This article by San Patten first appeared in Prevention in Focus, a publication of CATIE.
Une version française est disponible ici.
Biomedical tools for HIV prevention, also known as new prevention technologies (or NPTs), are often touted as tools that will give women greater control over HIV prevention. But will these tools actually empower women? Here, we explore this question and some reasons for optimism and skepticism.
Women are more vulnerable to HIV
In Canada and around the world, many women are at a disadvantage socially and economically. These disadvantages mean that women are often at risk of HIV infection because they lack the power to negotiate the use of HIV prevention measures, such as condoms, abstinence and mutual monogamy. In addition, all women are biologically more susceptible to HIV infection through heterosexual sex than men for several reasons. Firstly, women are exposed to more HIV during sex than men because the volume of semen is usually greater than the volume of vaginal fluid and because semen contains a higher concentration of HIV. Secondly, more of a woman’s mucous membranes are exposed to HIV because the surface area of the vagina is greater than that of the penis. Finally, HIV has more time to cause infection in women because semen can remain in prolonged contact with the vagina following unprotected sex.1,2
“Abstinence and condom use may be impossible for women to enforce. Fidelity is of no use unless it is mutual, and men’s faithfulness very often lies outside of women’s control.”3
Expanding the HIV prevention toolkit
Efforts are underway to develop several new technologies to prevent HIV, including microbicides, vaccines, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and HIV treatment as prevention. In recent trials, some of these NPTs have proven successful.
These new technologies may have the ability to expand the HIV prevention toolkit, giving women more options to protect themselves from HIV. When thinking about the potential value of NPTs, a helpful analogy is the range of contraception options available to women (see figure). Currently available contraceptive options are considerable and each woman can choose a method based on her personal needs and preferences. Similarly, potential new HIV prevention options would greatly expand women’s options for HIV prevention and provide a range of timing options (before, during or after sex) and modes of use (oral, topical or injectable), thus allowing each woman to choose the right option for her.
Just as women have very different preferences for birth control, women would also have options for preventing HIV transmission. In other words, the more options to choose from, the better, because there will never be a “one-size-fits-all” option that is acceptable to all women.
The potential for women’s empowerment
Will these new NPTs increase women’s control over HIV prevention?
Reasons for optimism
One of the main arguments for the potential of NPTs to provide women with more control over HIV prevention is that women could use NPTs without the consent or even the knowledge of their male partners (this is sometimes called covert use). Therefore, NPTs may help women who experience problems negotiating safer sex and are less empowered to insist on condom usage—such as women who do commercial sex work and women in coercive relationships.4 While NPTs such as PrEP and microbicides are not likely to provide the same amount of protection as condoms, some protection is better than none in cases where the male partner refuses to use a condom.5
Also, unlike condoms, many NPTs would not have to be used in “the heat of the moment” and therefore may make negotiating safer sex easier for women. Biomedical research is shifting from focusing on prevention methods that need to be used at the time of the sexual encounter to methods that can be used before and/or after sex.6 It may be easier for women to negotiate these methods than to convince a male partner to use a condom during each and every sexual encounter.
Another key benefit of NPTs for women is that they could allow women to conceive while at the same time protecting against HIV infection. The primary HIV prevention method currently available—condoms—does not allow for safer conception between serodiscordant couples (where one is HIV positive and one is HIV negative). Developing HIV prevention tools that would allow for conception while still reducing the risk of HIV infection would have a significant advantage for serodiscordant couples wanting to have a child.
Prevention methods such as condoms and abstinence are not always realistic options for women, especially those who are married, who want to have children or who are at risk of sexual violence. A safe and effective microbicide, PrEP or HIV vaccine could provide women with more options for protecting themselves from HIV infection.
Reasons for skepticism
While there are reasons for optimism, NPTs may not be the panacea for women’s equality and empowerment that they are sometimes thought to be.
Even if NPTs become available and even though the use of NPTs would technically be under a woman’s control, it may not be possible for many women to use an NPT.6,7 Whether a woman decides to use an NPT is a complex process.8 Her decision will be based on several factors: Does she think she is at risk of HIV infection from her partner? Does she understand how the NPT works? Can she afford the NPT? What does she anticipate her partner’s reaction to be? Does she have enough autonomy to make her own decisions about her sexual and reproductive health? Finally, some studies have shown that, just as with condoms, many women are unlikely to use NPTs with their regular partners. The reasons given include the perception that an NPT could reduce their own or their partner’s pleasure and the concern that their partner may interpret NPT use as a sign of mistrust.8,9,10
Although NPTs could theoretically provide women with more control over HIV prevention and allow women to use prevention methods discreetly, the use of some NPTs may not be all that easy to hide. For example, an attentive male partner might notice the extra lubrication or a different sensation from a microbicide, or find his partner’s stash of PrEP pills. In some cases, if women are discovered using prevention products, they could face adverse consequences, even violence, as the products might be seen as an affront to men’s power and the traditional gender norms.9,11,12 So, although NPTs could offer women more choices, there is no guarantee that they will empower women.
A woman may also face negative consequences if she does decide to negotiate NPT use with her partner. For example, broaching the topic of NPTs with their male partners might signify mistrust and/or infidelity.12,13 Also, if women tell their male partners about their use of an NPT, men may decide that they no longer have to use condoms, which could increase women’s risk of HIV transmission since NPTs are not as effective as condoms.8,10 This effect is known as risk compensation.
NPTs could also further entrench women’s responsibility for sexual health, rather than promoting a shared responsibility. Women are already primarily responsible for birth control, and NPTs could add to the burden on women to make sex “consequence-free” for their male partners.8
A lot can be learned from our experience with the female condom, which is currently the only female-initiated prevention tool currently available.14 Although touted as a tool that would empower women, the female condom has generally not lived up to its expectations for various reasons including difficulties with covert use, poor acceptability among some women, and its relatively high cost.
Key messages that we can all get behind
When discussing the value of NPTs, we need to avoid over-simplifications of their (potential) link to “women’s empowerment.” Although NPTs may empower some women in some situations, they won’t bring about universal sexual empowerment.
NPTs should not be seen as a “quick fix” solution nor should they distract attention from the need for social change and multi-level interventions that address gender inequality, poverty, and other forms of discrimination that make women more vulnerable.8,10 It is clear that NPTs will not have an impact unless the underlying social, economic, political and cultural conditions that make women more vulnerable in the first place are tackled. Addressing these conditions will also help remove the barriers that prevent women from using these new prevention options.
Therefore, NPTs must be offered within a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention—one that balances structural changes (such as poverty reduction and gender equality), expanding and strengthening existing prevention strategies (such as behavioural interventions and the distribution of male and female condoms) and NPTs (such as PrEP and microbicides).
Frontline service providers and policy-makers need to understand the potential gender dynamics that will influence if and how women will use NPTs as they become available. Clearly, biomedical tools cannot replace women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy, but they could provide the means by which women exercise such autonomy.
•The epidemiology of HIV in women – CATIE fact sheet
•Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) – CATIE fact sheet
•Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – CATIE fact sheet
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About the author
San Patten is a health research and evaluation consultant who has worked extensively on issues relating to injection drug use, the sex trade, and new HIV prevention technologies. San completed a master’s degree in Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary, is an adjunct professor in Sociology at Mount Allison University (specializing in social policy and non-profit leadership), and is a co-investigator of the Centre for HIV Prevention Social Research at the University of Toronto.