American Sociological Association

Love, Money and HIV: Becoming a Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS


Stephen Codrington [CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
July 13, 2017

Sanyu A. Mojola, University of Colorado-Boulder, received the 2016 ASA Scholarly Book Award for Love, Money and HIV: Becoming a Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS (University of California Press, 2014).

Combining surveys and fieldwork in rural Kenya, Mojola shows why young African women are so susceptible to HIV-AIDS in a region where the epidemic is at its worst. Her research uncovers several paradoxes, and she answers them with sociological explanations.

The sexual causes of the disease are well known, through official warnings and educational programs. Deaths are frequent among young women, and they typically experience funerals for those who died. Nevertheless, neither official information nor personal experience affects young Kenyan wommen’s risky sexual behavior.

Another paradox is that young women with more schooling have higher HIV risk. The explanation is that school is where they learn to be modern, especially the Western culture of consumption in female adornment and cosmetics. Education increases their demand for money. But the rapid expansion of secondary education has generated “qualification escalation” (also known as credential inflation) and “certificate devaluation.” The result is that educated young women combine higher demands for consumption with weak income prospects; thus they turn to the sexual market.

It is well known among the local population that migrant workers and sojourners along the truck routes of this part of Africa are the main carriers of HIV/AIDS, with their multiple sexual partners and far-flung networks. But young women prefer them to the young men their own age, who carry less risk of HIV, because they have more money. Informants also say that older men are better sexual partners because they are more experienced in the techniques of sex. The emphasis on sexual pleasure denigrates the use of condoms, regarded as un-erotic. Preference for older men is reinforced by the custom of men giving gifts to their girlfriends. Traditional tribal culture blends with modern consumer culture here, since older men with multiple sexual partners traditionally had prestige, while young and monogamous men did not.

Even attending funerals for other young women like themselves is not a deterrent for these sexual practices. Funerals display the omnipresence of death, and thus individuals who attend a lot of them become inured to the risk. In the tribal culture, funerals are festive rituals, colorful and exciting gatherings; and even places to meet new sexual partners. (In the U.S. in the 1960s, the lore among hippies was that V.D. [venereal disease] clinics were good places to meet new sex partners.) What an outsider might think would be a deterrent to risky sex can be an incentive and opportunity for an insider.

Mojola’s analysis is the most advanced yet done on the sociology of HIV/AIDS. Her work makes several key points with wider application. Education is not a panacea, especially as seen through the eyes of officials, who miss the unintended effects on youth culture. Many of the aspects of informal culture in Kenya that provide an aura of excitement—”where the action is,” in Goffman’s term—are paralleled elsewhere, such as the attraction of hanging around the “narco-cartels” in Mexico to many young women. The theoretical assumption that everyone wants to minimize risk is inaccurate; we need more sociological analyses like Mojola’s to show under what social and cultural circumstances individuals do extremely risky things, in clear consciousness of what they are doing.

For more on the 2016 ASA Award WInners, see the November 2016 issue of Footnotes.

The recipients of the major awards for 2017 will be recognized at the 2017 Annual Meeting Awards Ceremony on Sunday, August 13, at 4:30 p.m. in Montreal.

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