Q&A: Is It True That Men Can’t Get HIV Infections From Women?

Q: I think I actually witnessed the spread of HIV misconceptions! Basically, I overheard a bunch of male coworkers talking about married male celebrities and their infidelities, and how the wives of these celebrities had nothing to worry about regarding the rumored lack of protection used during these indiscretions, because “it’s next to impossible for a man to pick up the HIV virus from a woman.” Yes, I know, this is nonsense, but just for the record…is there any data to support that one group of people can more easily spread the virus than another group? Also, where in the world did such a potentially dangerous misconception come from?

A: Well, I can top that misconception with one even more ridiculous. There are some parts of Africa where it is widely believed that a man infected with HIV can rid himself of the infection by having sex with a virgin! This deplorably ignorant myth has led to widespread rape of young girls, and of course, new infections. Ignorance kills!

Your co-workers are obviously incorrect.  It is true that it is easier for an HIV-infected man to infect a woman than it is for an HIV-infected woman to infect a man.  This is a result of the basic anatomy of sexual intercourse. However, this is a far cry from thinking it is virtually impossible for a man to pick up HIV from a woman. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US, it became well recognized that gay men and intravenous drug users were the major groups affected by HIV. It appears that some heterosexual men assumed that if they weren’t having sex with men, or injecting drugs, they were not at risk for HIV infection.

This erroneous belief has contributed to the devastating epidemic among African-Americans. While we were painting a picture of HIV as a “white gay” disease, we should have been looking across the Atlantic. In Africa, where several million of people have already died, homosexual sex and intravenous drug use represent only a small percentage of the risk factors for those who are and were infected. Yet, there are, and have always been, almost equal numbers of men and women infected with the virus! This should have tipped us off of the risk from heterosexual intercourse decades ago. It did not.

In my city of Washington DC, the number of new infections from heterosexual intercourse surpassed those from homosexual intercourse and intravenous drug use a few years ago.