It Ain't All About the Down Low

“There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the “down low” and African American men,” says Smita Varia, an activist with Advocates for Young Women of Color Leadership Council based in D.C. Sophie Godley agrees, “In some ways it’s good that this issue has been brought to light. But on the other hand ... it makes black women look like helpless victims with no power and black men look like evil liars. It doesn’t really help us at all get where we need to go with this disease.”

“Living on the down low”—a term referring to African-American men that hide their bisexual encounters from unsuspecting female partners and often end up infecting them with HIV—has been getting a great deal of media attention lately.

Yet most stories about the “down low” fail to go beyond the juicy headlines focusing on infidelity and closeted lives in the black communities. “The down low phenomenon has always been there, and it’s been in all communities—not just with African-American men,” says Godley, director of prevention and education at the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts.

The single-dimensional media overlooks the many factors that make African-American women in the U.S. more vulnerable to contracting HIV. The media spotlight also misses the many African-American women, who are working to solve this problem and the lack of resources and education they face in their communities. “You already have the image of being gang bangers, the image of being overly sexual—there are already all of these assumptions and racist things that are said about the black community,” adds Godley.

The “down low” phenomenon appeared in the headlines shortly after a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) based in Atlanta, Ga. The CDC found that AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 25-34 and is among the top four causes of death for African-American women between the ages 20-54. In 2003, African-American and Hispanic women together represented only 25 percent of all U.S. women, but accounted for 83 percent of AIDS diagnoses reported.

According to the CDC, there are three major factors that make young women of color—especially African-American women—being more at risk for contracting HIV. They are what the CDC labels sexual inequality, biological vulnerability, and socioeconomic factors.

“Sexual inequality” refers to the reality that many young women date older men—which makes it harder for young women to negotiate condom use. A CDC study of urban high schools across the country found that more than 33 percent of African-American and Hispanic young women had their first sexual encounter with an older man.

Biologically, women are twice as likely as men to contract HIV during vaginal intercourse and if you had an STI (sexually transmitted infection) before, it increases your chances even more. According to the CDC, gonorrhea and syphilis are higher among young women of color ages 15-24.

The socio-economic factors also create challenges for effective education and prevention. One in four African-Americans and one in five Hispanics live in poverty, which often leads to a lack of access to high quality health care and education and higher levels of substance abuse.

Lisa Diane White is a health education and advocacy program coordinator of SisterLove in Atlanta—the first nonprofit in Georgia to address the sexual health of African-American women and HIV prevention. White has seen many African-American men that believe in the conspiracy theory that HIV/AIDS was made by our government.

“When you’ve got a brother that’s talking all powerful and knowledgeable about this theory, and that he’s not going to use a condom because he believes it’s government-made—that’s just one more argument that keeps a woman from knowing her partner’s HIV status, and leaving her more at risk,” said White.

“But you have to meet people where they are,” she continues. “If someone believes in the conspiracy theory, you can’t dismiss that and then provide a prevention education.” White doesn’t argue with conspiracy believers. She instead shifts the focus of her workshops on protection against the deadly outcomes.

Candace Webb, 22, of Tampa, Florida, is one of 21 HIV/AIDS youth counselors across the country who work for Advocates for Youth’s Young Women of Color Leadership Council. She’s been a member of the council for two years, and she says she decided to get involved after a family member was diagnosed with the virus.

Webb has found in her work that one of the main reasons why young women of color are more susceptible to contracting HIV is that women of color are more likely to be sexually violated or abused at a younger age. And, Webb claims, the younger a woman is the more damage sexual abuse causes to her developing body. An adolescent’s cervix is less physically mature than an adult’s and, therefore, more vulnerable to infection.

“It’s also known that African-American women don’t have relationships as much ... outside their community. And with HIV rates already being so much higher within the black population, the chances of a black woman getting HIV from a black man is even higher,” Webb concludes. “In addition to so many black males being either in jail, on parole, or under house arrest—the pool of men available to African-American women is so infinitely small.”

