My diocesan newspaper recently ran an article touting Harvard researcher Edward Green’s assertion that condoms have not been effective in reducing AIDS in Africa. He goes on to imply that they actually have the opposite effect because availability of condoms leads to people engaging in more risky sexual behaviors. He claims that condoms only reduce AIDS in populations that are already engaging in high-risk activity. He, like the Pope, advocates reducing condom distribution in Africa in favor of propaganda promoting abstinence and fidelity.
I’m in full support of research trumping assumptions, and I have no bone to pick with abstinence and fidelity. In fact, I think they’re fantastic, and certainly the safest and most effective way to reduce or eliminate the risks of all sorts of sexual complications, from broken hearts to pregnancy to STIs. But what both the Church and Edward Green refuse to acknowledge is that, for tens of thousands of people in Africa and around the world, avoiding AIDS isn’t a simple matter of making a choice to have sex or not have sex; to use a condom, or not to use a condom. For tens of thousands of people, sex isn’t a choice at all.
Rape occurs in Africa at alarmingly high rates, with South Africa having one of the highest rape incidences in the world. Many women and children become pregnant and infected with STIs–including AIDS–as a result of rape. Over half of those raped are children, both due to their vulnerable status and the misguided belief that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDs. Try telling a rape survivor that she would have been just fine if she’d practiced abstinence and fidelity.
Several factors contribute to the high rate of rape in Africa, including lack of prosecution for rapists and lack of resources for women, children, and others at risk of exploitation. For the Church to continue to look the other way and reduce AIDS to an issue of condoms and sexual morals is not only naive and dangerous–it’s immoral. Yet, this appears to be just one more area where the Church would rather fixate on the “easy” issues of condoms and sexual “choice” rather than the much more difficult issue of power imbalances, oppression, and exploitation. When the Church puts as much effort and resources into holding rapists accountable and providing safe, rape-free havens for all who need them, then it will have earned the right to preach about sexual “choice”–because maybe then more people will actually have one.
Lacey Louwagie is a freelance writer and editor, feminist, and cradle Catholic. Her favorite topics of exploration are religion, spirituality, psychology, and sexuality. She’s a member of the CTA blog team and founder of a speculative fiction writers’ group. In addition to blogging here, she blogs about writing at LL Word.