By Jabari Asim
Monday, August 11, 2003; 10:17 AM
WASHINGTON -- "We can keep it on the down low. Nobody has to know," R. Kelly once crooned in his trademark silky style. Kelly, an R&B superstar best known these days for his indictment last year on child pornography charges, scored a hit with a catchy ode to infidelity way back in 1995.
While the song may be nearly forgotten, its title -- "Down Low" -- remains very much in vogue. In current lingo, it describes black men who secretly engage in homosexual relationships while maintaining wives and girlfriends. Last week, both The Washington Post and The New York Times featured articles on the down low or "DL" lifestyle, which experts link to the soaring rates of HIV infection among African-American women.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that black women accounted for nearly 64 percent of HIV cases among women in 2001. In 25 states with long-standing HIV reporting, the rate of HIV infection among African-American women ages 20 to 44 was four times higher than the rate among Latina women of the same age, and more than 16 times higher than the rate among white women. The leading cause of infection is heterosexual contact, according to the CDC. In other words, there's a whole lotta cheatin' goin' on.
The recent news coverage of men "on the DL" follows last month's publication of a controversial new study of sexual habits in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. David P. Schmitt surveyed 16,288 volunteers -- single, married and gay -- from all around the globe. He found that men on average said they wanted 5.95 sexual partners over the next 10 years. Women said they wanted 2.17.
The study has stirred up a long-standing debate among scientists. Schmitt, an evolutionary psychologist at Bradley University, believes the results help explain why men are more likely to be unfaithful. Promiscuity may be hardwired, he contends, like physical characteristics we inherit from our parents. Other scientists argue that the male inclination to sleep around is learned behavior, reinforced by a culture that values sexual experience in men.
Unfortunately such discussions don't shed much light on the disquieting DL phenomenon. Neither culture nor biology can justify the baffling behavior of black men who engage in unprotected sex with other men, then go home to infect their wives and girlfriends. Obviously, black men aren't the only males of the species living the DL life. But, as the numbers show, the consequences have been far deadlier.
Some men on the DL celebrate it as an act of defiance that frees them from the hidebound restrictions of society. Others see it as an inevitable reaction to the homophobia often found in black communities. Both perspectives fail to acknowledge that choosing to spread the risk of HIV virus to unsuspecting mates is the moral equivalent of terrorism. Careless jumping from partner to partner differs little from entering a crowded bus with explosives strapped around your waist. It may take longer for your victims to die, but you're blowing them up nonetheless.
However misguided their methods, suicide bombers have at least deluded themselves into believing they act on behalf of a cause. Down low men who carelessly spread disease can make no such claims. While homophobia is loathsome and inexcusable, it is not a license to kill. Blaming personal dishonesty and reckless behavior on anti-gay attitudes is like using racism as an excuse to rape and steal: It simply doesn't make sense.
Men on the DL aren't the only members of black communities with an apparent aversion to monogamy. To growing numbers of African-Americans, personal responsibility has become an inconvenient notion that gets in the way of getting one's groove on and "keepin' it real." Messages expressing the need to practice safe sex and attend to the needs of our families have not found receptive audiences, hindered in part by the contradictory example of too many prominent black men.
Jesse Jackson has fathered a child out of wedlock. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume fathered five children out of wedlock when he was a very young man. NBA forward Shawn Kemp has fathered seven children out of wedlock. The popular rapper known as Ol' Dirty Bastard has fathered 13 kids by "at least six" women, according to a recent VH-1 documentary.
While heterosexual straying is not so closely linked to AIDS, it is still cheating, and contributes just as much to the breakdown of African-American families. In that sense, straight philanderers are as DL as their secretly gay counterparts. Down low? Actually, low down is more like it.