‘AIDS and Masculinity in the African City: Privilege, Inequality, and Modern Manhood’ reviewed by Fredrick Nyman.

‘AIDS and Masculinity in the African City: Privilege, Inequality, and Modern Manhood’ by Robert Wyrod (University of California Press, 2016). 

AIDS and Masculinity in the African City is based on a decade of ethnographic research in an urban slum community in Kampala, Uganda, and examines how the AIDS crisis has come to shape and shift understandings of gender, masculinity and sexuality. In this review I elucidate how Robert Wyrod presents work, authority and sexuality as three intertwined aspects of the (re)construction of masculinity in the age of AIDS in Uganda, and the ‘implications for such entanglements’ (p. 31).

Wyrod argues that the impact AIDS has had on male sexuality and sexual privilege – such as a man’s ability to dictate the terms of sex, apropos his right to multiple sexual partners (pp. 8–9) – cannot be understood in isolation. More specifically, he further advocates how AIDS has shaped men’s sexuality in relation to ‘changes in the meaning and practices of the male provider ideal and men’s authority within the home’ (p. 31). He questions a) how the AIDS crisis has affected normative discourses of sexuality, and b) has the prolonged AIDS epidemic in Uganda altered the locals’ views on gender relations and intimate relationships? With attention to public responses to AIDS and the reproduction of gender inequalities in Uganda, Wyrod sets out to gain an understanding of how Ugandan men grapple with embodying normative notions of masculinity and male sexuality, and how these notions in turn shape the relationships between the social domains of work, authority in the home, and sexuality. It should be noted that Wyrod explores the above issues in the specific context of heteronormative masculinity and locally-determined masculine ideals, and the book overlooks the experiences of men who have sex with men (MSM).

What is important about the book, is its claim that gender tensions are deeply intertwined with views on sexuality, ‘including the ways some men sought to shore up an embattled masculinity through their intimate relationships’ (p. 76). In Uganda, women’s contributions to their families and the nation have been reconciled with the tenacious gender ideology of men as ‘authorities in the public sphere and the home’ (p. 75). As we can read, this dynamic has a long and anxious history in Uganda, where the AIDS epidemic came to create a new context in which men and women negotiate sexual intimacy, ‘making links between gender inequality and sexuality more complex, and often more dangerous’ (p. 76). Furthermore, Chapter Three demonstrates how masculinity and economic insecurity interconnect with AIDS in such ways that chronic male underemployment and growing economic stratification shape men’s sexual behaviour, and often in ways that ‘heighten both men’s and women’s vulnerability to HIV’ (p. 84). These dynamics reflect the broader themes under study regarding how masculinity, work and sexuality are entangled with AIDS in Kampala, and Wyrod embodies these dynamics through the lives of his research participants. For instance, Julius, a successful businessman, was able to reinforce his assumed sexual privilege due to his financial success, and especially the privilege to have multiple sexual partners. However, his HIV positive status provided a new opportunity for his HIV negative wives to assert more control over the terms of sex, revealing a nuanced power shift that have emerged in the context of AIDS. Another participant, Issa, on the other hand, expressed his frustration over the precarious and uncertain work that was available to him, which consequently left him ‘falling short of what a proper man should be’ (p. 119). Appearing to revel in a rejection of the male economic provider ideal, as Wyrod puts it, Issa divulged his feelings of failure and inadequacy for not being a proper husband and father. Thus, in seeking out sexual relationships as to shore up his embattled masculinity, Issa’s case illustrates how sexual encounters with several women becomes a way for men to exercise their gender privileges when they feel frustrated by their economic options (p. 120). Here the aforementioned dynamics become obvious, as the lives of Julius and Issa illustrate how men exercise their male sexual privilege both when they fulfil and when they fail to fulfil socially constructed ideals of the male economic provider.

However, AIDS is never out of the picture. With its previously declining rates of HIV prevalence and incidence, Uganda has been depicted as a global model of successful intervention against the AIDS crisis. However, the reality of this claim has rarely been critically investigated (Parkhurst 2002) and as Wyrod further illustrates, due to recent political turmoil and deliberate change in government policy, this is a success story that might come undone. Justin Parkhurst has argued that ‘many claims of the success of Uganda in dealing with HIV/AIDS have been predicated on selective pieces of information’ (2002: 78), which have come to be falsely presented as representative of the Ugandan nation as a whole. We can read in Wyrod’s book that the response to AIDS in Uganda is being reshaped: with new emphasis on biomedical interventions, concerns are now that the core elements of Uganda’s previous successful intervention – ‘rooted in a social, not a biomedical, response’ (p. 79) – may be eclipsed once again.

Wyrod extends these critiques, and emphasises the importance of ‘keeping gender relations at the forefront of efforts to fight AIDS’ (p. 79). Yet, as he discloses near the end of the book, the social conditions that he first observed over a decade ago in Kampala remain largely unchanged, and thus he wishes for his book to demonstrate how these conditions are deeply intertwined with, and even facilitate, the transmission of HIV. He also claims that these humble conditions will remain unchanged until ‘the government becomes truly committed to alleviating the structural inequalities that define the lives of the urban poor’ (p. 240). Thus, we are left to conclude that even though addressing the AIDS crisis through the instatement of long-term community engagement with masculine sexual privilege, is of vital social concern, urban poverty still remains the central force that, in the end, sustains AIDS as a health catastrophe in urban communities like Kampala. People are left to endure these yawning disparities that, consequently, will come to shape, shift and remake masculinity as such while they strive to maintain ‘meaningful lives and harmonious intimate relationships’ (p. 232) against the backdrop of what was once seen as a successful global health intervention.

Overall, AIDS and Masculinity in the African City will be of great interest to anthropologists, sociologists, gender scholars and global/public health practitioners, but the book is also a compelling must-read for people concerned with and interested in urban ethnography, HIV/AIDS, feminist theory and masculinities.

Reviewed by Fredrik Nyman, PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology and the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University (UK). He is part of the Life of Breath Project, where his research aims to explore the lived and embodied experiences of people who live with chronic breathlessness and lung disease in the North East and Yorkshire, and how they practise and manage lay self-care of their lung conditions.

Correspondence to Fredrik Nyman.

Works cited:

Parkhurst, Justin. 2002. The Ugandan success story? Evidence and claims of HIV-1 prevention. The Lancet, 360(9326): 78–80.

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