Sex, romance, and risk in 2010

Date: June 14, 2010
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If there is anything that rouses the passion, emotion and excitement of people, some of whom even shed tears when things go awry, it is soccer, and the stage is set for fireworks as the long-awaiting World Cup soon kicks off. Much preparation has gone towards preparing for the 2010 soccer showcase. South Africa will play host fans from around the world, creating a melting pot of nationalities.

The preparations have been characterised by unprecedented excitement, controversial debates and a lot of media hype. Yet, it would appear that the preparations for this event may have overlooked a grave consequence of having the world converge in the region that has been regarded as the “hot spot” of HIV globally.

Some are concerned that the wave of euphoria that is set to heighten during the showcase is likely to trigger a chain reaction that could see the progress made by the region in mitigating HIV transmission being derailed as caution gets thrown to the winds.

Marlise Richter, an HIV researcher, activist and Witwatersrand University lecturer expressed concern at the ambiguity in the media regarding the possibility of increased risky sexual behaviour in 2010 as fans get into romantic liaisons and expose themselves to contracting HIV.

“The media has not yet made it explicitly clear that visiting nationalities risk contracting HIV should they engage in sexual liaisons without taking the necessary precautions. I believe there is an underlying anxiety about the possibility that foreigners could easily contract the virus coming from nations where the prevalence is not so high,” said Richter.

She said that while much attention was being given to the debate on de-criminalising sex work ahead of 2010; not all sexual activities would necessarily take place as a result of some kind of transactions as people could easily “romanticise” notions of having casual affairs with different nationalities as this could be seen as being “adventurous” or “exotic.”

The World Cup craze gripped the world long before the first match whistle – over 30 000 fans descended upon Cape Town just to watch the draw, just a prelude to what people expect to be a month long party in which people will engage in all kinds of risky sexual behaviour they may not ordinarily be open to.

Richter pointed out that the problem of HIV has been downplayed by the media and Government, attributing this failure to give explicit messages to the need to protect the country’s image.

“In all the messages regarding 2010 there has been little said about the fact that visitors may be exposed to the virus and that contracting HIV is a very real threat in sub-Saharan Africa generally as well as in South Africa. This is possibly understandable as any country would want to downplay the negative things about itself,” pointed out Richter. “However, ignoring the possibility that visitors may contract HIV is neither a rationale nor logical way of addressing the issue,” she said, adding that concretising people should not be a difficult thing.

Fungai Machirori, an HIV researcher and media specialist said there was need to ensure that foreigners were provided with the necessary information to make informed decisions about their sexual activities as it would be essential for individuals to demonstrate their own “sexual responsibility.”

Machirori, who works for the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), pointed out that the Government as a whole had shown political will and commitment to stemming the tide of HIV prevalence and that there was a “new mood.”

Machirori said there euphoria surrounding the World Cup would translate to a “heightened sexual phase” as people would be tempted to form casual romantic liaisons and make spontaneous decisions in the heat of the moment.

The Advocacy Manager of the AIDS Consortium, Gerard Payne said AIDS organizations needed to take cognizance of how the hype surrounding 2010 could manifest in people engaging in highly risky sexual behaviour and that programmers should act accordingly to mitigate against possible reckless behaviour.

He said that his organisation was engaging communities with a view towards addressing risky behaviour and that they would partner with SANAC, Government and other stakeholders to ensure that they move in unison.

“Against a background of 1000 people dying daily of AIDS and 1000 more being infected daily we recognise how critical it is for us to inform, educate and spread awareness to locals and visitors about the dangers of engaging in risky sexual behaviour,” he said.

Payne observed that the World Cup can set a platform for the nation to address social issues as well particularly in engaging men to ensure that the excitement does not get the better of them because it was important to embrace the fact that South Africans “most probably could pose a threat to foreigners, most of whom come from countries where HIV is not a present or real threat.”

Although he admitted that visitors would be “vulnerable” to the threat of HIV and that AIDS organisations had to be prepared to respond effectively to this possibility it was each individual’s obligation to take responsibility for their own sexual choices.

“No one can should claim afterwards that ‘I came into this country and was placed in a situation where I contracted HIV’ because there will be enough information disseminated to ensure that everyone makes informed choices and takes full responsibility for their decisions and actions,” said Payne.

Delta Ndou is a journalist with the Sunday Mail in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, produced during a “Business Unusual” workshop

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