by Mary Ero
It is amazing how sex is a relatively taboo topic among PLWHA (or at least seems to be). Considering most of us acquired the disease through sexual intercourse one would only hope that there would be a little less mental restriction on the subject. But in Nigeria? No way! Even pregnant women are expected to act like virgins here.
Sex is a very important part of the lives of people in this country, both those living with HIV/AIDS and those who are not (with a population of 170 million plus you do not need further proof). Sex, I suspect, is the reason many people refuse to either disclose their status or just refuse to get tested. Naturally, the other peripheral issues pop up like ‘can the illness be treated ‘, ‘will I die from it ‘, etc., which are generally already answered by treatment and care, but the main questions ‘how do I prevent people from concluding that I am promiscuous’ and ‘will I be able to maintain my current lifestyle‘ are not.
Lifestyle in this sense really means a carefree, vibrant, sexual life which is usually not a looming possibility when those three letters are confirmed in one’s life. Or maybe I should qualify that; carefree, vibrant sex is not usually a possibility when a woman is confirmed HIV positive. I will explain.
Before I realised who I was as an adult, I was very aware of my sexuality. As a matter of fact, my sexuality was the one thing I knew how to manipulate. The reason for this was the sexual abuse I endured as a child and which I have spoken of exhaustively. Before I understood its intricacies, I had sex because I felt it was the thing to do; I would lie there, silent and quiet, so my boyfriend partner would be happy, and would like me. I would sometimes cry afterwards – or pretend to – just to indicate that I still had a lot of virtue left in me, regardless of my knowledge of the sexual act.
When I became more aware, I had sex in exchange for or as a sign of love. A barely-existent self-esteem ensured that I was always looking for love (read: self-acceptance) in the arms of my lovers, and confusing lust for it. So, offering or accepting to have sex was my way of securing that ‘love’, and I learnt to be very good at it, to keep them interested. (It is funny because, in retrospect, those are men I would not even give the time of day now.) Eventually, sex became a very important tool in my relationships to maintain the interest of the partner at that point in time. Which is funny because
In all that time, never once did I have sex because I wanted to, at my own volition, or on my own schedule.
And this is the crux of the matter: Nigerian women (generally) rarely, if ever, negotiate sex.
My evolution to overt sexuality, dramatic as it seems, will not be very different from that of the average Nigerian girl. Granted it may not follow the same trajectory and/or lead to the same open-endedness but be assured it usually begins the same way: sexual abuse in childhood that leaves her vulnerable to other partners and searching for answers in, through and with sex. More often than not. Add that to the fact that she is brought up conditioned to satisfy a man’s needs and you have a serious issue on your hands.
My point is that unless women start speaking up for their rights things will never change. And these rights include the right to negotiate and initiate sex. Think about it: a man who is diagnosed HIV positive can still score a wild night of sex with a strange, smitten girl -no questions asked- primarily because girls are not accustomed to asking questions. But what is the likelihood that a woman just walks in on a stranger and successfully encourages him to ditch the condom for that night? Many ladies will tell you that they usually have sex despite their misgivings, even when all they wanted was to just talk or cuddle. Also, according to the law, can a man rape his own wife in Nigeria? I don’t think so. How many women carry condoms just in case? And how many women can go to see their boyfriends and successfully get away with not having sex, if they are not in the mood for it? How many actually even know that they can say ‘no, not today’. Otherwise strong, powerful women become weaklings, incapable of determining their reproductive health, because of conditioning. For instance, Nigerian Twitter is awash every other day with heated conversations, between men who feel some entitlement to women’s bodies, and women who disagree.
I have a very strong interest in the socio-cultural nuances that lead up to a woman being diagnosed HIV+ in Nigeria. I feel that if we change the conversations we can have less women living with or being vulnerable to the disease. Nigeria is experiencing one of the fastest growing epidemics of HIV/ AIDS in Africa, believe it or not. Unfortunately, a large percentage of these people are women. Women empowerment is not just providing women with a source of income and the voice to stand up to an abusive partner. It is also about encouraging young girls to love and respect themselves and hold their bodies in high esteem. This is not to say, in any way that only men enjoy sex, but it is to say that the idea to have sex should be a personal, safe decision; as easy as choosing condoms over the morning after pill. I mean forget the morality of it, casual sex or no, your conversations about it should begin with questions about sexual health. In an ideal world, everyone should know the difference between a person who does not know their status, a person who is HIV negative, a person who is HIV positive with an undetectable viral load, and everything in between.
But let us reel it into the main issue. Discovering my status was devastating for my identity and I can see now how many ways I fought to pretend to myself that things had not changed. I had learned to wrap myself and my worth around this sexuality and being HIV+ meant that I would have nothing, be nothing. Even less than nothing; I would be avoided and loathed. And even if that did not happen, I would see myself as a disease waiting to happen, in the light of sex. It explains why a lot of women at the HIV treatment clinic have that oppressed, resigned air and look. If they had children before the diagnosis then their lives are over as far as love is concerned. If not they seek companionship from a pool of equally flawed candidates; men living with the disease as well. Chemistry is not an option except it has to do with the components of ARVs. And God knows what other compromises they have to make, sex-wise: don’t do this, only do that. These, unfortunately, are some of the choices that face us, that or risk being insulted over and over when you meet other people and tell them the truth.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for every woman. I have found that as I became more open about my status I received a very warm reception from potential lovers. It was not so much their exposure to, or their comfort with the issue of HIV, as it was their respect – and I daresay admiration – for a woman who takes charge of her sexual health and history without flinching. That, too, is sexy. And, interestingly, none of these men has been HIV positive. However, at the same time, ironically, I am now more discriminating when it comes to sex. I ask questions, and I do it for me – because I want to.
Is there sex after HIV? Absolutely. But this time it’s on my own terms.
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