What Does Safe Sex Mean for Unsafe Women?

Later this month, Washington DC will play host to the 19th Annual International AIDS conference where progress points will be discussed amongst global health leaders.  Throughout the past weeks, chatter has been spreading through the blogosphere over the pros and cons of a new entirely at-home/over-the-counter HIV test, and NPR is marking the upcoming conference with a series entitled, “AIDS: A Turning Point” – highlighting major steps made in ending the pandemic.

Most surprising to “Half-Way” was the news from Botswana – a southern African nation with “one of the highest rates of HIV in the world (nearly 25 percent of all adults in the country are infected with the virus).”  What the country has lacked in prevention tactics, it has made up for in response programs.  In 2002, Botswana launched its HIV drug access program (the first nation in Africa to do so), and now 95 percent of Botswana citizens who need these medications are provided them.  The rate of transmission from HIV-positive mothers to their babies has likewise decreased from forty percent in the late ‘90s to a current rate of just 4 percent (a rate similar to those of industrialized nations).

Botswana’s success is largely due to its president, Festus Mogae, who prioritized the fight against AIDS from the beginning of his administration – most notably going so far as to call for a legalization of homosexuality and prostitution in an effort to promote safe sex among those populations as well as advocating for distribution of condoms in prisons.

“I don’t understand it [homosexuality]. I am a heterosexual.  I look at women. I don’t look at other men. But there are men who look at other men. These are citizens.” – Mogae on homosexuality

“To protect them and their clients from being infected, you have to assist them to protect themselves. I don’t think by arresting them you help them.” – Mogae on sex workers

“If people can go to prison HIV negative and come out of it HIV positive, it means that prisons, whatever the law says, are one of the sources of infection.” – Mogae on STI contraction in the prison system

Everyone should be overjoyed at these types of news stories.  However (I know, I always give you the ‘however’), savvy feminists are also always wary of over-simplifying a complex situation.

As Zohra Moosa writes in her blog “the f word: contemporary UK feminism,”

All the condoms in the world are of no use to women and girls when they have no control over whether and when they have sex, or under what circumstances they have it. The reality for millions of women and girls is that gender-based violence constrains choice. 1 in 3 women directly experiences violence at least once in her lifetime.

Practicing safe sex becomes nearly impossible when a woman is being abused, and can even be difficult between consensual partners who are uncomfortable and/or inexperienced in discussing disease and pregnancy prevention.

Our Bodies, Ourselves Global Initiative supports more than twenty-two independent women’s organizations worldwide that develop their own versions of the infamous health manual adapted to their specific cultural concerns.  In Turkey, the badge below was created by partner Mavi Kalem, emblazoned with the phrase, “my body is mine,” and is distributed in tandem with a pamphlet “outlining rights fundamental to health and well-being . . . celebrating sexual and reproductive freedom.”

Another however.  American feminists know that to paint lack of sexual agency as a ‘third-world’ problem is willfully inaccurate.  That sub-cultural stigmas and myths can and do affect the sexual health of those groups.

I hope that I live long enough to see an edition of Our Bodies that doesn’t have to include pages of advice on approaching a partner regarding safe sex practices.  An edition that doesn’t need a table to debunk various ‘STI myths’ including, “lesbians don’t get STIs.”  An edition produced in a society where men and women don’t feel like this:

“A condom seems to pour cold water on the romance by saying, ‘Okay, to be brutally honest, we’ve both slept with other people.’”

“It is hard to imagine murmuring into someone’s ear at a time of passion, ‘Would you mind slipping on this condom just in case one of us has an STI?’”

“When I hand him a condom, he says, ‘What’s the matter, baby?  Don’t you trust me?’  What am I supposed to say to that?”

Our Bodies is right that the “just do it” message of popular culture, where there is no condom/safe sex talk between television or movie couples before the ‘we’re not the kind of network that can show this stuff’ cut away moment, either enforces or creates the message that sex with protection is unromantic.  And doesn’t it feel like we’ve been fighting that fictional phantom for long enough?

So much of the pressure we put on our relationships comes from our desire to conform to the romantic tropes of fed to us from early childhood.  I was in love with Prince Eric from Disney’s Little Mermaid, but as an adult, I have absolutely no idea why.  How could a man fall in love with a woman who has no voice?  Does anyone else see how subversively disturbing that is?

I love romantic comedies and Disney as much as, let’s say, someone named Bitsy who spends her days at ‘the club’ downing gin and tonics.  As much as I feminist-analyze them to death, I always clap at the end when Boy Y rushes to the airport to catch Girl X before she gets on a plane to some far-flung place from which she could never possibly return.

On the other hand, it profoundly worries me that there are people who allow these narrowly-defined expressions of romance such a grip over their emotional and physical health.

Until Ryan Gosling makes a movie entitled, “Condoms, Condoms, Condoms” we’re going to be responsible for making safe sex romantic on our own terms.  It’s romantic to not have worry about transmitting disease when you should be enjoying yourself.  It’s romantic that your partner values both your bodies enough to take precautions.  Sex with protection is romantic, sexy, and yes, at times awkward.  Sounds like a good time to me – with or without “Kiss the Girl” playing in the background.

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