Cherie Blair was accused of perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes and usurping African voices with her comment that “most African ladies’ first sexual experience is rape”. The English Guardian and NPR both weigh in, with a number of reasons why Blair’s remarks were met with outrage.
Critics of Blair are not wrong in calling her out on these comments. But they don’t go far enough. Yes, Blair should have acknowledged, for example, that rape and gender based violence are faced by women everywhere, not just in African countries. But Blair is only repeating stereotypes she would find throughout the mainstream media, and in a lot of specialized published sources.
Blair is far from being alone in perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes, such as those of the ‘promiscuous African’, ‘the violent African male’, ‘the widespread exchange of sex for money’, ‘the disempowered African female’, etc. Most of these stereotypes are a lot older than Blair, and date back to colonial times, at least.
Nor have the long-held stereotypes mellowed with age. The bulk of HIV programming (and spending) is based on the very assumption that “sexual transmission [is] the major mode of spread of HIV-1 in Africa”, with some estimates suggesting that sex accounts for 80-90% of all transmissions in high prevalence countries (which are all in sub-Saharan Africa).
On the subject of rape, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) claims that: “Girls and women [in South Africa] also face an epidemic of rape and gender-based violence; many young women express more concerns about getting raped or getting pregnant than getting HIV. At one site we visited, the girls stated that getting raped was their number one fear.”
CSIS was commenting on the fact that in some parts of South Africa, 60% of women are HIV positive. Many new infections are among girls 15-24 years old. However, the entire CSIS article assumes, without ever arguing for it, that all HIV transmission is sexual. This assumption may suggest that stereotypes such as those above are based on empirical findings, rather than being rank prejudice.
Far from being based on research, stereotypes about ‘African’ sexual behavior are flatly contradicted by vast quantities of data collected by Demographic and Health Surveys, every five years, about sexual behavior in African countries. Just select any sub-Saharan country; rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior are low, and there is little or no correlation with HIV prevalence.
Cherie Blair is unlikely to have come across views that diverge from the mainstream prejudices about HIV in SSA, and that challenge those prejudices. But many of those challenges can be found, for example, in a paper by John Potterat, and in the bibliography for that paper. One of the main suspects in high rates of HIV transmission is unsafe healthcare; others are unsafe cosmetic and traditional practices.
If Blair would like to reconsider the sort of stereotypes about sexual behavior and violence also expressed in the CSIS article, this is a good time to do so. Those outraged by her comments about ‘Africans’ and their alleged sexual behavior may wish to avail of the same research. Otherwise they all risk reinforcing and perpetuating stereotypes.