Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Cut It Off -- And Stop AIDS

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Women are dying of AIDS while some researcher bends over his penis, smiles at it fondly and imagines what little alteration would make it an all purpose tool safe to use again.

He's not the only one with his dick in his hand. Each new report on male circumcision pumps up the protection of that little snip, snip until pretty soon, I expect to see the numbers not only show the procedure will stop HIV dead, but reduce global warming, and maybe slow the Iraq war, too.

Not that it doesn't have limited benefits. Circumcision may lower the rate of transmission as much as fifty or sixty percent for men, as long as they screw in the missionary position, and only between the sheets of a few very controlled studies.

In the real world of South Africa, there's very little difference in HIV rates between communities that snip, and those that don't. In Northern Zambia, the difference only lasts until the young men move to the big city with its bright lights and Manolo Blahniks, metaphorically speaking.

Forgotten also are all the circumcised men in the States that dropped dead before ARV's came on the scene. A foreskin more or less didn't help them. Or don't faggots count when you're counting heads?

Women aren't factored in at all except as a vector of disease. While millions of dollars are already pouring into circumcision programs even if only men have foreskins to whack off, women are struggling for equivalent funds for female condoms and microbicides, forget programs with as vague a goal as girl power, the real key to HIV prevention.

It's young women getting AIDS these days. UNAIDS says we already make up sixty percent of the fifteen to twenty-four year olds living with HIV/AIDS.

In sub-Saharan Africa girls of that age are three times more likely to be positive than their male peers. In the Caribbean it's 2.5 times. Why? Because in most places we still don't own our own bodies. Men think we're dirt and they treat us that way.

At a recent conference of HIV+ women in Kenya, activists talked about how more and men are raping virgins because they're assured of a "clean" screw.

It's a kind of rape, too, those men who know they're positive, or do plenty of high risk messing around, and still refuse to wear protection with their wives. Insist, and a woman may face violence from her husband and community, too.

Some activists told stories about how women are used as "testing kits" for their husbands, sent to clinics and when they come back positive, tossed out of the house with their kids. Often they are beaten first, sometimes raped. The men then find new "clean" wives that will get infected soon enough, but at least last long enough to take care of their bastard husbands.

The women in one seminar began by introducing themselves as widowed or separated with one kid or two or three, each proclaiming in no uncertain terms, they weren't in the market for another man. Maybe when pigs fly or hell freezes over.

If circumcision means anything to these positive women, it's just more of the same or worse. They're worried men may respond to the increased protection by throwing away their condoms and screwing everything that moves, hastening the spread of HIV. And having been promised near immunity, who will men blame when they catch it? Who risks violence and death? Ladies first, and girls.

Beyond the problem of HIV is the greater one of misogyny with a deep thread of lesbophobia. Women fighting AIDS are women fighting, stepping out of their place. In South Africa that can mean a death sentence.

Just last week, Sizakele Sigasa, an outreach coordinator at Positive Women's Network and queer activist, and Salome, a dyke friend of hers, were tortured and murdered. Sizakele when she was found, had her hands tied together by her underpants and her ankles tied together by her shoelaces. She had three bullet holes in her head and three in her collarbone.

In June, Simangele Nhlapho, a member of an HIV postive support group run by the same Positive Women's Network, was found dead with her two year old daughter. Both were raped before they were killed. The daughter also had her legs broken.

It's time for AIDS activists and researchers to shift their attention away from the penis and see the connection between hate and HIV and dead women. Only power will save us, not cuts, not even condoms unless we can make men wear them.

And if somebody still insists on tinkering around with men's dicks to stop spreading HIV, maybe they should do a more comprehensive procedure, call it the Bobbitt and cut the whole thing off.

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