Last Words on the Down Low.

Crossposted from TAPPED.

On Tuesday, I wrote about President Obama’s visit to The View today and suggested he bring up his new initiative to fight the HIV/AIDS in the black community. But as I predicted, Obama did not mention it, nor did he confront host Sherri Shepherd for blaming high rates of HIV/AIDS in the black community on the “down low” (DL) phenomenon – the theory that bisexual black men get infected with HIV by other men, and then go on to infect women who are not aware that their partners are having sex with men. The theory took off in the late ’90s and after several black fiction authors presented it as a common lifestyle. 

My tendency has been to dismiss the DL phenomenon because there is no hard data around it, while there is plenty of data showing the relationship between poverty, lack of health care, increased STDs, and HIV/AIDS. But I was pointed to a 2009 study that tackles the question from an empirical standpoint. And despite the frequently stoked fear of predatory and furtive gay black men, the researchers ultimately found that DL bisexual black men engage in essentially the same behaviors as bisexual black men who are not “down low.” Trenton Straube at Real Health magazine interviewed one of the researchers, Lisa Bond, who said:

Most of what we know about men on the down low has come from highly publicized accounts of just a handful of individuals who have been prominently featured in the media. And I think men on the down low—in particular black men on the down low—have been portrayed as dishonest and duplicitous heterosexuals and vectors of HIV transmission. We should touch on the whole notion that the down low myth is unique to black men. Which it is not. Men of other racial and ethnic backgrounds use the term down low to denote preference for privacy about their sexual behaviors, which may include bisexuality.

So, the term DL doesn’t always include bisexuality. But even more interesting, DL bisexual men who have unprotected sex with women are actually slightly less likely to have HIV than non-DL bisexual men who have unprotected sex with women. Forty-four percent of DL men who have sex with women have the disease, versus 56 percent of non-DL men.

Bond concluded:

We need to shift our focus away from the down low. It’s been used quite extensively to demonize black gay and bisexual men, and we need to shift our focus on to more meaningful issues that do drive the HIV epidemic among HIV communities of color and particularly among black gay and bisexual men. And those are much bigger issues like poverty and racism and homelessness and crime incarceration rates.

Can we consider this myth debunked now?

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18 comments to Last Words on the Down Low.

  • Darth Paul

    I’ve long considered the myth a shady homophobia tool used to generate distrust and divisive attitudes within Black America (not to mention the overt ‘at large’ implication that queer black men are extra-super-dirty and undesirable.

    Having said that, how does it matter to women *how* her man is DL? Most I know don’t like it in any context- promiscuity is promiscuity.

  • Scipio Africanus

    Not to mention, the DL fear craze doesn’t even make intuitive sense. It holds that, essentially, there is substantially *more* homosexual sexual activity among black men as compared to men within US society at large. For who? For what? (c) Ricky Watters. It never made any sense just on it’s face, even without the research to debunk it.

    Unfortunately, I always saw this as an unfortunate example of an ongoing internecine antipathy between the sexes, particularly within the black community in the US. The alacrity with which this nonsense was endorsed (by many women *and* men) showed a real antipathy, distrust, and readiness to buy into the worst about black men. It was sort of a bizarre updated on the men-are-all-dogs/scoundrels meme that’s been polluting people’s brains for centuries.

    • Darth Paul

      Definitely counterintuitive, particularly when the media presents the likes of Jim McGreevey and Ted Haggard so prominently. Where’s the DL outrage amongst white folks?

  • Tania

    If the DL theory IS true OR false, the conclusion everyone can agree on is that Black women are getting infected with HIV from BLACK men. Studies also say that 48% of Black women have herpes. Who is passing herpes to all of these ladies? When exactly are the headlines going to focus on the men and the profiles of the men who are behind these skyrocketing STD rates? Until we hammer hard on the fact that Black men are the source,anything short of that is NOISE!

    • Christian

      Promiscuity from all sides is the culprit- both Black men and women. Why on Earth would we only profile one-half of the problem? Let us focus on both of them in an attempt to determine why many of society’s segments have turned into jackrabbits.

