Dancing with Gogos

Picture source: RFI, http://www.rfi.fr/science/20150505-vih-autodepistage-diagnostic-sida-pharmacies.
Picture source: RFI, http://www.rfi.fr/science/20150505-vih-autodepistage-diagnostic-sida-pharmacies.

When I was a youngster, I had a landlord who was what you might call polymorphously perverse. Freud developed the notion of polymorphous perversity to describe the ability of the infant and young child to derive pleasure from anything—as the Wikipedia page puts it, “deriving sexual pleasure from any part of the body. The objects and modes of sexual satisfaction are multifarious, directed at every object that might provide pleasure.” I’m fairly sure that my landlord was the most sexually unselective person I’ve ever met–woman, man, both, or neither, I don’t think he ever met an adult that he wouldn’t have sex with.

A couple years after I joined the military–1982 or so—I took advantage of a transfer to go to my home town and visit my father. While I was there, I stopped by my former landlord’s place to drop something off. He told me about an “interesting” new disease. It was fatal, no one knew what caused it, and it was only found in gay men who had had thousands of sexual partners. Was he at risk for it, I asked? Oh, no—no risk at all. He only wished he’d had thousands of sexual partners.

That was about 1982. Long before the 1980s were over, I got a panicked call from my child’s godfather. Could I take him to the doctor? He’d found a dark spot on the bottom of his foot, and he was terrified that it was Kaposi’s sarcoma–one of the death-knells of AIDS in those days. I took him to the clinic, and it turned out that it was just a bruise—but, a couple weeks later, his blood test came back positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He was devastated—and baffled. He’d had a minuscule number of sexual partners, and had never had unsafe sex. He died without ever knowing how he had gotten infected.

These were my first contacts with HIV/AIDS. In less than a decade, it had gone from a mysterious disease thought to affect only a tiny segment of the population to one that would kill even my practically virginal friend.  I would guess that anyone my age has similar stories to tell, or much worse.  Today, the majority of HIV transmission takes place through heterosexual contact (see here).  As of 2011, 23.4% of the adult population of Botswana was HIV positive.  23.3% of the adult population of Lesotho.  26.0% of the adult population of Swaziland.  17.3% of the adult population of South Africa.  (These statistics are from the AVERT web site.)  For an insider’s picture of the hell on earth that HIV/AIDS has turned South Africa into, see Gary Cornelius’s Dancing with gogos: A Peace Corps memoir.

The Zipf’s Law connection: I was reminded of all of this the other day when Radio France International broadcast a story about a new screening test for HIV.  You can buy it for 28 euros–depending on the exchange rate, that’s about $29.50 to $42.00.  According to Radio France International, 7,000 to 8,000 people get infected with HIV every year in France, and 60% of those infections come from people who aren’t aware of their HIV status.  Early on, it was quite controversial whether or not you should be able to test yourself for HIV, versus having to go to a doctor to do it.  I guess that statistics like the immediately preceding one are probably a reasonable argument in favor of allowing self-testing.

Here are some of the vocabulary items that I didn’t know in the RFI story:

  • dépistage: in a medical context, “screening.”  Otherwise, tracking down, tracing, or detecting.
  • dépister: to screen or detect; in the case of a thief, to track down; in the case of a pursuer, to throw off the scent or to disorient.
  • le VIH: HIV.  Abbreviation for virus de l’immunodéficience humaine.
  • la lingette: a baby wipe or other disposable wipe.
  • le pansement: band-aid.  (Don’t pronounce the e between s and m.) 
  • la grossesse: pregnancy.  Une lingette, un pansement, une aiguille et le fameux test qui ressemble plus ou moins à un test de grossesse : voilà le kit qui permettra à chacun de se dépister soi-même.  “An alcohol wipe, a bandaid, a needle, and the famous test that more or less resembles a pregnancy test: there you have the kit that will let everyone screen themself.”
  • banaliser: The most context-appropriate definition for this that I can find on WordReference.com is “to make commonplace.”  I think there’s more to it than that, as I ran across the past participle of this verb the other day in the expression voiture banalisée, “unmarked car.”  Pour les associations de lutte contre le sida, ces autotests sont précieux, ils permettront de banaliser le dépistage du VIH car aujourd’hui encore, en France, 28 000 personnes ignorent être séropositives.
  • ignorer: to not know, to be ignorant of, to ignore.  Pour les associations de lutte contre le sida, ces autotests sont précieux, ils permettront de banaliser le dépistage du VIH car aujourd’hui encore, en France, 28 000 personnes ignorent être séropositives.

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