issue 250 - December 1993
Sex, lies and a certain virus
The marriage is monogamous, the relationship honest – or so the fable goes.
Then the woman gets HIV – from her husband. It’s happened to two thirds of HIV
positive women in Brazil, exposing lies and double standards.
Sue Branford asks, what should women do?
In August this year, 41-year-old Sandra Brea, a well known Brazilian actress, called a press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce that she was infected with HIV. It was the first time that a female television personality had had the courage to ‘come out’ about her infection. Sandra said that she had decided to go public as part of a publicity drive to raise money for a hospital catering for Aids patients.
The Brazilian media – which for several days treated the announcement as a major news story – gave sympathetic coverage. A clear indication that Aids, which just five years ago was regarded as affecting only ‘deviants’, is finally being seen as a health hazard that threatens everyone.
Even so prejudice and ambiguities remain, as Sandra’s case also shows. Fifteen years ago, Sandra was one of Brazil’s leading sex symbols. Her company was coveted by the rich and famous. Sandra had three brief marriages and numerous love affairs. With a frankness that shocked the country, she told the picture magazine Manchete: ‘As for sex, I accept any credit card – even the old-fashioned man-woman relationship.’
However, when she courageously decided to make her announcement in August, Sandra could not bring herself to discuss the source of her infection honestly. Pressed by journalists, she said that she had suffered a car accident in 1991. ‘Unfortunately the blood was infected,’ she claimed.
But, as many newspapers pointed out, this story simply doesn’t stand up. It is impossible for a celebrity like Sandra Brea to have a serious car accident without the press knowing. Moreover, virtually all blood banks in Rio were free of infected blood by 1991. The only hint that Sandra gave of another explanation for her infection was a sad aside made several days later. ‘Dona Aurora, my mother, must be jumping for joy in heaven.’ Her mother, who committed suicide in 1987, was known to be deeply disturbed by Sandra’s way of life.
As many of those who work with people with Aids in Brazil are pointing out, the illness has entered a new and difficult phase in which it will only be successfully combated if people are honest about their sex lives. As Sandra’s experience shows, this is extraordinarily difficult in a country with Brazil’s complex sexual mores. It is one thing to suggest provocatively that one has a lifestyle that many people would regard as promiscuous or deviant; it is quite another to accept responsibility for this lifestyle and to discuss it openly and honestly.
Today over 35,000 Brazilians have Aids, another 500,000 carry HIV. Most experts say that according to current trends one million people will be suffering full-blown Aids and another 10 million will have the virus by the year 2000.
In the early days the people most affected in Brazil were gay men, prostitutes and injecting drug users. These groups have to some extent changed their behaviour. Many gay men routinely use condoms. Self-help groups hold Aids awareness workshops and run some remarkable projects including a hospice set up by Brenda Lee, a well known São Paulo transvestite, for colleagues who contracted Aids through working as prostitutes.
Prostitutes, too, are changing, particularly in big cities. ‘Last week a client offered to pay me double to have sex with him without a condom. I refused,’ says 20-year-old Simone, a prostitute near the Luz railway station in the city centre.
But with each year Aids permeates further into Brazilian society. In 1984 just one in a hundred sufferers was a woman; now it’s one in four. Today, 64 per cent of women with Aids were infected by their husbands. As Aids increases among women, more and more babies contract HIV in the womb, from mothers who often have no idea that they have been infected. Today 88 per cent of children under 15 with Aids were infected by their mothers.
On her first wedding anniversary, Albertina Volpato, a teacher from the city of Curitiba, found out that her husband had Aids. Nine months later, by then aware that she too had been infected, her husband died. Albertina refuses to blame her husband. ‘I don’t want to play the role of victim so I’m not blaming anyone,’ she said.
Albertina’s loyalty is moving, but her failure to apportion blame for her personal tragedy reveals the common difficulty many Brazilian women face in tackling the next phase of the epidemic. Brazil has long paid lip service to the myth that most marriages are monogamous and a woman is safe by her husband’s side. The Aids epidemic is demolishing this fable, but women and men are finding it difficult to adapt.
Regina Loureiro runs an Aids clinic in Brazil’s most southerly city, Porto Alegre. Some 300 women have been to the clinic for an anonymous HIV test. According to Loureiro: ‘Most of the women know that their husbands are having other relationships and the risk they run, but they don’t protest because they have been brought up to be submissive’. One woman came back for the result of her test with a black eye and a cut lip. ‘She had been beaten up by her husband when he found out where she had had the test.’
What’s urgently needed is a shake-up in the balance of power in sexual relationships, particularly between men and women. Despite the emergence of a strong women’s movement in Brazil, many Brazilian men demand sexual fidelity from their wives, yet believe that they themselves can have many partners. Even if women become strong enough in the relationship with their partner to insist that he uses a condom, this is not a complete answer. Many couples want children and conception carries a high HIV risk. The only real solution is for men – and to a lesser extent women – to face up honestly to their own sexual practice and to change it. To protect their partners and unborn children they must either abstain from unsafe sex, with men or women, or take precautions when doing it.
Slowly and painfully, some Brazilians are facing up to these changes. Marcia is a fully trained therapist currently unemployed in a recession that’s hitting the middle classes as well as the poor. She survives today by running a newsstand in São Caetano, an industrial suburb of São Paulo. ‘I married my husband, Paulo, when I was 20 years old and we had two children. Then, quite by chance, I discovered that Paulo was also having homosexual relationships with young men and wasn’t taking precautions.’ Marcia continued: ‘It came as a shock, of course. But what worried me most was the dishonesty – Paulo had not only lied to me, but was actually putting our lives at risk by doing so.’ Paulo wanted more children, but Marcia refused, saying that Paulo first had to change the way he lived.
In Marcia’s case it ended in tears. Paulo moved out after a terrible row. But Marcia has no regrets. ‘In the past men behaved irresponsibly and got away with it. Now more and more women are challenging this. They are telling men that they have to behave honestly. I really believe that I could have accepted Paulo’s bisexuality if he had been honest with me and if he had taken care that none of us ran the risk of catching HIV. In the long term I think that the Aids epidemic may do us all good, for it will force us to change. The problem is that Brazilian men are so reluctant to face up to the real implications of the Aids epidemic. Isn’t that also the case in England?’
As I struggled to answer this question, I watched Marcia’s nine-year-old son, Ramiro. While he was washing up, he was listening intently to our conversation. Now and again, he interrupted to ask a question. Marcia replied as honestly as she could, even when she was talking about something that he found difficult to understand. Marcia often talks about the need for Brazilian women to bring up a new generation of men who will not thoughtlessly reproduce the macho attitudes of their fathers. In her case, at least, she is practising what she preaches.
Sue Branford is a talks writer for the BBC’s Latin America Service. She has been São Paulo correspondent for British newspapers The Financial Times and The Guardian.