Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Test

One of my colleagues writes short stories, and yesterday he gave me one to read: it's called The Test. It's beautifully written, so I do him a disservice by summarising it so bluntly, but I've been thinking about it ever since.

The story runs as follows: young-ish man (aged 32) who has never had a sexual relationship is in church one Sunday listening to the preacher talk about love and wondering if he will ever know what it means. The reading is that one from St Paul about love being always this and never that. I read it at a wedding once so I do know it quite well, and I do think it's rather beautiful.

A young woman comes in late and sits beside him, and he realises that maybe he will know what love means. She is new to the area and they start seeing each other. His best friend is a doctor who has slept around a lot, and he advises that the young-ish man should make sure he knows what he might be getting, but the young-ish man is not that sort of young-ish man, and his sweetheart is not that kind of girl.

They go out for two years, then he proposes and she accepts. Everyone is very happy. Then without her consent the doctor (who is taking her blood for another reason) tests her for HIV, discovers she is positive and tells the young-ish man. The young-ish man is distraught and does not know what to do. How can he marry a woman who has kept her sexual past from him in this way? The doctor advises him to leave her.

He thinks a lot about the reading in the church the day they met, and decides he will go ahead anyway as he does love her. The day before they get married the young woman's brother, who is the doctor's assistant, comes over and also tells the young-ish man about his sister's HIV status, as he was the one who actually did the test. He is not sure the young-ish man should marry his sister.

But the young-ish man believes in love, so he marries her. On their wedding night he tells her it's his first time, and she says it's hers too. He doesn't believe her, and asks her if she has ever exposed herself to HIV. She says only once, with a young boy. He is horrified.

But it turns out that the young boy had been hit by a car and the young woman gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation, and he had blood in his mouth. She doesn't know what happened to him. It then turned out that the young boy was actually the youngest brother of the young-ish man, who had, it turned out, contracted HIV from unsterilised medical equipment used during an emergency operation a few years before the car accident. So the young woman discovered on her wedding night that she had contracted HIV from the brother of her husband. But love won out.

Or something. My colleague asked me what I thought of his story. I said it was difficult for me to say, as I wasn't really its target audience. I asked him why he had written it. He said he wanted to show that you can get HIV without being a prostitute.

Which is true. But it's also true that most HIV+ women in Africa caught it from their husbands. Young women can be as pure as they bloody well like, they're still at risk. It's the young-ish man who's unusual in this story. And the idea that three men can know your HIV status before you even know you've been tested is pretty unpalatable, even if, as I suspect, it's only being used as a narrative ploy.

What HIV does, in an unbelievably brutal way, is make patterns of human sexual behaviour evident. Old people catch it, because old people have sex. Children catch it because adults have sex with children. Faithful wives catch it because their husbands are not faithful, and, to a lesser extent, faithful husbands catch it because their wives are not faithful. Deeply Christian countries like this one are incredibly uncomfortable about this, but the evidence that it happens is now incontrovertible. They have to enable people, especially women and girls, to protect themselves. Moralising might help a bit, but acknowledgement, feminism and condoms help a lot more. In my opinion.

OK, rant over.


Blogger Jeremy Dennis said...

Hmmmm. And hmmmm again. It's like Tess of the D'Urbevilles for evangelicals.

There's little regard for the physical safety of the women, either -- she needs to know she has HIV, even if it comes as part of her fiancee saying, "I'm not going to marry you because you are HIV=" -- she needs to start getting care.

Oxford is an HIV hotspot, and not because of prostitutes -- the standard vector is ordinary heterosexual relations.

2:37 pm  

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