Bees to a flower: attractiveness, risk, and collective sexual life in Malawi

Margaret Frye, Princeton University
Nina Gheihman, Harvard University

This paper examines how men collectively understand and manage the threats that attractive women pose to them in the context of a generalized AIDS epidemic. We analyzed 180 conversational journals—descriptions of informal conversations occurring among groups of men about women who they see or interact with in public settings in Malawi between 1999 and 2012. We document a cultural intersection between the meanings that men attach to female attractiveness and those related to sexual risk. These cultural meanings are worked out collectively, as men assemble categories of risk and construct alternative understandings of attractiveness. Men also engage in collective responses to the threat of attractive women, reframing attractiveness as illusory and unworthy of pursuit and portraying attractive women as forces of evil that must be suppressed. These findings reveal new insights into the collective dynamics that undergird sexual life and demonstrate how micro-level sexual dynamics connect to macro-level inequalities.

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Presented in Session 114: Masculinity, Population, Health and Development