Vulnerability, gender and `proxy negativity`: Women in relationships with HIV-positive men in Australia

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In contemporary international HIV discourse, women are positioned as especially vulnerable to HIV. This vulnerability is ascribed to gender inequality and its many structural, social and sexual manifestations. It is an important discourse in that it foregrounds how the realities of women worldwide constrain their ability to control their lives and bodies and, consequently, their ability to protect themselves against HIV infection. At the same time, its analysis rarely exceeds a generalised description of gender and power and, as such, fails to usefully engage with the specificity of serodiscordant gender relationships. Drawing on qualitative interviews with HIV-negative women and their HIV-positive male partners, who participated in a larger study on HIV and heterosexuality in Australia, we argue that without a considered analysis of the gendered interplay of differing HIV statuses, the vulnerability discourse remains limited in its capacity to capture the diverse, complex ways in which these HIV-negative women negotiate HIV in their sexual lives, how they are positioned in their relationships, and how vulnerability can figure in less obvious ways. We discuss how gendered meanings invested in the women`s HIV-negative status constituted a powerful conduit to heteronormality for their male partners. The mixing of serostatuses made it possible for the men to assume a kind of proxy negativity, a desired state of redeemed masculinity. We explore two ways in which this proxy negativity operated among the couples and shaped their sexual practices. As a result, this paper makes an important contribution by showing how vulnerability to HIV infection can hinge on the different ways serodiscordant couples manage gendered meanings around serostatus emotionally and sexually. © 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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Persson, Asha
Richards, Wendy
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