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5.4 Ability to communicate The ability to communicate about sexuality is limited by several factors, including sexual identity, self-confidence and emotional issues.
However, the ability to communicate about sexuality and risk behaviour is also connected with issues on an intrapersonal and interpersonal level. A key factor of the interpersonal level is that HIV risk and decision making exist in the context of the interaction between 2 and more people. This means that individual behaviour alone is not the result of individual predispositions, but depends also on the interactions with others, with social environment, social status, and power relationships (Gorna 1996). For example, HIV prevention efforts which are directed only at behaviour change in women and not at their male sexual partner, will have little success within the existing imbalance of power and decision making within the relationship.
5.5 The social status of women As discussed before, gender differences are an important factor in the manifestation of HIV/AIDS. Closely related to their self-confidence and their ability to communicate about safe sex is the social and economic status of women.
The inferior status of women in nearly all societies means that women tend to be far more vulnerable than men for reasons beyond physiology (Alcorn 1997).
Women in general have less power in society (Gorna 1996). A key factor to power is access to resources, which also influences decision making. Women still earn less as their male counterpart, and those who are not employed depend on the wages of their husband or male partners. Gender based economic inequality is the reality even in ‘developed’ countries. In the context of HIV prevention women’s economic inequality can have serious implications (Gorna 1996). The economic and power inequality may lead to a situation where a women is not able to insist on practice of safe sex, either in case of rape or violence or financial dependency. It is estimated that as many as 80 % of HIV infected women worldwide acquired the virus from their one and only partner (Gorna 1996).
A financially dependent women may find herself exchanging sex with her partner for the money for food, clothing, living etc. However, as Gorna argued, this is not to suggest that all marriages are legalised prostitution but stress that dependencies create tensions and inequities in many partnerships.
The economic dependence on their male sexual partners can have important consequences for women’s sexual health. Women may decide not to try to persuade a partner to wear a condom, particularly if this request will cause a dispute about fidelity.
Many women experience coercive sex and even rape within their primary relationship. Some decide not to resist this either because they experience or fear further physical violence, or because the economic and social constraints are so great (Alcorn 1997).
On the other hand, poverty and limited economic opportunities may encourage women’s decisions to use sex as currency, as survival sex or in commercial sex. All these may lead to increasing vulnerability to HIV (van Griensven et al., 1995).
HIV prevention messages that recommend that women reduce the number of their sexual partners fail for various reasons: Jonathan Mann has argued that a woman’s risk is related to her sexual partner’s behaviour. In Kigali, for example 1 in 5 HIV infected women had only one single life time partner; and in Morocco 45% of infected women had been infected by their husbands. In some cases multiple sexual partners may be necessary for survival. In addition, women often lack control over their sexual relationships. In marriage the threat of physical violence may disempower a women, even if she is aware of the danger of AIDS, even if condoms are available, and even if she knows her husband is HIV infected (Mann 1995). Mann argues that the central problem for HIV infection among women cannot be solved with posters, information campaigns or condom distribution. The central issue is the inferior role and status of women to the extent that women’s human rights and dignity are not respected, and society creates and enhances their vulnerability to HIV. Current HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives tend to focus on individuals by creating programmes, but do not address the societal issues which frame and define vulnerability to HIV (Mann 1995).
5.6 Social Networks
Several studies highlighted the importance of the involvement in social networks in the context of HIV prevention (Gillies et al., 1996, Dowsett et al., 1992, Bochow 1989).
The gay community in big cities with its well educated middle class members quickly developed a collective response to the threat of HIV infection. A safe sex strategy was implemented and a safe sexual lifestyle proclaimed. However, these prevention messages remained very much within the gay community and failed to reach individuals outside the social gay networks (Dowsett et al., 1992).
It was found that urban gay communities who produced a strong response to HIV in the form of a Safe Sex strategy and a great deal of community activity in prevention and care have a definite class character (Connell et al., 1993). The members are highly educated and affluent in comparison with the general population (Research and Decision Corporation 1984; Bauman and Siegel 1987; Connell et al., 1988).
Although attachment to the “gay community” has been identified as central to the achievement of sexual behaviour change, participation in the gay community was not easily achieved. Working class gay men are vulnerable not just because of their stigmatised sexual interests, but also because of their insecure economic circumstances. Modern gay life style seems to require more than a homosexual orientation. Economic security seems to be a significant basis for participation in gay community life.
Many working class gay men and men who have sex with men, but do not identify themselves as homosexuals, do not feel comfortable in the settings in the gay community, where well educated middle class men dominate. They feel excluded.
