Masculinity and HIV & AIDS
In order to understand the relationship between masculinity and HIV, it is crucial to consider how we define masculinity, how conceptions of masculinity have changed and evolved historically. Recently, there has been much speculation that there are some possible links between the desire to demonstrate masculinity and its influence on risky behavior. Therefore it is crucial to look at how conceptions and manifestations of masculinity affect the behaviors of individuals and their risk of contracting HIV and AIDS.
How do we define masculinity?
The definition of masculinity is mutable, since it changes depending on beliefs and values that vary within historical, social, economic, psychological, political and racial contexts i. Masculinity, like femininity is a social and political construct, operating at different political levels. At one level, it is a form of identity, a way to understand one’s personal behavior and attitudes. At another level, however, masculinity can be conceived as a form of ideology, which presents a set of cultural ideals that define the appropriate roles, values, and expectations of and for men in all societies ii. It is crucial to note that masculinity is not “natural.” It differs from the biological state of maleness, since it is a gender identity which is constructed socially, politically and historically iii.
What is the connection between masculinity, body images and sexual behavior in relation to HIV and AIDS?
According to a 2004 study, there is a relationship between conceptions of masculinity, body image, and sexual behavior in HIV-positive gay men. The findings of the study demonstrated that conceptions of masculinity were directly related to body image, meaning that men defined their masculinity by their physical appearance and sexual behavior. The data in the study showed that high levels of risk taking such as steroid use and intentional unprotected anal sex, as well as intercourse, correlated with participants’ conception of physical masculinity iv . In light of these findings, it become crucial to examine the interactions that occur between an individual’s gay, masculine, and HIV-positive identities since they appear to be interrelated and overlapping, having an impact on the decisions and behavior in which these men chose to engage.
Constructions of masculinity within gay culture have developed quite distinctly over the years from heterosexual male identifications of masculinity beginning in the 1980s with the onset of the AIDS epidemic. With the emergence of HIV, an emphasis on physicality among some gay men in many urban areas aimed to counteract, preserve, and increase the health of men infected with HIV and AIDS who were experiencing weight loss, muscular wasting and other opportunistic diseases that deteriorated their health. There developed an emphasis on appearing healthy in order to increase the life chances of those men who were infected with the virus. Because so many men within the gay community were infected with the virus, or knew someone, either an intimate partner or friend who had died from it, there developed a large emphasis on ensuring that men appear healthy and strong as a physical manifestation of their HIV-negative status.
How are notions of Masculinity and AIDS related?
Notions of masculinity often emphasise promiscuity and risk taking. This can put men in danger of contracting HIV and spreading the disease without considering their vulnerability to infection. In many societies, masculinity is associated with being sexually active with lots of partners; this is behaviour that often gives men a higher status among their peers v. Furthermore, young adult males will often underestimate their risk of contracting the disease since they feel that if they look healthy and feel strong than nothing can harm them.
Young men and AIDS
There are various social and cultural biases that continue to discriminate against and stigmatize men who have sex with men. These attitudes prevent young men who are often still confused and at odds with their sexual preferences from going to seek information about engaging in healthy sexual relationship. Many young men who have sex with men (YMSM) are outcast from their families. According to one study, one in four YMSM is forced to leave his house because of his sexual orientation. As a result, some fifty percent of those YMSM who leave home turn to prostitution to support themselves, which further exacerbates their risk of HIV infection vi.
A different masculinity?
Check out these short videos about young men who redefine gender roles and speak out against gender violence: