Why on earth would one write a column on the health of men who have sex with men? Believe me, people are already writing on the matter. This column is just the culmination of two articles written in the media this past Winter about the health risks posed by homosexuality. With spring cleaning going on everywhere, I thought it was time to debunk the misconceptions presented in those articles. I do not wish to dwell on exactly where those articles fell short, but suffice it say that the problem with the writing was its lack of depth; it was just cursory in nature – the articles did not delve into the biological and socio-cultural issues at stake. This column is sorely needed (If you understood that, keep on reading, even if you did not, keep on reading). Most importantly this column will be void of any judgemental overtones (or undertones – depending on your proclivities) that are so pervasive in the discourse around homosexuality.
And that will be the last time I use the term homosexuality. Instead, get used to (the term) Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). This is no politically correct euphemism. The term is used for its precision in describing sexual behavior between men. Let’s not hang on the precise meaning of ‘sex’ in this case – (all I will say for now is I am not referring to the sexual intercourse you learnt in your grade 9 Life Science textbook). Most importantly, there is no prejudice in describing someone as a MSM; it’s just a factual statement.
Before I attempt to write about safe-sex practices, I should first say same sex behavior is far from an aberrant perversion. The explicit decriminalization of sexual relations between consenting men in several countries attests to this. However, for much of the twentieth century, MSM were thought to be abominable perverts or insane in these very same countries. With the Kinsey study of 1963 of personal sexual histories of men in the United States, evidence emerged that same sex practices where just one part of the spectrum of human sexual behavior. In precise terms, since a substantial proportion of sane men who took part in that study claimed to have engaged sexual practices with other sane men, there was nothing insane about the whole thing. Save the vitriolic rhetoric of some African presidents, it is now widely believed – including by the Roman Catholic Church – that it is possible for mentally sound men to hold an immutable sexual desire for other men. Perhaps some would call such men insane when they act on this desire in a contexts where such acts carry the consequences social sanctions or even death, but that is a question of opinion.
But what then is to be said of findings in many countries that MSM are more often than not sufferers of depression, anxiety disorder and substance abuse? The 10th of October is World Mental Health day and on so I should throw out one statistical fact – researchers have found that reasons for these mental health issues in MSM are complex, but there is a pattern. MSM who do not have a gay identify, who do not have a partner or who suffer violence on the basis of their sexual preferences are most susceptible to depression. It’s not difficult to imagine – were your desire for sexual fulfillment with your partner of choice a source of torment in your life, because of vehement persecution from your family, community and state, would this not take its toll on your mental health?
Yet there are MSM who show resilience in the face of these challenges. This column will contribute towards building your resilience, so keep an eye for the next edition.