Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Gender Stereotypes: Social Stigmas and Medical Aid

I find American comedy to be very funny because American comedians often use a humorous spin to discuss social issues and cultural values that allow you to both laugh and think about the way we think about things in life. This interesting tidbit by comedian Dom Irrera gives an interesting critique of gender expectations by discussing the double standards fathers expect of their sons and daughters.

Although I strongly recommend you watch the clip to add a little humor to your day, the gist of his act is that he finds is contradictory that we expect our sons to “sow their wild oats,” to engage in sexual intercourse with as many different girls as possible while we expect our daughters to remain an untainted virgin until marriage. I find this view to be quite universal among all cultures, not just the West. Testing to see that a woman’s virginity is intact by checking her hymen has been a historical practice in many cultures and although the perception of people engaging in sexual activity with multiple partners has relaxed significantly over time, there is still a distinct double standard we as a society place on individuals who engage in sexual intercourse.

We praise and admire the men who are able to engage in sexual activity with multiple girls, the terms “pimp” and “player” invoking positive connotations in our modern youth and male virginity is a badge of shame with many Hollywood movies centered around high school focusing on the boys losing their virginity before entering college. Yet in stark contrast, we as a society condemn the women who engage in sexual activity with various men, labeling such women as “sluts” or “whores” for their promiscuity. Although this double standard may have been derived from basic human instincts for survival, the double standard itself has resulted in unfortunate implications that are harmful to human health.

I do not plan to nor want to discuss the merits of what sort of standard should be set for both men and women in regard to freedom of sexual activity but do feel that it has to become more equitable due to the significant damage this double standard causes in modern society. I am sure that there are strong arguments both for reigning in male sexual activity as well as liberating female sexual activity but as I am an expert in neither, I decline to delve further into this topic. Rather I want to discuss the problem this double standard currently has on STDs, especially HIV.

HIV is a harmful virus that is transmitted mostly through sexual intercourse when a non-infected individual engages in sexual activity with an infected individual. Once infected, HIV attacks T-cells within the human body to bring down the cell count, weakening the infected individual’s immune system which makes them both more susceptible to disease and also unable to effectively fight against weak diseases that a healthy human body can usually fight off or recover from. As there is no cure for HIV, the only way to truly prevent HIV is to avoid infection in the first place through safe sex practices, most commonly through condom use or ARV treatment. However, even with condom use or ARV treatment, the risk of transmission from an infected individual to his or her partner is not zero. Thus, it is in society’s best interest for its citizens to check their status after engaging in sexual intercourse with non regular partners to see if they have been infected and if so, to then reduce their sexual activity and to take additional precautions such as ARV treatment to prevent the further spread of HIV throughout the community.

Although this seems very simple in theory, the problem is that individuals are not incentivized to get tested because of the social stigma they could incur if they are found to be infected by HIV. Mark Hunter’s study of masculinity and HIV in South Africa found that men with HIV and AIDS related diseases were shunned from society due to the ability of the virus to transform the most virile and healthy bodies into living skeletons. HIV is the antithesis of masculinity, representing the loss of masculinity by taking from the man both his life and his ability to engage in sexual intercourse. Due to the fact that HIV is a sexually transmitted disease where risk of infection increases with increased sexual activity as well as the propagating myth that people cannot get infected by an STI when having sex for the first time, women who are infected with HIV are perceived as “sexually promiscuous, loose, prostitutes, dirty, or immoral.” Both men and women have a significant social disincentive to not get tested because in addition to the inevitable death they will meet in the potentially near future, infected individuals will also have to suffer the social ramifications of their HIV status.

However, what is most troubling about the issues with HIV are that the social ramifications that result stem from our social attitudes to sexuality which are derived from the double standards formed from our perceptions on gender. The South African male faces the complex dilemma of having to engage in sexual intercourse with multiple partners to prove his masculinity to his peers, something he feels he needs to prove due to the decreasing number of opportunities for employment and self-subsistence. The South African female faces a more universal dilemma, that their STI is a mark which proves their immorality and promiscuity even though that individual may not necessarily have engaged in frequent sexual activity. Our double standards on gender breed social stigma that strongly disincentivizes people from assessing their health. After all, if you do not test to see if you have HIV, you might not have HIV and thus still retain your dignity and social standing.

Our social double standards on gender and the conclusions we extrapolate from individuals infected with STIs create a society that discourages individuals from testing their health and making decisions that benefit both themselves and society at large. HIV and AIDS are still a prevalent disease in many parts of the world due to the fact that we retain unfair and illogical double standards for men and women. How can men be masculine and women be feminine if males need to prove their masculinity by engaging in sexual intercourse with multiple partners and women need to retain their virginity? Not only are these social standards illogical, they are harmful and a more fair and equitable standard must be set for humanity to take actions that are more beneficial to themselves and to society at large.

By Khan Kikkawa

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