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When You Know Better, You Do Better, Part 3

The Third in a Series Exploring Issues Raised on a Recent Episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show

October 26, 2010

I want to start an organization to save my life.
If whales, snails, Chrysler and Nixon can be saved,
the lives of Black men are priceless and must be saved.

-- Essex Hemphill

Phill Wilson
With a few notable exceptions, heterosexual Black men are largely absent from the fight against HIV/AIDS. And, why wouldn't they be? When the subject of straight Black men and AIDS comes up, it is almost always in the context of men on the down low -- or worse. When straight Black men do get involved, they are often met with hostility or suspicion: People demonize them or call their heterosexuality into question. Almost no programs, interventions or messages target them, which helps perpetuate the myth that they are not in the line of fire.

Are Straight Black Men at Risk of HIV Infection?

According to recent estimates, one in 22 Black Americans -- including one in 16 Black men -- will become infected with HIV during their lifetime. Over 40 percent of new infections among Black men and women occur among heterosexuals. About one-third of those occur among straight Black men. For example, in 2009 Washington, D.C., published a report depicting HIV rates among heterosexual men and women in several low-income, predominately Black neighborhoods. It showed that 1 in 25 straight Black men (and 1 in 16 Black women) had already been diagnosed with HIV, which city officials believe to be a significant underestimate.

HIV infection among men occurs when bodily fluids -- blood, vaginal secretions, breast milk or semen -- containing HIV come in contact with your blood or penetrate other mucus membranes. The term mucus membrane describes the type of skin that lines your mouth, nose, ears and other parts of the body that become exposed to the external environment. During sex, this typically means the vagina, the urethra -- the hole that men and women urinate through and which men also use to ejaculate -- the foreskin (in uncircumcised men), the mouth and the anus.

Being heterosexual does not protect you from these facts of human biology. Nevertheless, many straight Black men believe they are not in jeopardy of becoming infected with HIV because HIV does not pose as great a risk to men as it does to women. To a degree they are correct: It easier for a man to infect a woman than for a woman to infect a man. But having less risk than someone does not mean you have no risk at all. Women can and do infect men. For example, a woman can infect a man if she has HIV and her vaginal fluid or blood enters the man's urethra. (If you have ever been infected with an STI, this is probably how it happened.) Men can also become infected through the microscopic tears that often occur in the head of the penis during sexual activity and masturbation (they occur in a woman's genitals as well), as well as when they have an STI. Having an STI significantly increases your HIV risk. Today, an STI epidemic exists among Black men and women.


But probably the most efficient way that HIV is transmitted occurs when someone injects drugs or gets their body pierced or tattooed or with contaminated, unsterilized instruments. How many people do you know who have a piercing or a tattoo?

The bottom line: If you are a Black straight man who has ever had unprotected sex with a woman who had HIV or whose HIV status you did not know, you placed yourself at risk for HIV. If you have a tattoo, piercing or have had unprotected sex with someone who has a tattoo or piercing and you can't guarantee that the instrument was sterile, you have placed yourself at risk for HIV. If have ever injected drugs or had unprotected sex with someone who has injected drugs and you can't guarantee that the needle was sterile, you have placed yourself at risk. If you have ever had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive man or a man whose HIV status you did not know, you have placed yourself at risk. It is as simple as that.

If you are not certain that your partner is HIV-negative, you can become infected every time you have unprotected sex -- whether you do it because you enjoy skin-to-skin contact; because condoms don't feel good, don't fit you or make you loose your erection; or because you think your partner doesn't look like someone who would have HIV.

It's Bigger Than You

In addition to your own risk, most Black men become fathers. The very same behaviors that put fathers at risk also jeopardize our sons. You also need to join this fight to protect your daughters and sisters. AIDS is a leading cause of death for Black women ages 24 to 44. Ending the AIDS epidemic could save your son, or your daughter, or your sister's life. It could also save your mom. AIDS has become one of the top-10 killers of Black women ages 45 to 64. You may or may not be a father or brother, but every Black man is a woman's son.

AIDS is decimating Black communities, and the battle against it cannot be won without straight Black men's active involvement.

If you don't step up, who will?

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This article was provided by The Black AIDS Institute. It is a part of the publication Black AIDS Weekly. Visit Black AIDS Institute's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
See Also
When You Know Better, You Do Better, Part 1
When You Know Better, You Do Better, Part 2
More on Heterosexual Men and HIV/AIDS

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