Elevate Difference

Sin, Sex and Stigma: A Pacific Response to HIV and AIDS

If you took an undergraduate course in anthropology, chances are high that you learned about the South Pacific. Notables like Margaret Mead and Bronislau Malinowski made their marks there, and it continues to be a part of the world that many think of with intrigue and wonder. Anthropologist and ethnographer Lawrence James Hammar continues on the path of many greats in Papua New Guinea, but he takes a distinctly sharp turn in his subject matter.

According to Hammar, HIV/AIDS present a problem in Papua New Guinea in a unique way. Having studied it for years, he has an incredibly passionate and firm opinion on how the country is failing its people and why. He tackles gender roles and perceptions of appropriate sexual behavior, which suggest that protected sex has no place between couples. This is precisely the problem, as HIV transmission is mainly occurring between heterosexual couples.

The current HIV/AIDS education and prevention methods fail to acknowledge Papua New Guinea’s sexual networks. The one-size-fits-all approach does not take into account the sex trade or the gross injustices that women face when it comes to expression and control over sexuality. Likewise, the pervasive influence of the Church has essentially forbidden discussion and distribution of condoms in many areas. Church leaders have gone public with anti-condom messages with blatant lies about their effectiveness and have contributed to the overall stigma of protected sex. Hammar dramatically refers to this dilemma as “Biological death versus social leperhood.” To further describe this situation, he explains the multiple interpretations of the ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful, Condoms) message. Instead of condoms, some are teaching “C” to stand for commitment or Christian values. While this alone is not objectionable, Hammar points out that this ignores the reality of what is occurring in Papua New Guinea and contributes to the overall situation of HIV/AIDS not being dealt with in a productive manner.

Hammar sounds infuriated at times in this book, and the reader cannot help but feel the same. Though this situation is replicated in other forms the world over, Hammar pounds the Papua New Guinea-specific message home: What’s being done now isn’t working and it’s harmful. In the epilogue, he finally addresses the role of the anthropologist and takes up the difficult topic of how positive change might be effected as a result of his research and findings. He acknowledges the conflicting perspectives and the respect he has for the country and its people while also setting the stage for what hopefully will lead to constructive conversation.

Overall, Sin, Sex and Stigma reads like an academic text with very few literary flourishes added for readability. Its audience is very specific, and even within that audience, some readers may have difficulty following Hammar’s writing. Though informative, the book is heavy in content and delivery, and should only be considered by those who are already interested in the topic at hand.

Written by: Shana Mattson, July 11th 2010

Thank you so much, Shana Mattson, for reviewing my book. I don't disagree with anything you said, and you definitely "got it," which is I guess the very best compliment an author can pay a reviewer. Thanks again!. Lawrence Hammar