Multiple partnerships may not be as common in South Africa as previously thought, according to a study presented at the recent AIDS Research Symposium at the University the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg.
Saul Johnson, managing director of Health & Development Africa (HDA), a health consultancy which conducted the research, said findings from four sites across the country showed about 26 percent of men and 5 percent of women reported having had more than one partner in the past year.
"The perception out there is that [having multiple partners] is more common than it really is," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
The reason may be that men tend to inflate their partner counts. Johnson and his team found that when men were asked to write down a figure for the number of partners they had had in the last 12 months they exaggerated, but when asked to plot their sexual encounters in more detail, using a sexual partner calendar, they often revised the number down slightly. Women's responses were more likely to be consistent.
Further probing revealed that most respondents - male and female - did not think having multiple partners was acceptable, but assumed that other people did. Johnson speculated that mixed messages in the media might be responsible for this widely held misconception.
"I think there's this weird dichotomy where, on the one hand, mainstream media say how terrible it is, and yet the entertainment media send a very conflicting message through soapies [soap operas] and celebrities that makes having multiple partners seem glamorous."
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The survey also revealed a gap between reality and perception in the reasons for having more than one partner. The top reasons both men and women gave were related to sexual satisfaction, but almost half the respondents believed that women were mainly motivated by gifts and money.
"The media create this perception that men are having multiple relationships because they can't control their urges, and women do it because they're desperate," said Johnson. "It's just as common for women to say they're not sexually satisfied, and that's why they're having multiple partners."
Younger men, heavy drinkers, and those who perceived themselves as unable to control their sexual urges were more likely to engage in multiple partnerships.
The study, funded by the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa (JHHESA), highlighted the need for more interventions targeting men. A number of community-based organizations working with JHHESA will use the findings to guide their future HIV/AIDS programming.