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AIDS and the Myth of the Oversexed Negro
Posted on Jul 24, 2008
Conventional wisdom insists that habits die hard. Stereotypes die even harder. Ever since journalist/adventurer Henry Stanley Morton’s account of Lord Napier’s 1868 Ethiopian campaign was published by The New York Herald, Africa has remained, in the minds of Americans, an ungovernable jungle where half-naked pygmies, polygamists and pagans roam around, negotiating their existence in the midst of exotic primitive chaos.
And if you think these are tales of bygone years, the Homo ancestralis thesis, which was propounded as recently as 1987 by John and Pat Caldwell, states that Africans are so distinct and different from Eurasians that they need a separate species classification apart from Homo sapiens, which would be Homo ancestralis—the ancestral man for whom life is about ancestors, lineage organization, descent, procreation and, by extension, sex.
The notion of Homo ancestralis spun the African sexuality thesis (Caldwell et al, 1989), which treats African culture as a homogenous whole and states that because Africa is fertility-oriented, morality and religion are secondary to sexual relations on the continent. Characterized by a general lack of guilt or moral codes, therefore, sex in Africa, according to these authors, is an activity like working, eating or drinking and is transacted in very much the same matter-of-fact manner.
Africa’s case has not been helped by the emergence of AIDS, and the insistence of the HIV/AIDS orthodoxy that its primary mode of transmission among Africans is heterosexual sex. To compound an already complex situation, the African green monkey hypothesis also traces the origin of AIDS to Africa. Many spirited efforts have been made to debunk the green monkey theory, but it continues to hang around like a bad smell.
It was therefore inevitable that the historically touted myth of the oversexed Africans would resurface to explain Africa’s heterosexual AIDS transmission rate. It was also inevitable that practices such as polygamy, concubinage, widow-inheritance, widow-cleansing and female circumcision would be taken out of cultural context, held up for new scrutiny and used as a standard for confirming the world’s worst fears about Africa.
Against this background, it is no major surprise that AIDS in Africa has been understood and fought along “behavior and behavioral change” lines. Sound bites from HIV/AIDS strategists and commentators confirm this.
“If you ask me why is there more AIDS in Africa and I say because Africans f—- more, what’s your reaction?” —Elizabeth Pisani, epidemiologist, quoted in “Why We Are Losing the War on AIDS,” The Sunday Herald, May 4, 2008.
“Let me be very blunt: The heterosexual transmission of AIDS is, in Africa, a function of truly pathological promiscuity. So this is really a violence issue—not the same violence we deal with in Boston, where teenagers stab and shoot each other, but the violence of African men who are killing themselves, and killing African women and children, with pathological promiscuity.”—The Rev. Eugene Rivers, quoted in “Silence Is Death,” The Boston Review, April/May 1999.
“Sex, love and disease do not mean the same thing to Africans as they do to West Europeans [because] the notion of guilt doesn’t exist in the same way as it does in the Judeo-Christian culture of the West.”—Professor Nathan Clumeck of the Universite Libre in Brussels, quoted in Le Monde section of The Manchester Guardian Weekly, Dec. 14, 1993.
“Many men in Africa take their women in a brutal way, so that some heterosexual activity regarded as normal by them would be closer to rape by our standards and therefore be likely to cause vaginal lacerations through which the AIDS virus could gain entry into the bloodstream.”—“Reassuring News About AIDS: A Doctor Tells Why You May Not Be at Risk,” Cosmopolitan magazine, January 1988.
“Many African men prefer ‘dry sex,’ a practice whereby women, particularly prostitutes, are said to insert substances, such as household detergents or antiseptics, in their vagina prior to intercourse in order to prevent wetness. This practice allegedly produces a ‘hot, tight, and dry’ environment, which their men find more pleasurable but which may increase the risk of HIV-1 transmission, since the substances could cause the disruption of the membranes lining the vaginal and uterine wall.”—The Lancet, Oct. 17, 1998.
“In the Great Lakes area of Africa, to stimulate a man or a woman and induce them to intense sexual activity, he-monkey blood (for a man) or she-monkey blood (for a woman) was directly inoculated in the pubic area and also the thighs and back. These magic practices would therefore constitute an efficient experimental transmission model and could be responsible for the emergence of AIDS in man.”—The Lancet, June 27, 1987.
In line with the behavioral change model of HIV/AIDS prevention, a new World Bank-backed anti-AIDS experiment introduced in April 2008 will pay $45 every six months to 3,000 men and women, aged 15 to 30, in southern Tanzania over three years, on the condition that periodic laboratory test results prove they have not contracted AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections.
The program will be jointly funded by the World Bank, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Population Reference Bureau and the Spanish Impact Evaluation Fund. According to Carol Medlin of the University of California, San Francisco, who is one of the researchers working on the program, the aim of the program is to “make people think hard about the long-term consequences of their short-term behavior. The rationale is that in spite of billions of dollars spent annually on treatment and prevention worldwide, there were about 2.5m [million] new HIV infections in 2007, predominantly in Africa.”
The blogosphere (a veritable tool for checking the public’s pulse) is awash with reactions to this “innovation.” These reactions, ranging from the condescending to the pissed-off, leave Africa in the usual place—an infant continent populated by half-wits.
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