Constructions of masculine sexuality, high risk sex and HIV/AIDS amongst young Xhosa men in South Africa
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Recent research in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention suggests that for more effective interventions to be developed, it is necessary to understand, consider, and address the social context in which high risk sexual behaviours occur, and particularly to understand how issues of gender are implicated in the perpetuation of these behaviours. Based on the broad theoretical premise that social discourses play an integral role in the production and maintenance of gender and sexual identity, and in line with research suggesting that more attention needs to be paid to the role that men and masculinity play in HIV transmission through sex, this pilot study employed a social constructionist framework to explore constructions of masculine sexuality, high risk sexual behaviours, HIV/AIDS and the relationships between these, amongst a small sample of 10 young adult Xhosa speaking males that reside in or around Cape Town in the Western Cape, South Africa. The findings of this study indicate that the participants generally construct their gender and sexual identities in ways that are highly consistent with social discourses that construct men as dominant over women. There was also strong evidence that, for the participants, their sexual identity represented a primary source of their identity as men. This sexual identity appeared in itself to be constructed primarily along patriarchal lines, and maintained by pervasive reference to what is normative for men within their social contexts, thereby setting up a self perpetuating loop. The data revealed a number of dimensions to this sexual identity, such as the role that sexual success and prowess plays in maintaining and enhancing a sense of self and public esteem, that provided participants with logical motivations for engaging in high risk sexual behaviours (although participants did not necessarily construct them as such) such as having multiple sexual partners, casual sex, non-use of condoms and, importantly, sexual coercion: 70% of the participants indicated that they either do not use condoms consistently or don’t use them at all while 80% reported having sexually coerced at least one partner. There is strong evidence to support the suggestion that the content of the participants’ masculine sexual identity is inextricably linked both to the social gender discourses present in the social context, and their sexual behaviour. There was also evidence to suggest that this link represents a psychological motivation for behaviour that is often more powerful than the participants’ cognitive awareness of the risk of contracting HIV and their own personal morality put together.