AIDS: one of the few true global pandemics in living memory. The AIDS epidemic spans every continent, effects every demographic group, and kills somewhat indiscriminately…somewhat. I’ve written about HIV previously on this blog, as I’ve done on-the-ground research in Kenya and promoted GYT (get yourself tested). If you haven’t done so already, take a minute to consider getting tested for HIV. In almost every city, there are locations where you can get yourself tested for free, and the more you know, the more empowered you are to make good decisions about your own health.
AIDS is more than just a virus, though. I have spent the last 12 weeks with a research center that studies the social dimensions of HIV/AIDS, a disease which is inextricably intertwined with demographics and social location. And if you’re wondering why feminists should care: this is it. We may not all be scientists, able to work towards a cure, but we are a social movement that work work towards the alleviation of social elements which drastically increase the odds of HIV infection.
1) HOMOPHOBIA/TRANSPHOBIA: I’ve written numerous posts addressing LGBTQ issues before, and I think this comes under this heading as well, but not for the reasons you might be thinking. HIV is hardly a “gay disease”: in fact, it’s most commonly spread through heterosexual sexual encounters. However, because the persons initially infected with HIV/AIDS were predominantly gay, the world-~-including America-~-was slow to respond. People continue to blame gay people when they get HIV, saying they deserved it. Trans folk, across the board, have trouble accessing adequate healthcare. The reality is, we need to be combating homophobia as it appears in our laws and in our healthcare system. In addition, homophobic tendencies in society often present a barrier to individuals disclosing their risk behaviors to either partners or health professionals, and thus from being able to best access information they need (it also makes it harder for their sexual partners to understand their own risk).
2) RACISM: African-American communities (and to a lesser extent, Hispanic communities) are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) research indicates that African-Americans, especially in low-income areas, are less likely to be as knowledgeable about HIV risk and prevention than their white counterparts, 2) low-income and minority communities are less likely to have access to affordable and culturally appropriate healthcare services, and 3) researchers have also put forth the idea African-American communities face additional risk factors brought on by elevated incarceration rates, as HIV risk in prisons can be high and African-American women, faced with a sex ratio imbalance, often lose bargaining power over issues such as fidelity and condoms.
3) SLUT STIGMA: Though the feminist movement has fought against slut stigma for years and for any number of reasons, this is one of the most tangible health impacts: when people fear the repercussions of social condemnation related to their sexual behaviors, they are less likely to engage in behaviors which may reveal the violation of social taboos. This means that, faced with the risk of being branded a “slut”, women (or men) may choose not to get tested for HIV or other STIs (which, as it happens, elevate the risk of HIV infection)
4) SEXUAL PURISM: Speaking of things that feminists are generally against, this is just a reminder that concepts of sexual purity tend to create further barriers to safe sex, and thus enable the further spread of HIV. The fact that comprehensive sex ed is still a contentious issue in the United States continues to sadden me, as it makes it more difficult for young people to meaningfully engage in a dialogue about sex such that their questions can be answered. As a result, young people are often forced to turn to the media or their peers, neither of which necessarily offer accurate advice. Moreover, because there are such taboos on sexuality, young people are never taught how to talk about sex with their partners, or how to negotiate what they want or need in sexual situations.
5) POVERTY: Poverty is also a factor in HIV risk, and as feminists work to be more intersection, we absolutely need to be paying attention to the impact that poverty has on the lives of both women and men. As previously stated, low income communities are less likely to have access to healthcare sites…which may also mean they have trouble gaining access to things like antiretroviral treatment, which helps to contain symptoms and prolong life for HIV positive persons. ARVs, however, can be very draining and need to be taken at specific times…which may be a problem if one is working one or more less-flexible jobs, like many low-income Americans today. In addition, service jobs and jobs involving more physical activity or physical labor may be more difficult to do as a result of symptoms of HIV/AIDS, a problem noted already by many in the developing world.
HIV may be spread through a physical virus, but its social dimensions greatly influence risk factors. It’s true that if more straight, rich, white cis men had gotten the disease early on, the reaction to it may have been stronger…but there are also reasons why that demographic in particular is not at as high a risk. It’s not because HIV can’t infect wealthier people, but rather because wealthier people are taught to handle situations differently and have better access to education and health services than their counterparts. The feminist movement may not be able to invent a cure, but we can tackle these problems, and we have to.
And as for you, my reader…I implore you to get yourself tested if you have not done so recently, and to do so if your partner if you have never done so before. It’s an important conversation to have, and it’s time for us all to start talking. Our silence is killing people as much the virus itself is.