1. Denial: Save the Children!
"Folks honestly still are in that place that 'It just won't happen to me.' Or, 'My husband is not going to sleep with a woman other than me.' Or, 'There's no such thing as a crack whore as it relates to my life,'" says Linda Burnette of Youth Outreach Adolescence Community AIDS Program (YO ACAP), an African-American HIV/AIDS organization in Philadelphia, Pa. She was referring to the "epidemic of denial" among African-American heterosexuals when it comes to acknowledging HIV risk.
Actress and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph recalls once saying onstage, "If sex could be death for men, then women cannot be far behind." The response she got was a vivid example of the HIV denial that persists among many African Americans: "That was one of the times that I received hate mail," Ralph says. Many advocates say the denial is caused by difficulties African Americans face in talking publicly about HIV, risky behaviors and, above all, sex.
There is universal concern that young African Americans will prove to be denial's biggest casualties -- especially adolescent girls and young women, whose HIV rates are already almost as high as black women in general.
"The least progress is among young people who feel that they are immune," says Dr. Beny Primm of Addiction Research and Treatment Corporation. "About 75 percent of young people, by the time they reach 12th grade, have had oral sex. In most instances, it's unprotected."
Even the most devastating statistics, such as the fact that African Americans have accounted for 40 percent of all U.S. AIDS deaths, can't compete with the perfect storm of denial and ignorance, which conspire to prevent young people from protecting themselves.
What you can do: Break down the wall of silence surrounding HIV, risky behaviors and sex. Talk openly and honestly about these issues with friends and family -- and, of course, your sex partners. If you want advice on how to initiate these talks, contact your local HIV/AIDS organization. Need help locating it? Check out The Body's nationwide list.