Chris Blattman

Many wives reduces AIDS risk?

Jacob Zuma has been catching heat for fathering a child outside his (polygynous) marriage. HIV/AIDS activists criticize the Zulu custom of marrying many wives. There are good reasons to discourage polygyny, but it’s Zuma’s philandering outside marriage and not his multiple marriages that poses the real AIDS risk.

In fact, a new paper just published suggests that polygyny is associated with lower HIV transmission:

HIV prevalence is lower in countries where the practice of polygyny is common, and within countries, it is lower in areas with higher levels of polygyny.

Proposed explanations for the protective effect of polygyny include the distinctive structure of sexual networks produced by polygyny, the disproportionate recruitment of HIV-positive women into marriages with a polygynous husband, and the lower coital frequency in conjugal dyads of polygynous marriages.

Don’t worry, I didn’t get that last bit either. As far as I can understand: men with many wives are old and have less sex; meanwhile all the men who want to have lots of sex (the young ones) can’t find a partner.

Other AIDS research blames concurrent sex for the escalation of the African AIDS crisis.

The story: Africans don’t have more sex than Americans; both have roughly the same number of partners in a lifetime. But Americans are more likely to be serial monogamists, while Africans are more likely to have concurrent partners (outside marriage). These networks allow HIV to spread more easily. Polygyny, it seems, is the exception.

Only, of course, if guys like Zuma stick to their three wives.

7 Responses

  1. Thailand proves that widespread condom use is sufficient to establish herd immunity. In sub-Saharan Africa, one of the things preventing widespread condom use is the Catholic Church’s stance on the issue. That stance is frankly inexcusable in the face of reality, which is that many Africans, especially married women, are not in the position to control their own sexual risk factors. The spread of AIDS in Africa is a tragic problem with a clear moral imperative and a clear scientific solution. The Catholic Church, with its vast infrastructure and ability to bypass political entanglements, should be spearheading the effort to distribute condoms to sub-Saharan Africa, not standing in its way:

  2. This assumes that the polygamous wives tend to be faithful to their elderly and inattentive husband and resist the blandishment of all the surplus bachelors. This can work in harem countries like Saudi Arabia where women are mostly locked up in the house away from the bachelors, but in most of sub-Saharan Africa, they are sent out into the fields to work, with expected results.

  3. “lower coital frequency”: have less sex
    “in conjugal dyads”: among each possible pair (husband-wife) – dyad is just the network term for a group of two

    1. Where is Elizabeth Pisani’s data or evidence on autonomy? Has FHI developed an autonomy index? She also says South Africans get the epidemic they deserve (!).

  4. Eish… yes, polygyny has worked out well for us here in Swaziland. Women’s rights are so strong here as well. Thank-you Jacob Zuma!

  5. I think the last sentence means that, because the man has many wives, he will on average have less sex with each one of them than he would normally have with his only wife (in the case of monogamy)?

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