The Lowdown on the Down Low

The sort of brotherly love that sisters fear?

(In 2004-05, there was a rash of scuzzy stories, some bad books and a lot of hype about a new phenomenon in the Black community.  Straight Black men were supposedly creeping around on their wives and girlfriends and having sex with (wait for it) gay men!   A former Columbus, Ohio resident named J.L. King put out a ghost written book about it, suckered Oprah into doing a show about the down low and prompted an annoyed activist to write a book of his own debunking King’s tall tales.  In 2005, I wrote this article about it).

You can be forgiven if the term “on the down low” doesn’t mean anything to you.   If you’re a conscious African-American woman though it may be a reason for you to suddenly give the fish eye to your man.

The term “down low” or “DL” has various meanings but The Black AIDS Institute defines it as “Black men who consider themselves heterosexual but who also have sex with men without telling their female partners.”  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) uses the term, “MSM” which stands for “men who have sex with men.”  For some African-American men, they do not identify with the white-orientation and political terminology of being “gay.”

For a Black woman being on the DL means you may be secretly sharing your man with another man.  That was the stunning message of J.L. King’s 2004 bestseller, On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep With Men.  In 190 pages, King, a former Columbus resident, documents a largely anecdotal story of his own experiences as a down low brother who enjoyed sex with black men while being married to a black woman.

King’s story was featured on Oprah and in a New York Times Magazine feature about Black men on the DL.  Black women, the target audience for King, snapped up copies of the book and swapped stories on how to note the tell-tale signs of DL behavior.   There were shocking stories in the media of rocketing HIV infection rates among Black women.  King related a litany of grim statistics in his book.

“…the AIDS rate among black women is three times higher than among Latina women and eighteen times higher than among white women.  Today black women make up more than half of all women who have died from AIDS in the United States.  African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, yet we now account for nearly 50 percent of all new AIDS cases in the United States.  Sixty-eight percent of all new AIDS cases are black women, 75 percent of whom contracted the disease from heterosexual sex.”

Black women were turning up HIV positive in shocking numbers.  Why and how was this happening?   Along came J.L. King with an answer that seemed simple, understandable and plausible.  Black men were having unprotected sex with each other and then passing it on to Black women.

First, black people, have been trained to internalize and repeat the very prejudices used against us.  Second, a few opportunistic blacks are all too willing to tell white America exactly what they want to hear about us.  And third, white America is all too willing to publicize and promote controversial black figures who are severely ill-informed.

In 56 words activist and author Keith Boykin shreds On the Down Low.

Debunking the down low phenomenon is the purpose Boykin’s new book, Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial In Black America.  Boykin is an activist, president of the National Black Justice Coalition and served as Special Assistant to President Clinton on gay, lesbian and civil rights issues.  Boykin says he didn’t want to write a rebuttal to King’s book, but when the hype over it refused to settle down he felt obligated to respond.

“I really didn’t want to write about the down low.  I’m sick of the down low,” Boykin said in a telephone interview with an audible sigh.  “My only purpose in talking about it now is to get people to stop obsessing, hyping it and sensationalizing.  It’s been blown out of proportion as this huge global issue that it is not.”

Boykin says that King originally approached him to ghostwrite his book, an offer Boykin refused when he concluded King was motivated solely out of a urge to make a buck.

“When I found out what J.L. King’s book was about I was really alarmed.  He asked me to write his book and I declined,” Boykin said.  “Reporters kept calling me and asking me to comment.  I told them what I thought, but it seemed there would be a huge article full of misinformation King was spreading and there would be a little, tiny quote that would say, ‘Keith Boykin, an activist, disagrees’ I realized there was no way to respond to it without writing a book.”

Boykin's book attempted to debunk King's scary tales.

On the Down Low is a pretty lousy book.  Perfect for reading on an airplane, but too anecdotal and smutty to be taken as the definitive word on Black male sexuality.  King releases his next book,  Coming Up From the Down Low, in April.  According to an interview in The Southern Voice, the purpose of the sequel is to “…more or less try to heal the turmoil among African-American women.”  That’s sweet since that turmoil was no small part caused by King’s alarmist book.

After soaking in both books I now feel that I know far more about the DL than any heterosexual man should.  I understand why King’s book went off louder than a bomb among Black women.  King confirms their worst fears:  Black men are all dogs and don’t mind dicking anything that doesn’t move too fast.  On the Down Low takes one man’s irresponsible sexual behavior and blows it up into a national crisis for Black couples.

Boykin has created the better written, better researched and more serious book in Beyond the Down Low,  but I’d be surprised if it had even a fraction of the impact of King’s raunchy horror show.  First impressions have a way of becoming lasting impressions and Boykin has the unenviable task of trying to debunk a popular book that already has a foothold in Black culture.

The CDC says African American women are most likely to be infected with HIV as a result of sex with men, a point both King and Boykin agree on.  However, while King cites irresponsible Black men lying about their sexual orientation as the primary cause, Boykin agrees with the researchers that the definitive reason Black women placing them at risk has yet to be established.

Boykin thinks he knows why King’s book found a receptive audience among Black women.

“Nobody had any good explanation for why HIV infection rates were going up for Black women.  So along comes somebody to say the DL is the reason why everybody said, ‘It seems to make sense.’  The only problem was the AIDS rates weren’t increasing for black women.  They were declining.” Boykin says.

“It’s sad that the media hasn’t told that story, but it’s been there in the CDC data for anyone to see.  Part of the problem is people don’t understand statistics and I think J.L. King doesn’t understand statistics.

Remember where King says Black women made up 68 percent of all new AIDS cases?  Not so fast, says Boykin.

“He used some statistics in his book that completely distorted the reality of the AIDS epidemic and everybody in the media assumed it was true.  In King’s book on page 10 he mentions that 68 percent of all new AIDS cases were Black women.  It’s not true,” Boykin says.  “It’s 18 percent. That’s based upon a basic misunderstanding of statistics.  It’s 68 percent of all AIDS cases among women are black women, not of all overall cases.  That’s a critically important distinction because women make up only a small percentage of overall AIDS cases in this country.”

“King’s representation that Black women are 68 percent of all new AIDS cases is giving people the completely inaccurate perception that Black women are at greatest risk for AIDS and there’s no evidence of that”

The world didn't need a sequel, but it got one anyway.

Boykin hastens to add that there are twice as many Black men diagnosed with AIDS than Black women and adds, “We do have a AIDS epidemic in the Black community.  We make up 13 percent of the population but we’re 54 percent of all new AIDS cases.  People need to understand how to process the information correctly.”

The down low is a juicy story, but like King’s book, it is short on hard facts.  Black men on the down low, just as gay men generally, aren’t likely to bare their souls to government researchers.  The CDC can’t say that the down low is a major cause of rising HIV rates among Black women.  Poverty, denial, high-risk behavior, substance abuse and higher rates of other sexually transmitted diseases are listed by the CDC as among the factors that spread HIV.

“It fits into a long process of the demonization of our sexuality,” Boykin says.  “This story demonizes all Black sexuality from my perspective.  It demonizes Black men as predators and it stigmatizes Black women as diseased and undesirable.

“I wanted to figure out how we get beyond the blame game because blame alone isn’t going to solve the problem.  Demonizing men on the down low will not make them straight.”

(This article originally appeared in The Columbus Post in 2005.)