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Gender and sexuality: emerging perspectives from the heterosexual epidemic in South Africa and implications for HIV risk and prevention

, 1 ,   2

Journal of the International AIDS Society

BioMed Central

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      Research shows that gender power inequity in relationships and intimate partner violence places women at enhanced risk of HIV infection. Men who have been violent towards their partners are more likely to have HIV. Men's behaviours show a clustering of violent and risky sexual practices, suggesting important connections. This paper draws on Raewyn Connell's notion of hegemonic masculinity and reflections on emphasized femininities to argue that these sexual, and male violent, practices are rooted in and flow from cultural ideals of gender identities. The latter enables us to understand why men and women behave as they do, and the emotional and material context within which sexual behaviours are enacted.

      In South Africa, while gender identities show diversity, the dominant ideal of black African manhood emphasizes toughness, strength and expression of prodigious sexual success. It is a masculinity women desire; yet it is sexually risky and a barrier to men engaging with HIV treatment. Hegemonically masculine men are expected to be in control of women, and violence may be used to establish this control. Instead of resisting this, the dominant ideal of femininity embraces compliance and tolerance of violent and hurtful behaviour, including infidelity.

      The women partners of hegemonically masculine men are at risk of HIV because they lack control of the circumstances of sex during particularly risky encounters. They often present their acquiescence to their partners' behaviour as a trade off made to secure social or material rewards, for this ideal of femininity is upheld, not by violence per se, by a cultural system of sanctions and rewards. Thus, men and women who adopt these gender identities are following ideals with deep roots in social and cultural processes, and thus, they are models of behaviour that may be hard for individuals to critique and in which to exercise choice. Women who are materially and emotionally vulnerable are least able to risk experiencing sanctions or foregoing these rewards and thus are most vulnerable to their men folk.

      We argue that the goals of HIV prevention and optimizing of care can best be achieved through change in gender identities, rather than through a focus on individual sexual behaviours.

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      Most cited references 32

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      Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept

       R. Connell (2005)
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        The health and health system of South Africa: historical roots of current public health challenges.

        The roots of a dysfunctional health system and the collision of the epidemics of communicable and non-communicable diseases in South Africa can be found in policies from periods of the country's history, from colonial subjugation, apartheid dispossession, to the post-apartheid period. Racial and gender discrimination, the migrant labour system, the destruction of family life, vast income inequalities, and extreme violence have all formed part of South Africa's troubled past, and all have inexorably affected health and health services. In 1994, when apartheid ended, the health system faced massive challenges, many of which still persist. Macroeconomic policies, fostering growth rather than redistribution, contributed to the persistence of economic disparities between races despite a large expansion in social grants. The public health system has been transformed into an integrated, comprehensive national service, but failures in leadership and stewardship and weak management have led to inadequate implementation of what are often good policies. Pivotal facets of primary health care are not in place and there is a substantial human resources crisis facing the health sector. The HIV epidemic has contributed to and accelerated these challenges. All of these factors need to be addressed by the new government if health is to be improved and the Millennium Development Goals achieved in South Africa.
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          Gender-based violence, relationship power, and risk of HIV infection in women attending antenatal clinics in South Africa.

          Gender-based violence and gender inequality are increasingly cited as important determinants of women's HIV risk; yet empirical research on possible connections remains limited. No study on women has yet assessed gender-based violence as a risk factor for HIV after adjustment for women's own high-risk behaviours, although these are known to be associated with experience of violence. We did a cross-sectional study of 1366 women presenting for antenatal care at four health centres in Soweto, South Africa, who accepted routine antenatal HIV testing. Private face-to-face interviews were done in local languages and included assessement of sociodemographic characteristics, experience of gender-based violence, the South African adaptation of the Sexual Relationship Power Scale (SRPS), and risk behaviours including multiple, concurrent, and casual male partners, and transactional sex. After adjustment for age and current relationship status and women's risk behaviour, intimate partner violence (odds ratio 1.48, 95% CI 1.15-1.89) and high levels of male control in a woman's current relationship as measured by the SRPS (1.52, 1.13-2.04) were associated with HIV seropositivity. Child sexual assault, forced first intercourse, and adult sexual assault by non-partners were not associated with HIV serostatus. Women with violent or controlling male partners are at increased risk of HIV infection. We postulate that abusive men are more likely to have HIV and impose risky sexual practices on partners. Research on connections between social constructions of masculinity, intimate partner violence, male dominance in relationships, and HIV risk behaviours in men, as well as effective interventions, are urgently needed.

            Author and article information

            [1 ]Gender & Health Research Unit, Medical Research Council, Private Bag X3985, Pretoria 0001 South Africa
            [2 ]Research Office, University of Cape Town, P/Bag, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa
            J Int AIDS Soc
            Journal of the International AIDS Society
            BioMed Central
            9 February 2010
            : 13
            : 6
            Copyright ©2010 Jewkes and Morrell; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

            This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


            Infectious disease & Microbiology


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