When we last spoke with Allison Carter for our Community Researcher Biographies, she was working with CHIWOS as provincial coordinator for British Columbia. CHIWOS is Canada’s largest community-based longitudinal cohort study, with 1,425 women living with HIV enrolled across BC, Ontario, and Quebec, and expansion now underway to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Today, she’s working towards a PhD at Simon Fraser University, under the supervision of Dr. Angela Kaida, with support from a CAHR/CIHR Doctoral Research Award. She hasn’t left CHIWOS though, and is digging into the wealth of data that CHIWOS has gathered since its official launch in 2013.
Allison’s PhD centers on relationships and sexuality among women living with HIV. Rather than focusing on sexual risk as many studies do, Allison is instead focusing on the more rewarding aspects that can come from sex and intimacy. “I am using the data we’ve collected in CHIWOS over the last several years to characterize women’s romantic and intimate relationships in a holistic and comprehensive way and examine associations with positive measures of sexual wellbeing such as pleasure and overall satisfaction,” she explains. Allison’s preliminary work on this data has looked at the type of relationships that women are having. “In that work, we found quite a bit of diversity in women’s relationships,” says Allison. “Nearly half of the women in our cohort report being in no relationship and we see in analyses that this is associated with older age, depression, and/or stigma. Meanwhile, about one-fifth of women are in happy, loving, sexually active long-term relationships, most often with partners who are HIV-negative. Others pursue sex in casual dating relationships, while some are in serious relationships without sex.”
“We hope our research can help destigmatize HIV in the general public and normalize the range of experiences of sex and intimacy among women living with HIV,” Allison says. “We hear from a lot of women that we work with that stigma and fear of rejection present tremendous barriers to pursuing love and relationships, and we see that in our findings. Part of our goal is to help change the research and larger cultural narrative surrounding HIV towards something more positive so that women can lead fulfilling relational and sexual lives, however that may be defined for women.”
To have worked for CHIWOS as staff and now as a researcher is turning into a very rewarding experience for Allison. “Working for five years in the field has made the first year of my PhD much easier. Now I’m really excited to be working on something that is not only interesting and meaningful to me personally, but is also meaningful to the community of women living with HIV I work for and with.” The Doctoral Research Award provided by CAHR/CIHR has given Allison the extra support she needed to make the leap to graduate school. “The grant is enabling me to spend the time that I need on my research instead of working full time with another job,” Allison explains. “I don’t think I could be doing what I’m doing now with my sanity intact and my spirits high without it!”
The Canadian Association for HIV Research is proud to support students like Allison through annual Master’s and Doctoral level research awards in Basic, Clinical, Epidemiological and Social Sciences.