HIV-positive and still sexy

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aids_logo.jpg"You can have your sexuality...you don't have to lose it because you have HIV"

People tend to think that contracting HIV can spell the end of their sex lives, but HIV-positive Africans of all ages are now being urged to reclaim their sexuality and live healthy, normal lives.

"I got this [HIV] through sex, so [I thought] my sexuality was gone and I felt I needed to stop dressing attractively and wait to die," Florence Anam, 28, an information officer at the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS, told IRIN/PlusNews.

Anam said when she first revealed she was HIV-positive, many men avoided her, believing she was out to infect them; she herself had no interest in sex for several months after she was diagnosed. However, she has since discovered she can continue having and enjoying sex, despite being HIV-positive.

"My take on this is that you can have your sexuality ... you don't have to lose it because you have HIV, you just have to be responsible," she said, adding that sex "has to be good or I'm not having it".

At a recent workshop by the Africa Regional Sexuality Resource Centre (ARSRC), at its Sexuality Institute in Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa, participants heard that there was a need to rethink sexuality in the context of disease, particularly chronic infections such as HIV.

"HIV as a condition is highly moralised; people face stigma because they are perceived by society to have been sexually immoral," said Richmond Tiemoko, director of ARSRC.

"Women are particularly affected by this type of stigma because they are expected to be the keepers of society's morality, so contracting HIV is seen as a great failure on their part." He said it was important that people living with HIV recognised and claimed their right to sexuality and sexual intercourse.

The Sexuality Institute provides a forum for African health professionals to discuss ways of promoting more positive attitudes towards sexuality in the region.

"We believe that to reduce HIV and promote well-being, we need to adopt a positive discourse on sex and sexuality," said Tiemoko. "Discussing issues of sexual violence, stigma, self-esteem and HIV enables people to have a better understanding of their links with sexuality and to make them less taboo."

I am a human being with sexual needs and feelings, which need fulfillment without apologies to anyone.
The workshop was attended by researchers, government workers and staff from local non-governmental organisations with a reproductive health or AIDS focus. They were encouraged to incorporate messages about healthy sexuality into their programmes for people living with HIV.

"When first diagnosed, I considered sex dirty and blamed it for my fate," Asunta Wagura, executive director of the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS, said in a recent interview with the Sexuality in Africa magazine, an ARSRC publication. "I suppressed this need for a long time, until I could suppress it no more and openly declared, 'I am a human being with sexual needs and feelings, which need fulfillment without apologies to anyone'."

Wagura, who has publicly declared her HIV status, caused controversy when she decided to have a child in 2006. Her son was born healthy and has so far tested HIV-negative.

"I was criticised all round ... the view is that people living with HIV/AIDS should not think along those lines, because having a baby involves sexual intercourse," she said.

Speaking at the workshop, Dr Sylvia Tamale, dean of law at Uganda's Makerere University, said there was a 'disconnect' between sex in a health or medical context, and sex in a pleasure context.

"There is a need to 'unlearn' and refine some of the lessons that society teaches us, and open people's minds," she said, adding that sexuality counselling could go a long way towards changing perceptions.

The ARSRC holds rotating workshops annually in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The Mombasa workshop was hosted in conjunction with their partner organisation in Kenya, the Population Council, an international non-governmental reproductive health organisation.

Reproduced with permission from: AF-AIDS eForum 2007: af-aids@eforums.healthdev.org