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.
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?
-- Shani O. Hilton
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