Researchers have often noted the dearth of studies on sexual behavior in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Larson (1989:9), "data on actual practice [of extramarital sex] are extremely rare and probably worthless." What little was known about sexual behavior in Africa at the time was exhaustively reviewed by Standing and Kisekka (1989). Accordingly, while some mention is made here of the early ethnographic work they reviewed, this chapter focuses on work published subsequently.

This chapter relies heavily on the results of a series of nine surveys coordinated by the World Health Organization/Global Programme on AIDS (WHO/GPA) that were carried out in 1989 and 1990. Eight of the surveys were national in coverage, while the ninth was conducted in Lusaka, Zambia. These surveys provide information on age at sexual initiation; broad patterns of sexual activity within and outside of stable unions; levels of commercial sex; and many other issues, such as perceived risk.1


The two principal sources of information about sexual behavior are ethnographic accounts and survey methods. Ethnographic accounts typically focus on sexual behavior only insofar as it relates to family, marriage, and kinship. Anthropological research uses primarily qualitative methods and participant observation for data collection. The goal usually is not to quantify the behaviors, but to understand their intent and meanings. This research is important to the design of interventions, but says little about the number of times an event occurs, its duration, or other factors of concern to disease transmission models. Large-scale surveys are designed to provide information that is comparable across cultures, but are forced to use sweeping, standardized definitions for complex and highly varied concepts such as marriage. Increasingly, researchers are designing studies that aim to bridge the gap between detailed observation of particular societies and broad characterizations of patterns and trends, for instance by combining survey data with diaries and in-depth interviews.

The principal danger with using survey methodology to collect data on sexual behavior is that respondents may simply say what they think researchers want to hear and that without elaborate probing, such methods may lead to a serious undercount of the true situation (Bleek, 1987). Women are believed to be particularly prone to giving normative answers. Indeed, women are sometimes excluded from surveys altogether for fear that their responses will be worthless


 See Ferry (1995a) for more details regarding the characteristics of the WHO/GPA surveys and a detailed assessment of the data quality.

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