Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

2010 29 Jan

Sex-positive in southern Africa

Right before I came out here, I was recruited by an online magazine to write about sexuality in Africa and my experience thereof. I wrote some columns, sent them to the magazine … and was told they weren’t quite right. So I sold them to CarnalNation instead! Here’s a roundup of my first four CN pieces; I doubt this is the last time I’ll publish with them, as CN (and editor Chris Hall in particular) is very awesome.

January 7: Rest In Peace, Pitseng Vilakati
I met an incredible, high-profile lesbian activist and wanted to be friends, but soon after she was murdered … and her partner charged with the crime.

January 14: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 1: Abstinence
In which I discuss how my relationship started with my current boyfriend, a Baha’i convert who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (the pseudonym I chose for him was, therefore, Chastity Boy). I also describe some of my hesitations in promoting abstinence as a good sexual choice, even though it is a legitimately wise one in a place that’s so beset by HIV.

January 21: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 2: Be Faithful
Polygamy makes things difficult by setting norms that encourage lots of multiple concurrent partnerships, which is a spectacular method of spreading HIV. This was the hardest piece to write so far, because it’s so incredibly complicated! Halfway through I realized that my draft consisted of a beginning, an end, and eight incomplete sentences in the middle, at which point I freaked out and begged Chastity Boy for advice. He helped a lot with the cleanup, and I’m pretty happy with the result, although I do wish that I’d made it clearer that — while polygamy is definitely part of the problem, as is the gender gap — a bigger problem from a health perspective is that the ideal of polygamy sets the norm at multiple concurrent sexual relationships even for unmarried people (rather than the safer, though not morally superior, serial monogamy widely practiced in America).

January 28: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 3: Condoms
You’d think that people in a place where up to 40% of the population tests positive would be really careful about condoms, wouldn’t you? Especially when free condoms are widely available and everyone knows that they protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.

2009 22 Nov

Redefining masculinity for the HIV/AIDS fight in southern Africa

I can’t speak for all of Southern Africa, but certainly, the area where I’m currently doing HIV/AIDS work is inundated in HIV/AIDS ad campaigns. There are ten million taglines, ten billion posters and stickers and t-shirts and events and commercials and shoutouts on the radio and and and …. Every other billboard is HIV-related. Every khumbi (van in the public transit system) has at least one sticker. Every class in school incorporates AIDS into the curriculum; even kids studying math draw graphs of HIV prevalence. I have never seen anything like this level of media coverage for anything in America, anything at all.

I was recently intrigued to note a new permutation on the back of a sports magazine. (Sorry, these images aren’t great — there ain’t no scanners here, so I had to use my digital camera.)

One of the hardest things to do here is get southern African men to test and to talk. Women are perfectly willing to speak about how multiple partners contributes to the disease’s spread, for instance; women are, indeed, usually eager to discuss some of the problems of abuse and male entitlement that are contributing to HIV/AIDS. (Warning: that link is really depressing.) Men, not so much.

Here’s an article describing the campaign whose ad I’m highlighting here. Excerpt:

Until now, most AIDS schemes have centred on health centres, which are used mainly by women.

“It is hard to go to a clinic and acknowledge your vulnerability as a man,” said Dean Peacock, coordinator at Sonke Gender Justice Network, one of the groups working to engage men.

But men still hold the upper hand in sexual relations, so the “Brothers for Life” campaign aims to convince men to use condoms while also improving their access to treatment.

Currently, women account for three quarters of the HIV tests conducted in South Africa, and two thirds of the anti-retroviral drugs dispensed. What’s more, men tend to seek treatment later than women, when their immune systems are already weakened.

“There is nothing especially made for men. We need to do something to talk to men,” said Mzi Lwana, head of the Men and Aids program at the HIV research unit at Witwatersrand University.

The “Brothers for Life” icon, in the ad’s lower right corner, looks like this:

Which sure looks manly to me. But the most interesting and culturally revealing part is the text, which I’ll close-up on:

“There is a new man in South Africa. A man who takes responsibility for his actions. A man who chooses a single partner over multiple chances with HIV. A man whose self-worth is not determined by the number of women he can have. A man who makes no excuses for unprotected sex, even after drinking. A man who supports his partner and protects his children. A man who respects his woman and never lifts a hand to her. A man who knows that the choices we make today will determine whether we see tomorrow. I am that man. And you are my brother. Yenza kahle — do the right thing.”

This reminds me of a presentation I saw at the 2009 Alternative Sexualities conference at the Center on Halsted; I was on a panel about BDSM communities, but secretly I was most excited about the chance to sit in on the other panels and lectures. One of my favorites was a gent named David Moskowitz from the Center for Disease Control, who told us that a whopping 25% of leathermen surveyed at International Mr. Leather tested HIV-positive, and correlated the risk of unsafe sex with a host of interesting factors such as whether the person in question was dominant, submissive, a switch, etc. (Moskowitz planned to publish his data in an upcoming issue of “Journal of AIDS and Behavior”, but I don’t know whether that happened or not.)

After describing the statistics, he started to talk about possible interventions. The gay leather subculture is very focused on ideals of masculinity; I asked whether he’d considered a “masculinity campaign” around condom usage.

“Yeah, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” he said. “Be a man, use a condom …. Right now we’re focusing on recruiting community leaders to talk about safer sex, though. We’ve found allying with such figures to be the most effective strategy.”

I wish I could ask David Moskowitz about this South Africa campaign. Is this really going to work — even a little? Is it possible to influence, to remake, something as deep-rooted as gender conceptions with a publicity campaign? Does it make sense to try and redefine manliness to a purpose? Isn’t that kind of patronizing to men? The two questions I find myself caught between most are, firstly, is it a useful campaign — and secondly, is it a morally good one?