    • April

      If the DL theory IS true OR false, the conclusion everyone can agree on is that Black women are getting infected with HIV from BLACK men.

      Not really. They could have various sexual partners, not to mention that the virus can be contracted through other (though not as common) means.

      But anyway, I agree with Christian. Saying “OMG the nasty black men are infecting black women. What’s wrong with them?” isn’t really going to help.

  • Christian

    Oh, and, by the way, the DL theory is irrevocably, absolutely, indubitably, and patently false.

  • Both genders having unprotected sex with numerous partners is the problem. The whole “men are infecting women” is just a blame game. Who are the men sleeping with?

  • Thank you as well. There are DL white men which is really closeted gays in all races. HIV/AIDS is not a gay disease.

  • I’m afraid these comments illustrate the fundamental difficulty in having a rational understanding of HIV/AIDS. The truth is that, outside of the unique epidemiological conditions of sub-Saharan Africa, and most cerainly in the developed world, the people who become infected with HIV are men who have sex with men and people who use intravenous drugs. That’s uncomfortable for us on a whole number of levels, but it’s true, and has been true since the very beginning of the epidemic.

    The DL phenomenon in particular, it’s true, is discussed with far too much supposition and far too little care. But the idea persists because of a simple fact: we have compelling evidence that men dramatically underreport having sex with other men, and compelling evidence that this dramatically inflates the rate of HIV infection among self-reported heterosexual men. In that context, the DL idea is understandable, if not helpful or particularly accurate.

  • Freddie, where’s your data? I don’t think anything “has been true since the very beginning of the epidemic” (and what are you counting as “the beginning”?).

    DL should be out the door-no doubt. It’s way too easy to pick a target and blame it. (As far as I understand, viruses aren’t all that selective.)

    • Christian

      Thank you, feralchick. The truth is not that DL is fact. It most certainly is fiction. The only fact is that more people are not taking responsibility in their sex lives, no matter their sexual identity. The reason men may not report sleeping with men is not relevant to the DL theory. The reason arises from the mass stigmatization of homosexuality, especially in many Black communities where homophobia is just as rampant as HIV/AIDS.

  • Tania

    Thanks Freddie for replying. And especially looking at the AIDS epidemic in Africa where it all started should be the example for the American Black “community,” but it’s not. All those poor young African wives who get infected with AIDS and haven’t slept with anyone EVER except their husbands who get it from prostitutes and bring it home. Just like how the Out of Wedlock birthrate is now approaching 80%, the HIV among Black women will keep increasing because they limit themselves to a small pool of BLACK MEN WHO SET NO LIMITS to who they’ll have sex with. Educating yourself on how to get the hell out of the Black “community” will save your life, ladies. Run.

  • Steve

    How do they differentiate from “DL” and “Non-DL” because there are ALOT of shades of grey in there.

  • Kaira

    We have to admit that there is a problem. I personally advocate abstinence for the very same reasons mentioned. I have been recently infected with HIV by ONE partner who was on the DL…not sleeping around with multiple partners. I was the “front” girl he could take home to the family while having the “real” relationship with a man. I often tell people it only takes one person and one decision. But by the same token, people are not being honest with themselves about their sexuality. Even in marriages you have men who are struggling with same-sex attractions. I am an African-American women who asked all the “right” questions. However, deception and denial are a strong combination for severe consequences. I can also say that I live in Atlanta and we are considered the Gay, Black Mecca with the highest number of HIV cases. And it is also said that 67% of homosexual men make-up the new HIV cases. In addition, young African-American women are among the newly infected at alarming rates. So how are they getting infected! Yes unprotected sex with men…be it bi-sexual or hetrosexual only contact. I have girlfriends who know their husbands are cheating and will tell them to make sure they strap-up less they bring some disease home. WOW! And many believe it is with women that their men are being unfaithful. We are not even phathoming that the infidelity is possibly with a man. Even so, we have to be responsible for our OWN lives! I have begun to think that the word monogamous in relationships has diminished. People are losing there minds and not facing the reality of HIV infection!

  • [...] of the moralizing over sexual promiscuity and handwringing over the downlow myth won’t do anything to address the problem. That being: HIV exists, and [...]

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