Posted on July 14, 2004

Rural African Men Claim AIDS As Sign Of Masculinity

EurekAlert, Jul. 13

Many rural African men unknowingly claim to have AIDS, thinking it is an indicator of their masculinity and sexual prowess, says a University of Alberta researcher. Dr. Amy Kaler, from the U of A’s Faculty of Arts investigated the ways that young men in rural southern Malawi, Africa talk about HIV and their own perceptions of risk.

Kaler found that a high number of sexually active young men say they are HIV-positive, without having any medical evaluation or signs of AIDS. For many Malawi men, their beliefs about the virulence of AIDS are not consistent to current medical treatment of the disease.

“They assume, first, that it is everywhere and will eventually kill everyone and second, that AIDS is extremely infective and that if one has been exposed to the virus, one’s days are numbered,” said Kaler. Schoolboys, for example, argued with their teacher that there was no point in working hard in school because no one would “remain alive in the coming five years.”

These claims seem to emerge from a particular idea of masculinity which is used to justify continuing such risky sexual behaviour as having multiple partners or not using condoms — this behaviour is no longer dangerous if one believes he has already contracted the virus, said Kaler, who has published in the journal “Social Science and Medicine” as well as “Demographic Research.”

The U of A sociologist studied journals kept by people working with the Malawi Diffusion and Ideational Change Project (MDICP), in which they wrote down every conversation, casual chat or passing reference about AIDS. She found that not only did the men associate manliness with HIV, but one man went so far as to correct another by saying that he had slept with all the desirable girls in one particular village so if anybody is going to be the cause of an AIDS outbreak it would be him.

In many settings, AIDS is associated with shame and guilt but in other contexts such as male homosocial groups, the virus may take on different meanings, said Kaler. “Given the relative homogeneity of masculinity scripts around the world, with emphasis on both heterosexual activity and taking risks, I doubt that these Malawian men are unique.”