Their social networks are usually situated more in heterosexual working class settings with colleagues or family. (Dowsett et al., 1992).
As a consequence of their social exclusion from gay community life, most working class men’ links with the gay community are primarily sexual. The gay community is mainly used by them as gate keeper for sexual contacts with other men. Political and cultural aspects of gay community life are of little interest to them (Dowsett et al., 1992).
Because of lack of involvement in the gay community, working class gay men may get less access to the information on HIV prevention proclaimed by the gay community than members of these communities do (Dowsett et al., 1992, Bochow 1994, Biechele 1996).
Social isolation and disintegration of community is in general a critical co-factor in the rapid spread of HIV infection, and social networks are important aspects of the health and economic well-being in communities. Destroyed or displaced social networks weaken mechanisms of social support and can make people vulnerable to the spread of HIV, particularly in the interaction with drug dependency, poor access to services and resources, wider social discrimination and a lack of political power (Wallace 1993, in: Gillies et al., 1996).
HIV/AIDS prevention strategies operating within ‘gay communities’ may therefore fail to reach a very large proportion of men who have sex with men, those who come from a different class background. It is suggested that these prevention strategies might be inappropriate in working-class settings. HIV/AIDS prevention programmes, however, have taken little account of this. They are mostly designed by professional people and reflect middle-class experience and assumptions. Exceptions are HIV/AIDS prevention outreach activities, such as beats (Bennet et al., 1989;
Dowsett and Davis 1992; Connell et al., 1993).
5.7 Social issues of prevention receptivity
Prevention messages may not have been accessible for disadvantaged people, either they have not reached the locations where these people live, work or socialise, or they have not been published in the media preferred by people from lower socioeconomic classes (Krueger et al., 1990). For example, individuals who are distant to the gay community may not be reached by any information on HIV prevention. Mass media, like newspapers, TV and radio who reach people with lower socio-economic status do rarely touch the subject in an appropriate informative way.
5.8 Cognitive issues
People from lower socio-economic background may not have reduced risk behaviours to the same degree that other population groups have. It is likely that HIV prevention efforts have been less effective in reaching the impoverished, disadvantaged (Krueger et al., 1990).
The consistent findings on the relation between educational attainment and knowledge about and behavioural responses to HIV/AIDS may point beyond individual capacities to a more systematic social process, the effects of social inequality, e.g. the way in which safe sex is understood and appropriated (Dowsett et al., 1992).
“Educational level is not simply a variable which describes an individual characteristic or lack of knowledge and skills. It also indicates about access to and appropriation of a valuable social resource “ (Dowsett et al., 1992).
It was found that men with lower education levels and those who were distant to gay communities had received less information about safe sex. But, even though working class men are in contact with AIDS service organisations doing HIV/AIDS education, they - more often than middle-class gay men - do not completely comprehend or practise safe sex. They often acquire an approximation of knowledge (i.e they get information by word-of mouth and learn experientially.) Sometimes they get it wrong. They may struggle with an image on sustaining safe sex educational campaign designed for inner-city gay community, because visual metaphors or
thinking are not familiar to them. Cultural unfamiliarity and a lack of sophistication in understanding the point of the representation may lead to exclusion from modern gay culture (Dowsett et al.,1992).
Working class gay men who were asked to comment on existing HIV/AIDS education materials rejected and criticised some information as being obviously irrelevant to HIV/AIDS, and material using complex linguistic and visual images was rejected as boring. Prevention materials often assume a high level of education in the target audience. They are wordy, jargon-filled, or simply too complex. Many of the materials did not reflect the sexual and social experiences of these men’s lives (Dowsett et al., 1992).
It was found that there was considerable evidence of informal learning occurring among working class gay men, such as information exchange and support for safer sex practices. Men talk to other men in beats, informal places where they meet and have sex. This could be seen as a potential resource available to HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. These men could be used as “barefoot educators”, as volunteer educators in their local areas and social networks (Dowsett et al., 1992).
Many campaigns or interventions are not related to the social and cultural context of people from lower socio-economic background (such as working class men or members of ethnic minority groups), and might therefore not be seen as relevant to them. The inability to develop and direct HIV prevention messages in accordance to the knowledge level and social and cultural context of disadvantaged population groups may lead either to an ignorance of the AIDS problem, to seeing oneself not at risk, or to an approximation of knowledge with the possibility of continuing risk behaviour and risk of infection (Dowsett et al., 1992).
Prevention messages focusing on promiscuity may not reach individuals who are living in a stable relationship and believe their partner to be faithful. These people will not perceive themselves at risk and will not engage in HIV prevention activities (Biechele 1996).