds who claimed to have had sex to get money, specifically to get sanitary pads, was fewer than 20.

Another Guardian article appeared in the last few days on the same subject. The articles are both promoting a menstrual cup as an alternative to expensive, disposable sanitary pads, or similar ware.

Access to sanitary ware is vital for the health and welfare of girls and women, and making devices like the menstrual cup available is an excellent alternative to the ridiculously expensive disposable sanitary ware available in most places.

But if it’s a right, and vital for health, why dress this up as an attempt to ‘rescue’ 15 year olds who are said to be resorting to ‘transactional sex’ just to purchase sanitary pads? One of the researchers also claims the girls are often coerced into having sex.

Back in sensationalist mode, the recent Guardian article cites the same author and study:

The situation is so dire that in a 2015 study of 3000 Kenyan women, Dr Penelope Phillips-Howard found 1 in 10 15-year-old girls were having sex to get money to pay for sanitary ware.”

Note, 3000 women, but fewer than 200 15 year olds. Both Guardian articles are about having sex for money to buy pads, rather than having sex in return for pads. But the abstract of the 2015 article seems to blur this distinction, which I would argue is an important one if we are to judge whether this research is useful, however abused, or highly questionable.

There is also an article from a 2013 study, for which Phillips-Howard is a contributor, which clearly talks about both, having sex for money to buy sanitary ware and having sex for sanitary ware.

However, the 2013 article is quite different because it states that “Girls reported [my emphasis] ‘other girls’ but not themselves participated in transactional sex to buy pads, and received pads from boyfriends.” Claiming that other people do this may indicate that the respondent has simply heard such things, perhaps from peers, teachers, various sources of information about sanitary matters, or even presentations about HIV.

Going back to the two possible phenomena, sex to get pads (from sexual partners) and sex to get money to buy pads, do either of these stand up to scrutiny? The first seems unlikely on the basis of other claims and findings made in the literature cited, such as that few people want to talk about menstruation; males don’t at all, even many females generally don’t.

Do men buy sanitary pads as gifts for their sexual partners? I imagine this is rare. I have bought sanitary pads in East African shops and people don’t hide their reactions. Perhaps it happens.

Claims about girls engaging in ‘transactional’ sex can be found throughout the HIV, health, development and anthropological literature, all over the place. Sex in Africa is a common obsession among academics, journalists, policy makers, civil servants, Guardian readers, etc. There are claims that some girls have sex for status, food, mobile phones, phone credit, just about anything that a girl may want (or that they may be said to want).

Is it credible that lots of girls have ‘transactional’ sex for money, which they then use to buy sanitary pads? Well, again the articles state several reasons to think that they don’t, or don’t do so very much. After all, they have families with small incomes, they need to buy food, to pay bills, including school fees. Would they prioritize sanitary pads, having gone as far as to engage in ‘transactional’ sex?

The literature goes from claiming that girls say other girls have sex for sanitary pads or sex for money to buy sanitary pads, to claiming that 10% of 15 year old girls claim that they have had sex for money to buy sanitary pads.

By my reading, the causal link between engaging in ‘transactional’ sex and purchasing sanitary pads is lost if the girls don’t have sex in return for the pads. But if the claim is that they have sex for the pads then the literature itself undermines the claim that some men are happy to purchase them as gifts in return for sex.

We can’t rule out the possibility that someone has engaged in ‘transactional’ sex for money to buy sanitary pads, nor the possibility that someone has done so in return for sanitary pads. But Phillips-Howard’s claim that girls are literally selling their bodies to get sanitary pads looks more like a desperate attempt to shore up poor quality research than a genuine argument for the benefits of providing girls in developing countries with the most appropriate means to ensure menstrual hygiene.