"Multiple, concurrent partnerships" has become the latest catchphrase in the HIV/AIDS lexicon. It refers to the practice of having more than one sexual partner at the same time, which experts say is a key driver of Southern Africa's devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In a South African population-based survey in 2005, 40 percent of men and 25 percent of women aged between 15 and 24 reported having concurrent partners. To try and understand why, the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication, a multimedia health promotion project, conducted research to find out how South Africans actually view these relationships.
Prof Sue Goldstein, a researcher at Soul City, presented the findings from focus groups of men and women across the country to delegates at the 4th Public Health Association of South Africa conference in Cape Town this week.
"Multiple, concurrent partnerships appear to be the accepted norm in many South African communities," she said. The attitudes and beliefs that perpetuated this norm were "astonishingly similar" across rural and urban divides, and even to those found in similar studies in other countries of the region.
A significant other
Both men and women talked of a primary, long-term relationship based on love, and of secondary relationships that fulfilled other needs. In the case of women the need was often financial, but sometimes it was sexual.
"You know if someone is boring in the bedroom, and you know when you have met someone who hits the spot," said one woman who participated in a focus group in rural KwaZulu-Natal Province. "You carry on with the other one if he gives you other things, but you know that he just doesn't do it for you sexually."
The men blamed their wandering eyes on regular partners letting their looks go, and being attracted to younger, "fresher" women who were less likely to challenge their authority. They tended to trust that their primary partners were faithful and didn't use condoms with them, even if they sometimes had unprotected sex with other women.
The women often viewed a partner's infidelity as a "natural" and unavoidable cause of men's uncontrollable sexual desires, and cultural expectations that they should have more than one partner. Some ignored infidelity because they did not want to break up their families; others took lovers of their own.
"I do my own thing and 'phone my "makhwapheni" [local term for someone who is hidden - a boyfriend] and laugh; then I won't worry about [her husband's]late-coming," said a woman in the Free State.
Many of the men spoke of their sexual desires being fuelled by alcohol, which also made them less likely to practice safe sex. Peer pressure was another major reason men gave for having multiple partners: "If I don't have sex then my friends will laugh at me. In that way, I will try to prove a point and get involved with more than one," said a man in the rural northern Limpopo Province.
Both genders described sex as a vital component of their relationships and their lives generally, with some even viewing it as essential for good health. Despite this, men as well as women had great difficulty communicating with their partners about sex.
Most of the focus group participants had a good knowledge and understanding of HIV and AIDS, but this did not prevent them from having a fatalistic attitude to the likelihood of becoming infected. "They say even if you do not ever get AIDS, the fact is, you are still going to die; we are all going to die one day," said a teenage girl in the Free State.
Goldstein concluded that risky sexual practices were not related to levels of knowledge, but to the level of control individuals have over their sexuality.
As one woman put it: "Even if you are faithful to your husband, you cannot guarantee that you will not be infected because you don't know what your husband does, and he could be infected during his outings. All you could do is to pray, and trust that God will protect you because he is the doctor of all diseases."
Soul City aims to incorporate the findings into a new five-year HIV prevention campaign.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions