Black Women and HIV/AIDS

A discussion of HIV/AIDS and communities of color on the June 22, 2010 episode of The View is causing controversy for its spread of misinformation relating to the cause of Black women’s HIV/AIDS rates.

On the episode, Sherri Shepherd–who is a regular host of the show–along with comic D.L. Hughley–who was a guest–were discussing the FDA ban on blood donations from gay & bisexual men, when talk turned to men living on the “down low”–men who live straight lives but engage in homosexual sex.  Here’s the exchange:

Hughley: When you look at the prevalence of HIV in the African American Community, it’s primarily young women who are getting it from men who are on the down low.  That’s the thing.

Shepherd: The down low is black men who’ve been going out. They are having sex with men and they’re not telling their girlfriends or their wives that they’re gay and their husbands, as well. And it’s very prevalent with African American women because they come home and have sex with their wives or their girlfriends. And they’re not telling them that they’re gay.

Shepherd: It’s so big in the Black community with women because they’re having unprotected sex with men who have been having sex with… with men.

Indeed, as this story with Dr. Kevin Fenton (Director of the CDC’s’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention) reports, Black women comprise 61% of new HIV infection cases among women.  According to recent research, 80% of those cases are coming from women engaging in heterosexual sex.  This data is but the tip of an epidemic iceberg for African American women.  As the above piece states,

At 61 percent, Black women have an infection rate nearly 15 times higher than White women. Latina[s] represent 17 percent of all new HIV cases among women. White women are only 15 percent.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and these figures trend to perhaps the most startling of them all: AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women between the ages of 25 and 34.

The things is, recent research disproves the “down low” phenomenon as the cause of these high rates.  As Dr. Fenton described: “In fact, we have looked to see what proportion of infections is coming from male partners who are bisexual and found there are actually relatively few. More are male partners who are having female partners and are injecting drugs or using drugs or have some other risks that may put those female partners at risk of acquiring HIV.”

In short, the rates are high largely because of unprotected “straight” sex.

Shepherd and Hughley were undoubtedly reporting what they thought they knew, something akin to contemporary “common sense” knowledge of HIV/AIDS and communities of color.  It is, in part, the result of various campaigns in the 90s to spread awareness of the virus and disease within these same communities, campaigns which largely promoted increased use of condoms.  At the time, HIV/AIDS prevention efforts often targeted segments of these communities which they viewed as “high risk.”  “Straight” men living on the “down low” was one such target.

I recall some HIV/AIDS prevention materials being disseminated throughout San Francisco’s Mission District at the time which were specifically targeted to such men.  From literature in bars and community centers, to large billboards in the heart of the barrio, there was a clear message being spread.  The same kinds of materials were common in my home across the bay, Oakland.  There I saw the results of campaigns directed at both Latinos and African Americans.

Science–and the HIV/AIDS prevention community–knows better now.  This will hopefully make for more effective efforts to stem the spread of the virus.  It certainly needs to find greater purchase within the campaigns that are now being developed to target communities of color.

Yet the effect of these educational efforts of the past–when considered against a sociocultural context that continues to be disproportionately disconnected to current scientific information, as well as far too often nurturing of homophobia–will mean “common sense” understandings like Shepherd’s and Hughley’s will continue to spread within these communities.

The response of GLAAD to this episode (while perhaps lacking in empathy of the larger context) is important.  All organizations who care about these issues–and this should include far more than those who identify as queer organizations–need to confront misinformation with the truth, and do so in a vigilant manner.  More importantly, organizations which already have an authoritative voice within our communities need to step up to the plate and  begin to take a greater interest in the problems that are slowly killing us from the inside out.

For more information visit:

Black AIDS Institute:
My Sistahs:
Office of Minority Health:
National Minority AIDS Council: