Down Low’s Media Herd Appeal

The central question journalists fail to answer in writing about HIV’s spread among straights

There is a basic problem that journalists writing about men living on down low have not confronted.

If it is true that men on the down low, or African American men who have sex with men but do not identify as gay, are a bridge for HIV between the gay community and heterosexuals, then how is it that this bridge has only started functioning in the past five or six years?

The answer is that if you want to write a dramatic and titillating story about how down low men are infecting unsuspecting women and fueling the HIV epidemic among American heterosexuals, you must ignore this question.

In The New York Times Magazine on August 3, Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote, “There have always been men––black and white––who have had secret sexual lives with men.”

The next day, in the Washington Post, Jose Antonio Vargas wrote of these men “They existed… long before the term down low became the subject of several newspaper and magazine articles.”

I couldn’t agree more. The phenomenon of men sleeping with both men and women is as old as sex, but Vargas added that a 2001 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “these men were identified as a major bridge for transmitting HIV to heterosexual women.”

Denizet-Lewis wrote that “Down Low culture has come to the attention of alarmed public health officials, some of whom regard men on the DL as an infectious bridge spreading HIV to unsuspecting wives and girlfriends.”

Here is the problem with these assertions.

In the 80s, HIV incidence, or the percentage of a population that is newly infected, and HIV prevalence, or the total percentage that is currently infected, were at their highest among gay men. How is it that these down low men avoided getting infected then? If these men were infected in the 80s, how is it that their wives and girlfriends were not in turn infected?

America’s heterosexual HIV epidemic is a fairly recent phenomena. The Times and Post writers agree that the behavior isn’t new, so how do they explain the “bridge” only beginning to function in the past decade?

Vargas just ignores the question.

Denizet-Lewis explains this by writing that “the creation of an organized, underground subculture largely made up of black men who otherwise live straight lives is a phenomenon of the last decade.”

The problem with that view is that HIV is spread by behaviors not identities and Denizet-Lewis admits that the behavior has “always been” with us. The fact that the behavior recently got a new name is irrelevant.

But there is another question that goes unanswered. It is implicit in this reporting that these down low men are dishonest. The assumption is that they are lying to their girlfriends about the sex they have with men. What is the basis then for believing these men when they say they have girlfriends, wives, or even sex with women?

Denizet-Lewis was particularly sloppy on this point. He spoke with a number of these DL guys and he never tells us why he chose to believe them when they claim to have sex with women while he also asserts that these men were lying to those women. These men may be lying when they say they have girlfriends.

As Kai Wright wrote in the Village Voice in 2001, the down low is “a way of organizing one’s life around the common trait of sexual desires, complete with a unique language.”

In personal ads these men describe themselves as a “serious DL brotha” or a “real roughneck nigga,” according to Wright. It is entirely possible that another DL signifier is the claim that one has a girlfriend or that you have sex with women. It is also possible that those claims are false.

What we see in many, if not all, of the stories about down low men is the need among journalists to manufacture drama and so we are given this false image of dangerous black men attacking women.

It is much easier for journalists to blame the spread of HIV on these scary, thugged-out, black faggots––that is the subtext in these stories––than it is to grapple with the complicated epidemiology of HIV in America.

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