Jul 21, 2010

Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani: A Review


If you’ve watched or listened to Elizabeth Pisani’s TED Talks on HIV, Sex and Drugs you’ll know that she’s a very forthright and engaging speaker. She’s a little racy, and could make a room of full of people squirm uncomfortably as she talks about transgender prostitutes in Indonesia or drug use in prisons with dirty needles.

Her 2008 book, Wisdom of Whores, is simply the boldest and most riveting book I’ve read to date about the business of AIDS – how it’s spread in various communities, the way in which politicians, scientists, and NGOs have responded, the impact of cultural and religious attitudes, etc. Her writings mainly draw from the work she has done in the last 20 years in Southeast Asia and eastern Africa. This personal experience adds a rich texture to the book and makes for a good and easy to understand read.

Given the amount of time she has spent in places like Indonesia and Thailand, this is where a lot of the focus lies. She writes very candidly (and sometimes graphically) of her conversations with prostitutes and brothel owners about their economics of their trade as well as the societal structure that fosters a system in which both men and women buy and sell sex. She also goes into great detail about intravenous drug use and the sharing of dirty needles that generally fuels the spread of HIV in this part of the world.

Pisani raises the point that many health authorities and donors have seemingly turned a blind eye to the spread of HIV through the sharing of dirty needles because it’s not a subject that taxpayers would be keen to have their tax money spent on. We are more drawn to the pitiful stories of innocent wives and mothers unsuspectingly infected by their husbands and partners.

This portion of the book was a bit overlong, but provided some very useful insights given that I was working under some very inaccurate assumptions. So, I am happy to have new information!

She also touches on sub-Saharan Africa, home to the highest prevalence rates. No earth shattering news in this section, but I do like how she talks about things many African leaders and the rest of us aren’t too keen to talk about openly about why HIV/AIDS remains a problem – inter-generational relationships (sugar daddies sleeping with young girls) and multiple concurrent relationships (both men and women).

Other issues tackled in the book are political and religious ideologies that have shaped the fight against HIV/AIDS; the former Bush administration features prominently with its misplaced emphasis on abstinence education at the cost of preventative measures such as condom provision. Muslim clerics and the Catholic Church do not escape unscathed either, and rightfully so.

I could ramble further, but I’ll leave you with this. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I learned a lot, had some myths debunked and reassessed some of my own beliefs and misgivings about HIV. I also appreciated the various insights from an “insider” about how funding is sought, given and spent. The business of AIDS is intriguing... 

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