One interesting point that came up in the fracas that resulted from my three masculinity posts (followup coming soon, really! I’ve been busy with a conference) was that many men who are genuinely willing to talk about gender are frustrated and alienated by discussions of masculinity because those discussions are not male-centered. Is the Brothers for Life campaign focused on men’s needs, or is it attempting to redefine masculinity in a way that men will perceive as serving an agenda that doesn’t work for them?

The thing that makes me feel less uneasy about that is that it’s men running the campaign, and so I don’t feel quite as much as if values are being imposed. Additionally, the campaign seems quite concerned about — not just stopping abuses by men — but creating space for men to get testing, counseling, et cetera. I think the idea of having a male-centered clinic is smart, for instance, because I see so very many clinics and testing facilities staffed almost entirely (if not entirely) by women. I suppose one could make the argument that this is “men’s fault” for not stepping up as much as women do, but perhaps this is due less to social irresponsibility than to general male discomfort in relevant spaces.

2009 16 Jun

So yeah, I’m going to Africa for years … starting next week

So it seems I’m leaving Chicago soon — very soon! — and going to Africa.

When I try to tell the story of the sex-positive activism I’ve done here in Chicago, it’s kinda difficult. A lot of it snuck up on me. A lot of it was rather a surprise.

I’ve been on a career track towards going to Africa to do AIDS education for the last two years. I was never sure when I was going to be sent away, though — in fact, my departure was delayed twice. In the meantime, I was solidifying my BDSM identity; I came into that four years ago, and the learning process has only accelerated recently. I was also running lots of events for fun; I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but in retrospect, that was an incredibly helpful learning experience. And I’ve always been extremely interested in sex and culture.

Last year, I briefly dated a documentary filmmaker. Dating him both got me more interested in documentaries — I had previously been far more interested in fiction — and gave me a small window into what the film festival process is like. When I heard that “Passion and Power” (a history of vibrators and female sexuality) was screening in Chicago, I dragged my favorite gender studies friend Lisa to come see it with me.

After “Passion and Power”, the conversation went something like this:

Me: That was great! You and I should have a regular sexuality film night.
Lisa: You know, I bet people besides us would come to see that ….

Lisa works as Education Coordinator at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and she has way more experience running events than I do. Our ideas about the film series grew and grew! What started as nothing more than “let’s see fascinating movies and have interesting discussions!” became a Huge Awesome Activist Project. Lisa pointed out that it could bring a bunch of different sexuality communities together. I realized that it would be the best platform ever, not just for adult sex education, but alternative sexuality activism of all kinds — including my personal favorite, BDSM outreach.

So we created the Sex+++ film series and convinced the Hull-House Museum to host it. I took what I’d learned from dating the filmmaker / running events / spending years thinking about sex and culture — and I spent hours upon hours researching appropriate documentaries, tracking down filmmakers and distributors, begging for sponsors, calling everyone in the city who might be interested in sex events, generally driving myself insane …

… but it’s all been worth it, because the series really took off. Really, I was stunned by how much everything — not just the series, but my life — took off.

And then, of course, after the film series exploded and my BDSM outreach exploded and I started doing things like lecturing at the Museum of Sex, or fielding calls from reporters and talk shows, or inspiring others to create their own incredible sex-positive projectsthat was when the African AIDS education program called me. Oh yeah, remember them?

I had a moment where I considered staying here in Chicago. Actually I had more than one moment like that, and I worry that I’m being an idiot by leaving. Not just because leaving halfway through the Sex+++ film series is like planning an incredible all-night party, then leaving at 11PM ….

I’ve been lecturing and leading workshops around the city — around the country! I’ve had multiple opportunities to write professionally about these issues! It seems likely that if I came out (scary as the concept is) and took the time to promote myself, I could develop into a badass sex-positive activist / lecturer / writer. Am I being an idiot by departing now? Maybe. Maybe I am. Maybe I’ll be kicking myself for the rest of my life.

But I have wanted to go abroad for a long, long time. I believe that doing AIDS education in Africa is an unmatched opportunity to do work that needs to be done, to learn many things about sexuality and sex education — not to mention, to learn about being human … stretching myself to the max … existing in ways I never thought of. I know it’s going to be difficult and depressing, and I’m going to be lonely and miserable for large swaths of the experience, and I’m scared that I — the Internet geek, American culture-analyzin’, alt sex-lovin’ girl — totally do not belong in darkest Africa. But hey, I heard somewhere that I’m a masochist. Plus, if I’m going to be thinking about my career, this program will lend me a lot of professional legitimacy — more legitimacy that I can put in service of the sex-positive agenda. (What, you thought I didn’t have an agenda? Damn straight I have an agenda. Fear me!)

So I’m still going. In fact, I’m going next week. If all works out as planned (I never assume that it will), I won’t be back for years. My access to the Internet will probably be irregular; indeed, for the first few months, I most likely won’t have Internet access at all. I will post if I can, and I’ll send back whatever interesting sexuality information I come across. I’m sure I’ll still think about BDSM all the time, even though I’m also sure I won’t have as many opportunities to practice it; I hope I’ll have time to post some of those thoughts as well.

The film series will continue in my absence; I’ve put in many hours — and I’ll put in many more hours for the rest of this week — creating an infrastructure so that the Show Does Go On. (I also intend to post a Sex+++ FAQ this week, so as to make it easier for others to steal my idea and do the film series elsewhere.) Pleasure Salon will continue, hosted by the same great people who have been hosting it all along. I hope it’s still going when I get back!

Worst comes to worst, this opportunity doesn’t pan out and I come running home with my tail between my legs. Yeah, it could happen. But I’ve got to try.

It’s been a great ride. And I’ll be back.