Allison Carter, health science researcher with Simon Fraser University, compiled several studies together and presented her findings on Thursday, at the 27th Canadian Conference on HIV/AIDS in Vancouver. She said more than 16,000 women in Canada are living with the disease.
“Women living with HIV are often viewed as having no right to a sex life,” Carter said. “Consequently, there is very little research around sexual health and data beyond prevention.”
Women who are diagnosed with HIV are often given pamphlets on how to use condoms, but if they are on treatment that suppresses the virus count, “they have no risk of transmitting to their partners,” Carter said.
Yet this fact is not understood in society, she said. And biomedicine alone will not erase the complicated social challenges women face, such as stigma, lack of awareness and criminal nature of the disease.
That stigma can result in feelings of isolation, fear and anxiety in seeking health care services, social rejection and an increased risk of violence, said Nicole Pasquino, clinical practice director for the non-profit Options for Sexual Health.
Preventing transmission is the main argument for criminal prosecution of people who don’t disclose to their partners that they are HIV-positive. But in 2014, nearly 80 Canadian experts endorsed a statement saying that chance is low to zero and poor knowledge has contributed to “overly broad use of criminal charges,” according to a report by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange.
“That culture of fear fosters widespread harassment and prosecution against women,” Carter explained, noting her research found 80 per cent of women living with the disease experienced violence.
But women living with HIV can, in fact, have sexually satisfying lives, Carter said.
Half of women tested for her study reported sex is an important part of their lives. And those with more education and better physical health reported greater incidences of sex.
Of the women in relationships, 75 per cent were with partners who are HIV negative and those relationships were linked to increased physical and emotional well-being. The results show it is possible for women living with HIV to find partners who are accepting, Carter said.
But she also found that women who were older and experiencing violence in their lives reported less interest in sex.
Dispelling the myth that sex is not important for women with HIV was Carter’s motivation to do the research. But she also discovered another problematic myth — not having sex is abnormal and “in the very least, unfulfilling.”
Ultimately, Carter said, it’s up to a the woman to decide what is personally satisfying.
“We need to be talking about sexuality with women beyond behavioural activities,” she said, “and into the emotional aspects and their identity as sexual beings.”