To tackle these issues, Webb works with other young activists across the country to engage young women of color in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Through the Young Women of Color Leadership Council, Webb’s group educates activists through HIV film screenings, prevention trainings and advocacy work, such as contacting policy makers and media.

Webb also works to include young women of color in the decision-making process around HIV prevention in different communities and local boards. She believes that youth play a crucial part in preventing the spread of the disease. “How do you create messages for youth or youth of color around HIV prevention when there are no youth or youth of color on the board?” she asks.

Valerie Williams, an HIV/AIDS counselor and activist who works with the Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts and who is African-American and HIV positive, says the key to HIV prevention for youth is to educate them on what she calls “risk-reduction.”

“It’s not good to tell young people, ‘you shouldn’t do this’ and ‘you shouldn’t do that,'” says Williams. “We all know that type of method doesn’t work. If there is a behavior that is putting them at risk, our job should be to help them reduce the risk of that behavior.”

Williams travels to schools in and around the Boston and Cambridge areas of Massachusetts talking to young people about how she contracted HIV, and the importance of recognizing one’s risky behaviors.

But her charts and statistics of how the virus is on the rise don’t move many of the young people of color. “A lot of them think because there are medications out there, that they can just pop a pill and everything will be fine,” said Williams.

White thinks the media shares a part of the blame: “When you see Magic Johnson climbing mountains ... no one talks about the fact that these medications are almost as bad as getting chemotherapy.”

Smita Varia, project coordinator for the Young Women of Color Leadership Council believes that the media also promotes unsafe sex. “The way that the media portrays sex in general—you go on a date, and all of a sudden you’re having sex. Where is what happens in the middle? Where’s the communication aspect of it when you’re talking to your partner about safer sex?” said Varia.

The problem goes well beyond dating and extends to marriage and long-term relationships. According to Moné Barkley, the board member for COLOURS--a support and education center for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people of color based in Philadelphia, “The message has always been protect yourself, protect yourself—but what happens when you’re in a marriage? Why would someone who is trying to have children wear a condom with her husband?”

The CDC study concluded that women of all races and ethnicities are found to be most at risk of contracting HIV through heterosexual sex. In fact, 80 percent of HIV infections in the U.S. were contracted through heterosexual contact in 2003. Since 2002, the number of women living with HIV has increased in every region of the world.

“One of the biggest lies that the Bush administration has been telling people is that the safest thing to do is get married and stay in a long-term relationship,” adds Godley. “The problem with that construction is that most women who become infected with HIV are infected through their primary partner.”

Under the Bush Administration, federal support for “abstinence-only” education has doubled since 2001. It promotes abstinence from sexual activity without teaching facts about basic contraception. “Unless young people stand up and say ‘wait a minute, I need more than being told to say no,’ we’re going to end up with a whole generation of young people who never learned anything about their bodies,” says Godley.

For example, White has noticed in her HIV prevention work that many women don’t know about the female condom, and have no idea what to use if their partner refuses to use a condom. In addition to teaching about female condoms, White also conducts workshops on condom negotiation skills, and how to put on a condom in the dark and under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Microbicides are another form of protection that can be used by women independently from men. These are products, likely to be produced in the form of a gel, foam, or cream, that would substantially reduce the transmission of HIV—and possibly other sexually transmitted infections—when applied prior to sex. If final research trials are successful, scientists suggest these products could cut infection rates in half.

The CDC states that in order to be successful, “HIV prevention must address the diverse communities affected by the HIV epidemic.” This means that HIV prevention efforts must be more targeted and conscious of a person’s age, gender, sexuality, culture, and language.

Meanwhile, activists hope for a more in-depth public discussion about the rising rates of HIV among young women of color and stronger political support behind under-funded prevention and education initiatives.

“Don’t believe the hype about the down low,” says Godley. “It’s all about fighting racism and homophobia. It would help if we lived in a society where gays can say, 'Yes, here I am,' and not feel terrorized about that. Until then, HIV is going to continue to be a disease that people are scared of and not talk about, and that secrecy breeds behavior that leads to young people putting themselves at risk. “

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