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AIDS and the Myth of the Oversexed Negro
Posted on Jul 24, 2008
These ethnographic accounts bear no semblance to what was widely touted as the degenerate sexuality of the Negro, and which came to define American understanding of black sexuality.
“Every unphysiologic and antisocial act that tends to breed degenerate human beings, sinful, vicious, and lustful, lies inherent in the African. He will walk the alleys at night with a penis swollen from disease, and infect his bride-to-be with the same nonchalance that he will an hour later exhibit when cohabiting with the lowest of his race”—W. L. Howard, “The Negro as a Distinct Ethnic Factor in Civilization,” Medicine 9, Page 425. 1903).
“When we take into consideration the ancestry of the American Negro, and reflect upon the peculiar sexual relations sustained by that ancestry, it is by no means surprising that ancestral traits crop out occasionally. Marriage among certain Negro tribes is as close a simulation of what is designated as rape in civilized communities as could well be imagined. When the Ashantee warrior knocks down his prospective bride with a club and drags her off into the woods, he presents an excellent prototype illustration of the criminal sexual acts of the Negro in the United States.”—G.F. Lydston and H. McGuire, “Sexual Crimes Among the Southern Negroes,” Renz and Henry, Publishers, Page 7. 1893.
Frantz Fanon (1952) was so peeved by the fact that black sexuality was “the subject of a widespread fantasy, which fixates the black man at the level of the genitals,” that he declared, “One is no longer aware of the Negro, but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis.”
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What was Cournot thinking? To quote Stuart Hall (2003), “Is this a joke in bad taste, or does it have a deeper meaning?”
It obviously had and still has a deeper meaning. The myth of the oversexed Negro is alive and well. It relentlessly resonates at the highest professional levels and seems to blight HIV/AIDS interventions in Africa.
Fortunately, there are still some people who are capable of looking at things in a different way. Eileen Stillwagon—a health and development economist who has worked in Tanzania and Zimbabwe—in her “Racial Metaphors: Interpreting AIDS and Sex in Africa,” finds similarities in the U.S. for many of the behaviors for which Africans are condemned.
Scenario 1: In Uganda, Zeinab, 30, runs a lodge. She has a male companion who contributes to her household, but she does not see this as a permanent relationship. In the U.S., Cathy, 30, works for an editorial house in Manhattan. She has a live-in boyfriend but does not think they will get married.
Scenario 2: In Africa, some young women depend on “sugar daddies,” older men who pamper them with cash and gifts in exchange for sex. In the U.S., the July 2002 edition of the beauty magazine Allure, which is marketed to teenagers and young women, ran a feature article entitled “Tricks for Treats.” The article gave instructions for securing expensive gifts from wealthy men through sex.
Question: If the African example means that transactional sex is the norm in Africa, does the Allure article (with the magazine’s monthly circulation of 1 million) indicate that transactional sex is the norm in the United States?
Scenario 3: In Africa, masculine sexual ideology revolves around the notion that men must have many sexual partners to be satisfied. In the U.S., a beer commercial shows the numbers on an odometer spinning in a man’s mind as he tries to count his previous sexual contacts. The American blues song, “You Got to Have More Than One Woman (if You’re Gonna Get Along),” recorded by Tim Hardin in 1967, was very well received. Additionally, a white male participant (in his 30s) in a March 2008 edition of Fox’s “Moment of Truth” admitted that he had had sex with more than 100 women.
Question: How is the American male ideology different from the African male ideology?
And if you are one of those who believe that “condom use and a pattern of serial sexual partners” differentiates sexual relations in the U.S. from Africa’s purported “unprotected sex with multiple, concurrent sexual partners,” you need to watch “The Maury Show” now and then. This show never runs out of paternity sagas. More often than not, the “accused” man is vindicated by the results of a DNA test, and the woman (black, white or Latina) continues the shameful quest for her “baby-daddy.” One woman recently brought 34 men to the show for DNA tests to determine the paternity of her four children. The sagely Judge Glenda Hatchett also devotes many episodes of her televised court to resolving sensational paternity disputes. These are not great exemplars of U.S. monogamous sex or condom use!
Stillwaggon concludes that anyone looking for limitless, multipartnered sex will find data in sub-Saharan Africa, just as any foreign censor looking for American decadence will find ample evidence in American advertising, movies, magazines, music or, indeed, sexual behavior. Besides, as Gunnar Myrdal (1944) observed, cultural influences pose the questions we ask, influence the facts we seek and determine the interpretation we give these facts.
The business of this article is not to deny that AIDS is a problem in Africa. Those who have the expertise to question Africa’s HIV figures are already doing so. Whether AIDS is an epidemic or even a pandemic in Africa, however, characterizing a whole race as “sex-mad fiends,” is not the way to contain it. That will simply bleed old wounds, fan distrust and undermine genuine prevention efforts.
It’s time to stop singing the “pan-African hypersexuality” song and start looking at other factors that may be driving HIV in Africa, such as poverty and the risks that poverty creates—malnutrition, low immunity, stress, poor sanitation, overcrowding, poor access to health care, substandard health care, rural deprivation and urban squalor—all of which will facilitate the spread of AIDS or, indeed, any other disease.
John C. Caldwell, Pat Caldwell and Pat Quiggin (1989), “The Social Context of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Andrew Jack (2008), “World Bank Backs anti-Aids Experiment” (Financial Times, April, 25).
Suzette Heald (1995), “The Power of Sex: Some Reflections on the Caldwells’ ‘African Sexuality’ Thesis.”
Beth Maina Ahlberg (1994), “Is There a Distinct African Sexuality? A Critical Response to Caldwell.”
Eileen Stillwaggon (2001), “AIDS and poverty in Africa.”
Eileen Stillwaggon (2003), “Racial Metaphors: Interpreting Sex and AIDS in Africa.”
Charles Geshekter (1999), “A Critical Reappraisal of African AIDS Research and Western Sexual Stereotypes.”
Stuart Hall (2003), “The spectacle of the ‘Other.’ ”
Marie-Nathalie Le Blanc, Deidre Meintel and Victor Piche (1991). “The African Sexual System: Comment on Caldwell et al.”
Thabisile Buthelezi (2006), “The One Who Has Eaten It, Has Only Eaten a Part: Exploring Traditional Zulu Premarital Sexual Practices.”
Sydney Bryn Austin (1990), “AIDS and Africa: United States Media and Racist Fantasy.”
Rosalind Harrison-Chirimuuta (1997), “AIDS and Africa: A Case of Racism vs. Science?”
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