Masculinity and sexual practices in the military: a South African study

African Journal of AIDS Research (Impact Factor: 0.79). 04/2011; 10(1):43-50. DOI: 10.2989/16085906.2011.575547


The military's organisational culture tends to condone or encourage risk-taking behaviour. Willingness to accept and engage in risk-taking behaviour is central to good soldiering and is strongly associated with readiness for combat. This core attribute of military culture might predispose soldiers to engage in other higher-risk behaviours, such as unprotected sex. Soldiers' working and living conditions, such as the high level of work-related stress in combat and deployment situations, and being away from home and particularly from partners for long periods, are reported as contributing to high levels of HIV in military groups. This article explores the underlying value system in the military context as a strong enabler of higher-risk sexual practices among male soldiers. This not only obstructs gender equality in the military organisation but also impacts on the prevalence of HIV. The article derives from a qualitative study of a diverse sample of 23-33-year-old male South African soldiers. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 14 fulltime soldiers and the interview transcripts were analysed through interpretive discourse analysis. The findings highlight that when soldiers are on deployment or attending military courses they are often tempted to engage in higher-risk sexual behaviours. Underlying this narrative are patriarchal notions that men 'need' sex and cannot endure being without it, and that they have the right therefore to demand it from their partner or to seek it from multiple partners. Male soldiers' sexual practices appear to be rationalised predominantly on the basis of the 'male sexual drive' discourse. The research found an association between work in the military and higher-risk sexual activity. Therefore, we argue that tackling HIV in the military demands critical examination of the constructions of masculinity.

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