The Social and Economic Context of Black Women Living with HIV/AIDS in the US: Implications for Research (WP-08-06)


Celeste Watkins-Hayes

In this essay, I argue for increased analyses of the social consequences of HIV/AIDS for infected black women in the United States, including examinations of the various ways in which their social and economic experiences are impacted by the interplay between their health statuses and racial, gender, and class locations. I frame the discussion by chronicling and critically assessing the body of work highlighting multiple explanations for the increased infection rates among black women, revealing the relative dearth of work that focuses on the everyday lives of women who are currently living with the disease. To begin to address this lacuna, I consider how researchers might tease out the various ways in which HIV-infected black women formulate, sustain, and interweave their economic survival strategies and intimate relationships. First, I recommend bridging the gap between the US-based HIV/AIDS scholarship that focuses on the labour market experiences of primarily men and the employment and social policy research that has gleaned critical insights about the work lives of black women. Second, I caution against constructing the intimate lives of HIV-positive black women solely in a context of risk or against the backdrop of the highly publicised "down low" debate about black men who fail to disclose same-sex sexual behaviours to female partners. These foci have shaped the conversation about black women living with HIV/AIDS in distinct ways, hampering fuller portraits of how they create, maintain, or go without intimate relationships. Third, I explore new ways of thinking about the intersection of women's economic and intimate lives using three case studies presented in this essay. Social scientific approaches have the potential to help explicate how HIV/AIDS is not simply a medical epidemic, but also a social and economic phenomenon that shapes a variety of individual-, family-, and community-level outcomes.

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Assistant Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Northwestern University

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