Protect Yourselves, Ladies
Young or Old, Black Women Continue to Be at Higher Risk
When I started working here at Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN) more than a decade ago, I heard of women infected during the 1980s who thought they weren't at risk because "it's a gay disease."
Now, working on this issue, I've heard of recently infected women who didn't think they were at risk because they thought that "it's a gay disease."
Of special concern today is the fact that black women make up 66% of all new infections among women in the U.S.
"I Thought He Loved Me"
A former co-worker here at TPAN went to another organization and was astounded at the number of newly diagnosed young women he sees, including middle-class, black college students.
He said that when he asks them about condoms, they tell him, "I thought he loved me" or "We've been seeing each other for a while." "One girl told me, 'I've been with this guy since I was 16. We've broken up once or twice, but he would never do anything to hurt me.' One of the women had a partner who was recently in jail for drug possession. Most of them saw the HIV ads on the [Chicago public] trains, but didn't think the message applied to them."
He explained their reasoning. "They weren't sleeping around. They weren't prostituting. Some of them already have a kid with their partner. If they get with a guy close to their age, they expect him to be HIV-negative. Their life was so heterosexual and their man was straight and not on the down-low. They didn't think they were at risk at all. 'How did it cross over to me?'
"It crossed over with unfaithful men and not knowing what they're doing and who they're doing it with," he said. "The black community still thinks it's only the promiscuous and the drug users who get infected, but if you're having sex, you're at risk."
What he finds especially disturbing is the emotional manipulation he sees being used against the women. He has seen women test positive during pregnancy, and when getting the news, the male partner showed no emotion or seemed to be supportive ("this doesn't mean we have to break up"). My friend interpreted this as an indication that the man wasn't surprised to find out she was positive, because he already knew he was. "The fact that the women are getting tested first lets the guy off the hook," he explained. "He lets her think that she infected him or he doesn't get tested at all."
He also sees newly infected senior citizens, both male and female. They didn't worry about sexually transmitted diseases because they weren't worried about pregnancy. "Seniors definitely didn't believe they would be positive this late in life. Remember, their generation didn't test," he said.
The seniors tell him that they may have had sex "once, two years ago or twice, three years ago." Although shocked, he says they repeat a common saying among African American churchgoers, "God didn't put more on me than I can bear, so I will deal with it."
At a nearby clinic specializing in HIV, another service provider said so many seniors have been newly diagnosed, there was thought given to opening a special program.
"The women are over 50, their children are grown, they're starting to date, and coming up positive," she said. "They are 60, 70, 72. The numbers are really high, and they're like, 'I don't believe it.' They say, 'I'm a grandmother. What am I doing with an STD?' I met a lady today. She was 68 years old."
A long time ago, I heard a black gay man say that women are equally to blame for their infection for not insisting on condoms. This sounded so wrong to me. It made me realize that vulnerability is one thing, culpability is another.
At the same time, I remember the words of community advocates who point out that there's also something wrong when you don't protect yourself.
I struggled over my former co-worker's comments about the young men who must have known they were positive when they got a woman pregnant and the idea that men like them shouldn't be demonized.
In the middle of my struggle, my co-associate editor, Keith Green, walked in, fresh from graduating with his masters degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Keith has been a source of enlightenment, love, and understanding about HIV in the black community in his many years of working here at TPAN. He has become a powerful force at the national level. I asked him about what he's learned and how he thinks I should proceed. "That's your story," he told me. "Everybody is to blame. How do you talk about these men? You balance it out. What they did is absolutely wrong, but you encourage the women to step up.
"Mental health is needed on both sides," Keith continued. "Something's got to be wrong with you to knowingly infect someone. But something's not quite right with you if you're not protecting yourself. That opens up a big can of worms. Why do black people disproportionately need mental health? Maybe we don't, but we just lack access to mental health services, or we lack trust in those services to help us and not harm us.
"There's a segment of the gay community that's trying to prove that women are not being infected by down-low men," he said. "There's no data to prove this one way or another, but my impression is that many women are, especially black women. I keep getting into conversations about stigma and mental health. You have a recipe for disaster."
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