Biomedical bargains: Negotiating “safe sex” on antiretroviral treatment in rural South Africa

Nicole Angotti, Sanyu A. Mojola, Yunhan Wen, Abby Ferdinando

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Wide-scale availability of antiretroviral treatment (ART) has transformed the global landscape for HIV prevention, shifting emphasis away from a strictly behavioral focus on changing sexual practices towards a biomedical approach. Successful ART management is measured by an undetectable viral load, which helps maintain overall health and prevent onward viral transmission. The latter utility of ART, however, must be understood in the context of its implementation. In South Africa, ART has become easily accessible – yet ART knowledge spreads unevenly, while counseling advice and normative expectations and experiences of gender and aging interact to inform sexual practices. As ART enters the sexual lives of middle-aged and older people living with HIV (MOPLH), a population growing rapidly, how has it informed sexual decisions and negotiations? Drawing on in-depth interviews with MOPLH on ART, corroborated with focus group discussions and national ART-related policies and guidelines, we find that for MOPLH, sexual decisions increasingly feature compliance with biomedical directives and concern for ART efficacy. Seeking consensus regarding the biological risks of sex on ART becomes an important feature of sexual negotiations, and anticipated disagreements can pre-empt sexual relationships altogether. We introduce the concept of biomedical bargains to explain what happens when disagreements arise, and the terms of sex are negotiated using competing interpretations of biomedical information. For both men and women, ostensibly gender-neutral biomedical discourses provide new discursive resources and strategies for sexual decisions and negotiations, yet biomedical bargains are still embedded in gender dynamics—women invoke the dangers of jeopardizing treatment efficacy and longevity to insist on condoms or justify abstinence, while men utilize biomedical arguments in an effort to render condomless sex safe. While the full therapeutic benefits of ART are critical for the efficacy and equity of HIV programs, they will nonetheless always affect, and be affected by, social life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number116036
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Aug 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


  • Aging
  • Antiretroviral treatment (ART)
  • Biomedical bargains
  • HIV
  • Safe sex
  • South Africa
  • Treatment as prevention (TasP)


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