The promise of vaginal microbicides configurations of women's empowerment in a time of HIV

Van der Zaag, Annette-Carina. 2012. The promise of vaginal microbicides configurations of women's empowerment in a time of HIV. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

In this thesis I offer a feminist theorisation of the development of vaginal microbicides: female initiated HIV prevention methods (vaginal gels, films, sponges and rings) developed explicitly to empower women in the HIV pandemic. They are currently being tested within clinical trials which have produced mixed results and are on-going.

In this thesis I reflect on the development of vaginal microbicides as a biomedical intervention that promises a transformation of gender dynamics voiced in terms of women’s empowerment as well as a material protection against the HIV virus. I approach the development of vaginal microbicides as a feminist-biomedical process constitutive of the microbicide/woman they investigate and advocate. As such, I aim to contribute to theoretical debates surrounding female-initiated HIV prevention by suggesting a different set of theoretical tools in order to capture the various modes of enactment at stake.

To this end I set out a performative approach to the body and scientific development, through Donna Haraway’s ‘cyborg myth’ and Karen Barad’s ‘agential realism’. Building on the arguments of various Science and Technology Studies scholars such as Bruno Latour, Annemarie Mol and Nelly Oudshoorn, I conduct a textual analysis of clinical trial reports, advocacy documents and various journal articles based on social science studies. I argue that biomedical process tends to constrain what I understand as the microbicide’s ‘material-semiotic potential’ and the configuration of its potential user. Moreover, the trials themselves operate with a conception of power, and of the trial, that does not allow them to consider biomedical investment as itself constitutive of women’s vulnerability. Ultimately, the thesis presents and critiques what happens to feminist ideals in the trials, and concludes that despite those ideals, and despite the ethical concerns with women’s vulnerability within the trials, the pursuit of the promise of microbicides has not engaged with the full complexity at stake.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)


HIV, Microbicides, Feminist Theory, Materiality

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



11 July 2012

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

03 May 2013 12:23

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 11:19


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