Sexual networks and social capital: multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships as a rational response to unstable social networks

Seminar date: 
14 January 2010
Speaker(s): Robert Thornton

Robert Thornton is associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Registration is closed.

Discussant: Ria Reis 

Multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships (MCP) are prevalent in southern Africa and have been identified as a primary cause of high HIV prevalence in this region. Sexual liaisons with multiple partners serve to increase the size and diversity of an individual's sexual -- and social -- network and therefore to increase their social capital. This maximisation of social capital may minimise the risk to relationship(s) at the cost of maximising the biological risk of HIV infection. Many sexually active individuals appear to neglect their biological risk of HIV infection in order to maximise their 'social capital.' This would seem to be irrational from the perspective of any individual actor, but on a larger, social scale, this may give individuals better access to some social and economic goods. The article argues that people who are in unstable and less-connected parts of the sexual network are those most active in building their sexual networks, even where they are not especially promiscuous. However, such strategies may increase exposure to HIV infection in particular populations, such as intravenous drug users, sex workers, and men having sex with men, as well as in the general population of heterosexual southern Africans. What these high HIV-prevalence populations have in common is their participation in sexual-social networks in which individuals try to maximise their social capital by extending the diversity and density of their sexual networks. The discussion shifts analytic attention away from the notion of higher-risk sexual practices of individuals towards consideration for the structure and dynamics of social and sexual networks at a societal level.

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