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AIDS, women and social constructs

Among Ourselves...

February 1998

How much has society created the phenomenon of AIDS?

A school of social theory known as Social Constructionism offers this view: Individuals collectively create society, and society then impacts how individuals think and act.

Gender roles

Each person's subjective perception is shaped and defined by what the social environment -- which has been created by this and other individuals -- "tells" the individual to perceive.

Gender roles -- the patterns of behavior we are generally accustomed to as being the "traditional" roles of men and women in society -- are socially constructed roles. Patterns of behavior for women and men have been established over time both by social necessity and by intentional design.

In a classic example, women were by necessity the caretakers of children and homemakers, and that role remained established even as the necessity for continuing the traditional pattern diminished. In the last few years, gender roles have changed, often unevenly, as society moves at an ever-faster pace into our brave new world of technology and communication.

Heavier baggage

When AIDS became a part of our national and world reality in the early 1980s, the empirical markers were in place immediately: This is a disease, a deadly one, spread by behaviors outside mainstream consciousness.

AIDS was immediately socially constructed by many as a stigmatized consequence of actions, a deliberate violation of social norms in which society as a whole was untouched. For women, who arguably are assigned a greater level of social expectation to uphold standards of behavior, AIDS was all the more obvious as a marker of deviation from traditionally held beliefs of ideal behavior.

When HIV was identified and its routes of transmission documented, the window of opportunity for the social construction of the disease was a formidable one: Could we, as a society, face this virus openly as equal opportunity biological threat, without the added judgments of social patterning? As in other diseases, the answer was no. HIV, however, comes with much heavier baggage.

What about women?

And where do women fit into that construction?

When many women are used to communicating indirectly, how will society model for them a new way of communication to speak out directly for their needs? When women continue to put their needs last behind children and families, what might change individual perspective? On a global scale, gender issues become absorbed into racial and ethnic identity issues, and HIV stands out increasingly as a parameter of how we value the lives of others as measured by how much we work to protect and sustain them.

One recently published book, "Women and AIDS: Negotiating Safer Practices, Care and Representation," edited by Nancy L. Roth, Ph.D. and Linda K. Fuller, Ph.D., examines these issues amidst a number of social and cultural environments in which women must now confront new realities. They form adult identities in college and other settings, and negotiate safer sex, care-giving and living with HIV.

The authors of the individual articles which comprise the book examine studies and offer narrative analyses of areas ranging from the prevention needs of Latina women, empowering female IV drug users, disclosure issues for women, and women in caregiving roles (which the authors note has historically been seen as women's natural role), among many other areas of focus.


The fact that the two editors are communications professionals speaks to the bottom line: In a world with HIV, it is communication skill which will reformulate -- reconstruct -- accepted and modeled social rules through practice.

To date, progress seems mixed. Individual social service models throughout the country are finding some measure of success, such as with women in clinical trials. However, the overall conclusions are that, in most of the environments examined, issues such as safer sex and comprehensive care are not being addressed in a manner adequate to meet many women's needs. Throughout the book, the recommendations offered are overwhelmingly based on enhancement of personal communication skills as grounds for short- and long-term interventions. Inherent in many of the recommendations are also projections that communication outcomes will succeed much more readily when the social and economic playing field is racially leveled.

Change your world

On the eve of the new millennium, perhaps we have a window of opportunity again if we, collectively, realize that our changing world generates its own freedom to make individual changes, which in turn contribute to social change.

AIDS is established in the mainstream consciousness, albeit with constant prodding. Medical progress is being made -- too slowly for many -- but it remains an object of focus. Protective laws have been enacted. In the United States, at least, an "AIDS structure" is in place for care and services. It is as imperfect as many other structures, and it is certainly not all-encompassing of all needs, but it exists.

Life with HIV isn't easy or fun, and no one is claiming the work of addressing the issues of a growing number of persons living with HIV is getting any easier. But a social framework upon which to base our individual actions has been created. Individuals have fewer excuses than ever not to be responsible or not to be mentors to those with less awareness, or less freedom to choose their social roles.

AIDS is not new. If anything, many people describe feeling compassion burnout towards the issue and a less heightened sense of vigilance toward transmission risks. That's the bad news. The good news is a greater freedom to make decisions in our personal lives, e.g. taking care of ourselves, or negotiating safer sex, with a projected assumption that there should be no argument. HIV changes the rules of relationships, and many people are on their own to construct new ones as they go. This, after all, is life we're talking about.

It would be easy to say that women's issues are as visible as we collectively choose to make them, but that is not always reality.

In this new year, with hopes for longer and better lives and the challenges of the status quo, simply stop to think about the individual actions which you take today. They may become the social standard of tomorrow.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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