Stick to one partner! Botswana’s war cry in the fight against HIV/AIDS has evolved into a gold standard for a committed and safe relationship.
As Botswana grappled with HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, a plethora of education campaigns as well as public policy encouraged citizens to engage in sexual intercourse only in monogamous relationships.
Now many years later, suggesting the use of a condom in a committed relationship insinuates lack of trust and is considered bad form.
In fact, most Batswana in committed relationships cannot use condom and monogamy in one sentence, unless they say a monogamous relationship does not need a condom.
Dr Orapeleng Phuswane-Katse, a physician with the Ministry of Health says “often times, we see a woman’s self-esteem and social status being linked to a committed monogamous relationship. In such circumstances, suggesting condom use to one’s partner would be an insult – implying infidelity and lack of true love. Condom-less sex helps maintain the desired image of the partner being faithful to them. So called ‘unsafe sex’ is actually seen as keeping ‘safe’. To acknowledge possible infidelity and risk of HIV necessitates a confrontation, which may destabilize the relationship. A woman may also want to maintain the pretense that a casual encounter is actually a meaningful relationship. This means pretending to trust her partner which may imply not using condoms and not questioning their sexual history. In this way, many people make the choice to view themselves as safe rather than face the social consequences of safer sex.”
Monogamy represents the sociocultural ideal of a relationship and signifies that the partners have reached a high level of commitment and trust. Those who are not monogamous and instead choose to play the field are often judged in a bad light.
While monogamy is thought to be an effective method of preventing the spread of STIs including HIV, it is a reliable method only if both partners are free of sexually transmitted infections and if both partners remain sexually faithful to each other.
Being faithful is where the problems lie for many in committed relationships. Young adults, trusting that they are in mutually monogamous relationships are living an illusion that they are safe when indeed they are experiencing regular exposure to STIs without their awareness. Most people in monogamous relationships are less likely to use protection and cite ‘monogamy’ as the reason. Monogamy is often substituted for condom use because couples are lulled into a false sense of security from HIV/AIDS and other STIs.
Most abandon the condom when they feel that they know their partners well or begin to trust their partners and start using oral contraceptives. Condom use in committed relationships is thought to imply lack of trust in the partner and once there is implicit trust between partners it includes assumptions of monogamy therefore persistence of condom use is often interpreted as undermining the steady relationship. The predominant expectation for most adult couples in committed relationships is monogamy but the reality is that sexual infidelity seems to be fairly commonplace.
Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says “within relationships, unprotected sex comes to signify a developmental milestone for the couple. It is associated with desirable relationship characteristics of commitment, trust, intimacy and fidelity. Young adults often believe themselves to be impervious to STI. They recognize that while others may be affected by STI, they maintain the belief that it won’t happen to them. Within dating relationships, young adults typically base their opinions of sexual safety subjectively. They consider their partner’s appearance, trust, personality characteristics and they make assumptions. For many, there is the implicit assumption that someone they have an emotional connection with and trust would not have a risky sexual history, or be a risk to their health. Feeling a sense of security and protection within a monogamous relationship contributes to the decision to discontinue condom use. The subject of sexual health and sexual histories don’t easily arise in relationships. These topics of conversation are often perceived as negative, disruptive and pose as a potential threat to the relationship.”
In the search for love and meaningful relationships, people don’t always act rationally. They often base decisions about sex and condom use on implicit personality or on characteristics – on whether a potential partner is from the streets or looks clean. Moreover, once a relationship is established, men and women tend to follow several inaccurate AIDS prevention rules of thumb that support no use of condoms – the notion that known partners are safe or it is too late to start using protection now. Condoms and their use in relationships which may not have been used previously can raise issues of distrust and accusations of infidelity. Unprotected sex helps maintain the fantasy that one’s partner is faithful. One of the most important barriers to condom use for women is the issue of intimacy and trust, using condoms is seen to be associated with casual sex and where there is ‘true love’ condoms are no longer used. In the progression of romantic relationships, after trust has been established, condoms are no longer seen to be needed.