In-depth: Love in the time of HIV/AIDS

NIGERIA: Sexual desire key to prevention campaigns

Photo: Lekan Otufodunrin/IRIN
Odetoyinbo is known mainly for her trademark candour in a national television show
ABUDJA, 14 November 2005 (IRIN In-Depth) - Is it possible to use a condom and still maintain sexual desire and pleasure? According to a prominent activist, as long as this question goes unanswered, Nigeria's prevention campaigns have little chance of slowing the spread of AIDS.

Rolake Odetoyinbo, project director of Positive Action for Treatment Access, told PlusNews in an interview in Lagos, Nigeria's economic capital, that sexual desire - whether or not people are HIV-positive - should be incorporated into awareness programmes.

"We have to be totally open and realistic about it," she said, noting that many of the current prevention messages were evasive about the importance of pleasure in sexual relationships.

Odetoyinbo is known mainly for her trademark candour in a national television show and column in the popular weekly newspaper, Sunday Punch, 'In Moments Like This - Living with HIV'.

"I am a 35-year-old woman living with HIV. Right now I am single but because I am single and have HIV, you think I don't have sexual desires? Don't forget that sexuality is not only about having sex, it is the totality of what I am," she commented.

"Is anybody addressing these needs? It's okay to talk condoms to people having casual sex, but how many of us can have 'condomised' sex for the rest of our lives with our married partner?" she wondered.

"Let's look beyond the sexual act; let's look at the issue of love, companionship and the feeling of being made to belong to somebody," she suggested.

Making room for emotions

It is difficult for Odetoyinbo to compare sex with a condom to "real" sex, so she prefers to abstain.

"When I want sex, I want the total thing - I don't want a one-bang thing ... Yes, condoms are safe to protect your partner, but you know what happens with them - I can't flow into sex," she confided.

"At one time the man has to get up to get the condom; if I break my condom I am going to really hit the roof by living with the morbid fear that I am going to infect my partner," she remarked.

"All the sex talk - around foreplay, the post-sex talk, the being together after the act - cannot happen," she said. "With condoms, the thing is to come out immediately and take the condom off, and break body contact - and sex becomes mechanical."

She noted that sex was very important to human beings because "we use it to revalidate ourselves", so moralising about sexuality was counter-productive.
"How do you feel in the morning when you have good sex?" she asked. "You get a spring in your step; there is a bounce in your walk because somehow you have just been revalidated as a human being."

The inability of HIV-positive people to express their sexual desires, Odetoyinbo said, was additional baggage on top of the self-loathing, self-recrimination and battered ego they were already experiencing.

"We should address the sexuality of women and men already living with HIV because it is not only about intercourse; it is determined by our culture, ethics, morals and religion."

The activist has criticised the emphasis placed on abstinence, which suggested that sexual desires could easily be suppressed.

"Where are the people practicing this abstinence? I haven't seen them," she said. "I'm wondering if they are zipping up before or after the act."

Odetoyinbo is mostly worried about the impact of abstinence campaigns on Nigeria's youth, the group most vulnerable to HIV according to the latest sentinel study published in May 2004, which projected that the bulk of those infected would be people aged 15 to 24.

The report indicated a national infection rate of five percent, making Nigeria the world's third hardest-hit country in terms of the number of cases "Nigeria is on the threshold of an exponential growth of the epidemic," the study noted.

"For young people, we should be talking of delaying their sexual debut, not abstinence. If you use words like 'abstinence', you really don't know what you are talking about, because young people will ask you, 'abstain till when?'" Odetoyinbo commented.

"When you come from this abstinence angle, you are coming from a righteous, holier-than-thou, I-know-it-all point of view. What we are doing is disempowering those who are already sexually active," she asserted.

"What do they do when you have rubbished what they believe in?" Odetoyinbo asked.

A large number of awareness campaigns in Africa, mostly financed by American organisations and government programmes, emphasise abstinence as the best form of prevention. Many religious groups in Nigeria, for whom condoms are strictly for married couples dealing with HIV infection, have adopted this approach.

"It took years, lots of effort, money, stress, to get people to talk and discuss condoms," she pointed out. "For somebody to come in with billions of dollars and, overnight, throw the entire debate to the dogs is not too good."

Odetoyinbo believes that to persuade non-religious people to abstain, it will be necessary to address young people through large-scale education campaigns on sexuality - which is not happening - and that if people are going to abstain they first need to understand what sexuality is.

As for those who want to have a sexual life in spite of their infection, it is time for them to explore other ways of being intimate.

"What I am saying is that we have to change our mindset," Odetoyinbo said. "We must help people to channel and rediscover new ways of having sex, maybe explore other options beyond condoms - virginal sex, like oral sex, cuddling and others."

Can Safer Sex be Good Sex?
Other OCHA Sites
United Nations - OCHA
DFID - UK Department for International Development
Irish Aid
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation - SDC