Published on 5 April 2023 | Simon Moore

In marketing, mavens are individuals who spread information about products without expectation of reward. This concept has been used to understand health information behaviours before, but not around sexual health, and not in a Southern African high HIV prevalence context.

In a recent mixed methods study, supported by Avert and the University of Derby, I expanded the concept of health mavenism to sexual health mavenism to explore the sexual health information behaviour of internet-connected young men in Zambia and better understand how to support their role as transformative agents supporting peer sexual agency.

The quantitative arm of the research used an online survey to test the hypothesis that higher levels of knowledge, self-efficacy and digital health literacy, and lower levels of stigmatising attitudes, would predict higher sexual health mavenism in young Zambian men aged 18-24 (n=106). The qualitative arm used semi-structured interviews and thematic analysis to explore 15 participants’ experiences around accessing and sharing information to contextualise the survey data.

Barriers and facilitators

While the hypothesis wasn’t supported, the thematic analysis provided interesting insights into why, revealing other factors that may have important relationships with sexual health mavenism behaviours.

Firstly, it highlighted a wider understanding of digital health literacy in this context and attitudes to trust and truth, with proactive skills and strategies being used to develop personal truth around sexual health both on and offline.

“Most of the times yes [I trust], but at time I need to recheck because it’s not everything that comes from Google that is accurate, so maybe if I get some information from Google I’ll have to do a background check and check on sources…”

Secondly, participants spoke about strong cultural and social norms creating powerful taboos around sex, and communication about sex, that impact how young men learn about, share, and self-censor on the subject.

“In Zambia it’s most tradition consider it as an abomination to talk about sex and sexual related issues, so that is the number one barrier. Our culture kind of terms these things as an abomination. And once a youthful person is able to talk about these things they [adults] feel they are running astray.”

The third theme was around a responsibility to act, with young men motivated by feelings of social responsibility around sexual health knowledge sharing.

“I feel it is very much part of my duty to be able to share knowledge, to share materials with others, in order to make the community and society a better place to live in.”

The final theme was around changing times. Changes in sexual health knowledge, attitudes, and social norms are underway in Zambia, but these changes are unfinished, and they are also still challenged by others who feel traditional ‘African’ values are threatened by ‘Western’ values.

“This is one of the debates around especially in the remotest areas. We feel that once you have case of the Western culture and talk about issues of sexual health, depression, anxiety, those things they are for the West, so that is the biggest barrier we have.”

Overall, the study has a number of implications for sexual health organisations. Firstly, information quality issues exist for both on and offline ways of sharing information, so holistic approaches are needed.

Simon Moore

Avert’s Director of Programmes

What does it mean for sexual health organisations?

Overall, the study has a number of implications for sexual health organisations. Firstly, information quality issues exist for both on and offline ways of sharing information, so holistic approaches are needed. Furthermore, trust in health workers and teachers is mixed and talking about sex with parents is felt to be very difficult. There is a resulting preference for talking with peers, but while peers are the most trusted and important links in the information chain, participants recognised that their peers are not always the most reliable and accurate information givers. The clear implication is that these peer ‘mavens’ can be a force for positive or negative change depending on whether they have the right information.

So what actions can health organisations take to increase the level of accurate information shared by young Zambian men with their peers based on these findings? Firstly, more needs to be done to support the digital health literacy of young people. In addition, we need to look at new ways to develop online peer education roles to ensure young people are sharing accurate information with their peers. And as young men clearly valued anonymous ways of asking questions, digital tools like chatbots and online Q+A resources should continue to be explored as useful way to reach and engage them.

Mavenism provides a promising research lens through which to understand the sexual health information behaviours of young men in Zambia and elsewhere.

For more information about the research contact Simon Moore. With thanks to Fiona Holland, Amy Baraniak and Caroline Harvey at the University of Derby Behaviour Change team for their support. 

Photo credit: Corrie Wingate. Photos are used for illustrative purposes. They do not imply health status or behaviour.