Does Saying ‘On the Down Low’ Help Spread HIV As Much as Guys Actually on the Down Low?

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A quick Google search reveals Queerty‘s used the term “down low” at least 100 times before. The term, of course, is regularly used to describe “straight” black (and sometimes Latino) men who have sex with other men behind closed doors, but don’t consider themselves gay. It’s an interesting phenomenon — even Oprah has talked about it! But what if all our fascination with black guys on the down low is actually helping HIV spread?

One of the usual storylines that goes along with black men on the down low is that they’re having sex without condoms; putting a condom on would somehow affirm that they were indeed having sex with another guy, and, ewwww, gross!

Bareback sex with other dudes, of course, is a hot zone for spreading HIV, especially when those men go home to their wives and girlfriends. Which explains why HIV infections are seven times higher among black men in the U.S. than white men — and 20 times higher for black women than white women.

But all our talk about guys on the down low, and our curiosity about the phenomenon, could actually be making things worse. Researchers behind a new study published in Social Science & Medicine argue use of the phrase “on the down low” actually “stigmatises and exoticises this behaviour as an issue unique to black men,” writes AIDSMap.

The term itself — coined by black communities in the early 1990s, apparently — was originally meant to describe the want for discretion, and had nothing to do with sexuality. But as it was co-opted for the purpose of describing “behind closed doors sex,” the phrase “has functioned to reinforce men’s sense of masculinity and membership in the African-American community,” say the researchers in the article “Moving beyond ‘the Down Low’: a critical analysis of terminology guiding HIV prevention efforts for African American men who have secretive sex with men.”

Here, they’ve outlined their main problems with health professionals (or, um, bloggers?) using the term:

* It suggests that there is something unique and peculiar about African-American men’s same-sex behaviours that merits special language, whereas similar behaviours are found in men of other ethnicities.

* Discussion often assumes, but does not demonstrate, that men ‘on the down low’ engage in behaviour that is particularly risky for HIV transmission.

* It may also be assumed that these men are inherently gay, but are yet to embrace that identity. This characterises men’s self-understanding as flawed and dishonest.

* The way African-American men use the term is likely to change over time, and not all will agree on its meaning. However outsiders’ use of the term does not reflect this.

* The term is used as a simple label, without understanding the social, cultural and historical factors that drive behaviour.

For further reading, might we suggest:

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