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November 21, 2008

HIV doesn’t care if you’re on the ‘down low’ or not

New infections of HIV continue to be on the rise across Ohio. Often, various misconceptions lead people to think that they are not at risk because HIV happens “to other people.” Many people fail to understand what is really happening and to protect themselves from HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

One such challenge is the “down low.”

The “down low,” or DL, has historically referred to African American men who--even though they have a wife or girlfriend--sleep with other men. They keep their male-to-male contact quiet, or “on the DL.”

Men on the DL are often thought to be a significant contributor to spreading HIV. The reality, however, is not that simple.

The DL stigma fails to acknowledge that anyone--regardless of skin color, background, gender, or sexual orientation--can choose to have sex with someone other than their primary partner. That choice can entail both opposite-sex and same-sex partners.

Does the DL exist? Yes, absolutely. It is much more common than most people realize. But is it to “blame” for the spread of HIV?

HIV does not discriminate. It does not care if a person is male or female, who is sleeping with whom, or who is sharing needles. All it cares about is having a human host with which to make a warm, cozy home for itself. When it comes to HIV, it does not matter who you are sleeping with; what matters is what you are doing, the type of contact you are having and whether or not that contact is protected.

When someone is feeling social and psychological pressure to maintain one life (such as the heterosexual model of family and children) while also attempting to be true to themselves (such as having same-sex partners outside of the home), often times safer sexual practices are harder to maintain. When balancing two lives, it can be difficult to ensure safety to one’s health, or the health of partners.

In Ohio, like the rest of the country, male-to-male sexual contact continues to be the number one behavior for new HIV infections. Perhaps this is why it can seem easy to blame male-to-male contact or the DL for the spread of HIV.

But that would neglect the entire picture. Almost half of the new infections have nothing to do with male-to-male contact. Women, men who only have sex with women, and individuals who share needles are also infected with HIV.

The longer that communities treat AIDS with misunderstood or misinterpreted thinking, such as “it’s a gay disease” or even “the fault of men on the DL,” the longer and harder it is to join together and work towards stopping its spread.

Prevention and knowledge are the keys to fighting this disease. Anyone who has had unprotected sex or shared needles should be tested for HIV. The test can be as easy as a mouth swab and completed quickly at any AIDS Resource Center Ohio location as well as local health departments and many other AIDS service organizations. As with many diseases, early detection is the key to successful treatment.

For information about HIV testing, services for those already infected as well as HIV prevention and outreach, see the website at

This World AIDS Day, take control of your health, get the education that can assist you, and get tested. Make World AIDS Day 2008 the start of your new sexual health resolution.

Jared Rose is a risk reduction educator with the AIDS Resource Center Ohio.




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