Sexual networks and social capital: multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships as a rational response to unstable social networks

  • Robert Thornton


Multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships (MCP) are prevalent in southern Africa and have been identified as a primary cause of high HIV prevalence in this region. Sexual liaisons with multiple partners serve to increase the size and diversity of an individual’s sexual — and social — network and therefore to increase their social capital. This maximisation of social capital may minimise the risk to relationship(s) at the cost of maximising the biological risk of HIV infection. Many sexually active individuals appear to neglect their biological risk of HIV infection in order to maximise their ‘social capital.’ This would seem to  be irrational from the perspective of any individual actor, but on a larger social scale, this may give individuals better access to some social and economic goods. The article argues that people who are in unstable and less-connected parts of the sexual network are those most active in building their sexual networks, even where they are not especially promiscuous. However, such strategies may increase exposure to HIV infection in particular populations, such as intravenous  drug users, sex workers, and men having sex with men, as well as in  the general population of heterosexual southern Africans. What these high HIV-prevalence populations have in common is their participation in sexual–social networks in which individuals try to maximise their social capital by extending the diversity and density of their sexual networks. The discussion shifts analytic attention away from the notion of higher-risk sexual practices of individuals towards consideration for the structure and dynamics of social and sexual networks at a societal level.

Keywords: HIV/AIDS; HIV transmission; risk behaviour; risk perceptions; sexual behaviour; social behaviour; South Africa

African Journal of AIDS Research 2009, 8(4): 413–421

Author Biography

Robert Thornton
Department of Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, Wits 2050, Johannesburg, South Africa

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445