The news is not great. For someone who has been teaching about HIV for many years, the statistics are extremely frustrating. In 2009, 23% of new HIV infections in the US were among women. Black and Latina women are disproportionately affected compared with women of other races and ethnicities. The most common way females are infected is through heterosexual contact. Second most common mode of transmission is IV drug use. One in 139 women will be diagnosed with HIV. One in 32 black women and 1 in 106 Hispanic women will be diagnosed with HIV compared with 1 in 526 white and Asian women. More than one third of HIV infections among black and Hispanic women were between the ages of 13 – 29. These are just the statistics for the females we know have been tested. For more information about HIV click here.
What is going on here? We know how to prevent it. We know how HIV is spread, yet women and girls keep becoming infected. My experience points to a few factors, especially with young women.
Trust is a huge barrier to realistically assessing your risk. They trust their partner is faithful to them. They trust their partner will tell them if they have an infection. They trust that because he is educated, has a job, is attractive, smells good, is someone they’ve known for years, etc., he couldn’t possibly be HIV positive. He says he’ll take care of you no matter what. You believe him.
Misinformation is common. Many people don’t realize that HIV is found in seminal fluid, vaginal secretions, blood, and breast milk. It can be spread through oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Because of our anatomy, females are more likely to become infected by a male than a male from a female. If you have another sexually transmitted infection, you are more likely to become infected if exposed to HIV. HIV and several other sexually transmitted infections may have no symptoms. Younger females are more likely to become infected with a sexually transmitted infection than an older female. You or a partner wouldn’t know they are infected unless they have been tested. There are sites in every community where free or low cost testing is available. No parental permission is required.
Imbalance of power leads many females into situations where they feel pressured into doing something they may not feel comfortable or ready to do in an effort to please a male. I see this especially where young females have older partners and may be reluctant to insist he get tested or use a condom.
Fear of being alone or of not having a baby can be factors leading to unprotected sex. Social pressure from peers and even family members can be a powerful force leading to early sexual involvement or motherhood.
Lack of communication between partners is often a problem. Few adults are able to talk openly and honestly with each other about sexuality. How can we expect teens and young adults to be comfortable talking with each other when they have no role models from who to learn?
We can do better. Encourage open communication about sexuality. Empower young females to get an education, postpone motherhood, be independent and develop healthy, equal relationships. Educate yourself and those around you about the facts.