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Abstract

While the incidence of HIV infection and AIDS amongst non drug injecting heterosexuals is currently low in the UK, epidemiological evidence suggests that this situation may be short lived. The sexual practices of young heterosexuals will then be crucial in determining the extent of the epidemic. Drawing on feminist theory, we argue that if we are to understand young people's sexual relationships we must attend to the power relations within which sexual identities, beliefs and practices are embedded. The social pressures and constraints through which young women negotiate their sexual encounters impinge directly on their ability to make decisions about sexual safety and pleasure. The power of young women to control sexual practices can then play a key role in the transmission or limitation of sexually transmitted diseases. From preliminary analysis of data collected by the Women, Risk and AIDS Project, we argue that the risks young women take in sexual encounters with men arise within a nexus of contradictions through which women are expected to negotiate safer sex practices. However well intentioned, public health campaigns aimed at women cannot be effective unless they recognise that men and women begin their sexual encounters as unequal partners in the battle against the sexual transmission of HIV.