The unhealthy obsession with Africans’ sex lives

The panic about footie fans getting HIV in South Africa exposes the moral colonialism of AIDS campaigning.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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At the height of the World Cup in South Africa, sex workers in Johannesburg complained that they weren’t getting any ‘boom boom’. And it wasn’t just because the police and hotels were clamping down on prostitutes, but also because the foreign football fans were, in the words of one sex worker, ‘boring’. A little over a week into the World Cup, hundreds of nightclubs had already cancelled strip shows because, as one exotic dancers’ agent explained, ‘guys would rather watch soccer’.

These sex workers’ reports of a slump in business are out of line with the wild predictions that, with the arrival of thousands of international footie fans, there would be a virtual sexplosion in Africa, putting millions at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In anticipation of the football sex-fest, the British authorities even sent 42million condoms to South Africa, which has an estimated 5.7 million cases of HIV. The UK international development minister, Gareth Thomas, warned that football fans would also spill over into neighbouring African countries, so they, too, needed to take precautions.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, sex workers complained that they were being excluded from the World Cup bonanza. ‘People see us as breeders of AIDS, and that kills the business for us’, one street girl told Reuters. Prostitution is illegal in South Africa and, despite sex-worker rights advocates’ pleas to the authorities to create ‘safe zones’ during the World Cup, South African cities adopted a zero-tolerance approach to crime, with authorities cleaning up the streets in the run-up to and during the competition.

So it seems, judging from reports of a sex downturn, that the criminalisation of sex work in South Africa and the campaigns in foreigners’ home countries warning them of crime and AIDS amongst prostitutes managed to put punters off seeking cheap thrills. Yet sexual health campaigners are still concerned about the spread of STIs amongst football fans. British doctors have advised fans returning from the World Cup to go to their nearest sexual health clinic for testing ASAP. An awareness-raising campaign, Beer Goggle Johnny’s Guide to Sexual Health – complete with a patronising mascot – was launched last week by Birmingham’s Heartlands Hospital and is also being backed by national organisations. The aim is to spread the message that more than two-thirds of heterosexual men and a quarter of women who contract HIV do so through holiday sex, and so those who have had unprotected sex abroad this summer, particularly in Africa, should get tested.

It seems the World Cup has been turned into an opportunity to talk, in caring and PC terms of course, about the vagrancy of the generally white, working-class fans of football and boozed-up beach holidays who apparently turn into rampant, unthinking sex pests as soon as they go abroad. It’s also being used to flag up the international threat allegedly posed by desperate African women who turn to prostitution. In the British press, African women have been presented either as victims of slave drivers, pimps and extreme poverty or as scheming seductresses.

For instance, one commentator warned that ‘boozing fans’ falling for South Africa’s scantily-clad ‘HIV sex workers’, who were planning ‘the mother of all welcoming parties’, would face ‘potentially calamitous’ consequences. He went on to describe the destitution and desperation among women living in South African squatter camps.

Of course there is widespread poverty in South Africa, and many women, if they had more options open to them, would probably choose to earn money through other means than sex work. Yet while commentators and health workers paint nightmarish scenarios about South Africa’s ‘killer hookers’ and the immoral fans unthinkingly buying their services, it is worth remembering what the World Cup really represented for these people. Some African women saw the World Cup as a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to earn a lot of money in a short period of time, while international football fans saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the world’s top football players compete in one of the biggest international sporting events of the decade.

HIV/AIDS is the world’s most politicised disease. Over the years, the international focus on it has been driven less by a concern for public health than by a desire to intervene in, and control, individuals and societies. With the World Cup, warnings about the spread of the disease have been used to justify clampdowns on the sex industry in South Africa and to keep football fans in check.

Undoubtedly, the spread of HIV/AIDS has had devastating consequences for families and communities in Africa and elsewhere, but it is worth remembering that international AIDS prevention organisations have also been accused of inflating the figures around HIV/AIDS, of exaggerating the risk of transmission through heterosexual sex, of ignoring the spread of HIV/AIDS through healthcare exposure, and of prioritising HIV/AIDS prevention over treating other, curable, killer diseases.

Along with HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, malaria, diarrhoea, tuberculosis and measles are the top killer diseases in the developing world. All but AIDS are curable, at least to some degree, but none have received as much attention, or have had as many global programmes, international summits, UN organisations and charitable foundations dedicated to their prevention or treatment.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than three million deaths in the developing world were attributed to AIDS in 2004, while more than four million people in poor countries die each year of lower respiratory infections. Such infections are spread through coughing, sneezing, laughing or exhaling. Yet British doctors have not set up any campaigns encouraging football fans who have come into contact with coughing, sneezing, laughing or breathing Africans to get medical check-ups.

The incessant focus on HIV/AIDS around the World Cup is tied to an obsession with the behaviour of allegedly feckless and promiscuous holidaying Brits, as well as to an unhealthy obsession among international NGOs and health workers with the sex lives of Africans, who are generally seen as reproducing too fast for their own – and the globe’s – good.

As it turned out, AIDS was not the World Cup killer that some reports predicted it would be. And despite warnings that thousands of women would be trafficked into South Africa and forced into prostitution in order to satiate the horny football players and fans, it seems local sex workers faced little competition from abroad and that the scoring that football fans were most interested in was the sort that took place on the pitches.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick slammed the myths and opportunism of the AIDS industry and, in 2001, he put the AIDS panic in perspective. Stuart Derbyshire praised research which exploded myths about HIV infection in Africa. Elsewhere, Nathalie Rothschild wondered what’s so progressive about sex education? Bruno Waterfield exposed the myth of the 2006 World Cup sex slaves. And Jennie Bristow explained how the condom became a metaphor for caution. Or read more at spiked issues Africa and Love and sex.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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