Study: Men's 'Down Low' Sex Often Stereotyped
Researchers Say Media Attention of Down Low Behavior Is Misdirected
June 15, 2005 -- Media attention has recently lighted on men who have sex
with other men "on the down low" (without telling their primary female
partner about it). Now, researchers say the reality doesn't always match the
Mainstream coverage of down low, or DL, behavior has often featured the
black community. For instance, author J.L. King's 2004 book On the Down
Low: A Journey Into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep With
Men hit The New York Times' best-seller list and was featured on
Oprah Winfrey's TV talk show.
But the DL also exists in other communities, as CDC researchers told the
2005 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta.
More than a million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, according to
another report presented at the conference. Nearly half (47%) are black, 34%
are white, and 17% are Hispanic. Men account for about three-quarters of HIV
cases. By risk group, men who have sex with men represent the largest
population living with HIV (45%) followed by high-risk heterosexual contact
New HIV infections are rising among blacks, women, and people who get the
virus through heterosexual contact, says the report.
"As a society, we need to challenge our assumptions about why
African-Americans, men who have sex with men, and other populations are at high
risk for HIV," says Phil Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS
Institute, in a news release.
"Broad labels like 'down low' and misdirected attention on small subsets
of the population do little to advance HIV prevention," he continues.
"Instead, we need to focus on reducing specific behaviors that place both
men and women at continued risk."
Down Low Data
The CDC's R.J. Wolitski and colleagues studied 455 men from 12 cities. All
of the men said they had sex with other men and had had unprotected anal sex
within the last year. The men also said they were HIV-negative or had not been
tested for HIV.
First, the men were asked if they knew what "DL" meant and if it
described them. Almost three-fourths knew the term; of those men, more than a
quarter (28%) said they were on the down low.
Analyses showed that the study's black men were most likely to identify with
the term, followed by Hispanics and whites. Men who called themselves gay were
less likely to be on the DL than those who did not describe themselves as
Men who have sex with men on the DL are a "significant minority" of
at-risk men who have sex with men, especially among blacks and Hispanics, say
Many of the men were at considerable risk for contracting and spreading HIV,
whether or not they were on the DL, say the researchers. They call for HIV
prevention programs aimed specifically at men on the DL.
Two-thirds of the men said they had had unprotected anal sex with either a
male or female partner. Those numbers were similar for men on the DL and those
not on the DL. However, men on the DL were more likely to have had unprotected
anal sex without knowing their partner's HIV status.
Men on the DL were also more likely to have had female sex partners and to
have had vaginal sex. Most of the 49 men reporting vaginal sex said they didn't
always use a condom.
Only 18 men said a woman was their main sex partner. Most (12 out of 18)
said that woman did not know that they were having sex with other men.