Listening to Women

First Generation by Chuck Willman

Sisters shouldn’t always have to do it for themselves


male-gender-sign[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’m going to admit right away that I’m pro-feminist, and have been for many, many years. That does not make me a “better” person in any way. All it has done is force me to be more aware of issues affecting more than fifty percent of our population, and, if possible, to help work towards making some difference where I can. This particular column deals with women, but I think the information is crucial for all of us.

From its onset more than thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS has traditionally been seen as a “gay man’s” disease, generally punishment for unacceptable behavior. Yes, eventually the world’s medical establishment figured out that the virus was, and had been, running rampant with an overwhelming infection rate in Africa and some other parts of the “Third World.” But even then we were bombarded with images of dying children first, drawing attention to the virus and showcasing its “innocent victims” (in my opinion).

As we all know, infected gay men in the U.S. and around the world took to the streets, demanding action in terms of medical treatment and some dignity (usually gaining neither, and being ignored or arrested or both) since we were seen as nothing more than despicable creatures—though loud and persevering—that “deserved” what we were getting.

It took years for us (and by “us” I mean everyone from the medical establishment to gay men, and basically the rest of society) to realize how many women were being infected at an alarming rate, and yet we really weren’t inviting them to the proverbial table. They/women weren’t silent—we often chose to simply not listen. Historically, that’s pretty much been the norm I’m afraid, perhaps even today: a division or very wide gap between men and women in general, let alone concerning health issues that affect us all.

This magazine has certainly given voice to women and their unique experiences and needs in the past, but I wonder how many men have paid attention?

For instance, are we all aware that according to CDC statistics, in 2010 an estimated twenty-five percent of adults and adolescents aged thirteen or older diagnosed with HIV in the U.S. were women? Do we all know that Black/African-American women and Latinas are disproportionately affected by HIV infection compared with women of other races/ethnicities? Or that one of the biggest risk factors contributing to HIV infection in women is sexual abuse by their husbands/partners who refuse to wear condoms, and are suspected (by their wives/partners) of having unprotected sex outside of the relationship (either with prostitutes or other infected women, or the “down low” syndrome) or using dirty needles during their secretive substance use?

In many cases, women won’t even know they’re infected for years, carrying the virus inside without a clue as they assume their husbands/partners are faithful. And, as the culture of violence against women continues to plague our society, women feel voiceless and ignored, subject to battering, spousal rape (a relatively new term to a long-time problem!) or worse when they ask their man to wear a condom. And then they begin getting sick, and eventually find out the news, often when it’s very late in their illness, and they’re also trying to raise children.

Gay men have learned, for the most part, to protect themselves by wearing condoms themselves, or expecting partners to wear them. Or they practice safer sex. Or they make the decision to throw caution to the wind, roll the dice, and make the conscious choice to not protect themselves. That, too, is a choice between partners, whether anyone else likes it or not.

But the reality is that HIV is not solely a woman’s responsibility. Again, most women are infected because of cheating husbands/partners whom the “good little wife/girlfriend” is supposed to trust. Preventing transmission in women is just as much the responsibility of men. Period. In a way it’s like saying rape is a woman’s “problem.” IT IS NOT! Rape is a MAN’S problem. Period. In my eyes, it’s really the same thing.

Until we begin to really change the culture of male dominance and violence against women in our society and around the world—treating them honestly and with the absolute respect and dignity they deserve as human beings—their rate of infection will continue to climb, and many of them won’t even know it.

And the reality is only men can make this change.

Chuck Willman has had poetry, erotica, and essays published or forthcoming in a variety of anthologies, journals, and magazines. He is also the author of After (JMS Books). He lives in Las Vegas with his partner of twenty-four years.

Read this article in the May 2013 digital issue by clicking here.