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The Rising HIV Rates Among Young Women and Girls of Color: What's Going On? Part One

January 25, 2011

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Kellee Terrell: Jennifer, the work that you do at HEAT: How difficult is it for you to get straight men of color engaged?

Jennifer Irwin: It's difficult. I think it's very similar to what Tracie just said. I think a lot of the work, what happens with a lot of agencies not unlike our own, is that you have these three populations that you reach out to, or that end up walking in your door: young men who have sex with men, transgender youth and young women of color.

I think this is a failing on our part as well, that we don't put in the type of energy or time or resources around reaching that particular population unless they are partners of our young girls, or unless they come to some of our events, and may come back for services. I think a lot of that speaks to a couple of things we've been talking about so far today. I think a lot of it speaks to the way the funding is stratified out there. The grants that come out now are either grants that serve young men who have sex with men or grants to serve young women of color. I've been here eight years; I've never seen a grant come out to serve young heterosexual men that we could even apply for.

Claire Simon: And there hasn't been.


Jennifer Irwin: There hasn't been. I think the assumption is that they get locked into female-centered funding as partners, quote-unquote, of the female girls. So I think that's a big piece of it.

I also think, like Tracie said, it's who is yelling the loudest, who is knocking on the doors. In Albany, or in New York City, it's folks who are advocating for young men who have sex with men, and folks who, like Tracie, advocate a lot for young women. And I think there isn't a whole contingency of folks who are advocating for heterosexual men. I can't think of any, actually.

Tracie Gardner: There are not that many advocating for young women!

Claire Simon: I know. I know.

Jennifer Irwin: Those of us doing work on young women and sexual risk of HIV (mostly) and STDs partner more often with LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender]-focused groups. So it's easier to work with Gay Men of African Descent than it is working with Girls Inc. or the Deltas. The challenge of getting HIV "recognized" as issue of concern across the silos is difficult when orgs are not LGBT based.

Claire Simon: Right.

Tracie Gardner: Right. Exactly.

Jennifer Irwin: I think that's where the line is drawn. And I think it's a failing on all of our parts to not address this population. It just doesn't get addressed.

Tracie Gardner: Not to place all of the blame on AIDS, Inc., because there has been a failure of creativity and will on the part of folks who should be raising a ruckus with us to the policymakers. There's no reason why HEAT and the Boys Club can't work together in Albany around young people's health. There's no reason not to be working with local chapters of fraternities, in terms of the community work they're doing. There's no reason not to be working with some of the vocational programs that are working with young men, trying to get employment skills around their health.

We've got to get to them. AIDS needs to go to the places that are not AIDS, and say, "You've got to deal with AIDS." And how do we work together?

Kellee Terrell: I want to shift gears a bit. Earlier in the discussion, we were talking about how much societal value is placed on being in a relationship with a man and the pressure to hold on to him by any means necessary. I hear stories from older women going to family reunions where the first thing people ask is not, "What are all these great things you're doing at work?" It's, "Are you married?" "Do you have a man?" "When are you going to get a boyfriend?" "When are you going to have kids?"

"Unfortunately your worth seems to be correlated to whether you have a man or a baby. How much of this attitude is trickling down to our young girls?" -- Kellee Terrell

Unfortunately your worth seems to be correlated to whether you have a man or a baby. How much of this attitude is trickling down to our young girls?"

Claire Simon: This attitude is definitely affecting young girls and women, because these attitudes are very prevalent in our society. I have personal issues with it because I do get those questions all the time. Regardless of how many master's degrees or Ph.D.s I have, how much money I make, or what I'm doing, it doesn't matter.

Tracie Gardner: Right. What we're handed down, in terms of the message, is that your worth is judged based on your ability to have and keep a male partner. It flies in the face of the statistics -- particularly in the African-American community, where we are struggling around the notion of a black man and a black woman being together. And especially with President Obama and Michelle's marriage being so broadcasted, there is a sense of obsession with ...

Kellee Terrell: Black love.

Tracie Gardner: Yes, black love. And even in the most twisted of ways, it's a symbol and it's a beacon that resonates for a lot of people. Therefore, we embrace it, because we are told it strengthens the community.

Kellee Terrell: And it's also pressure for black women to be the ones to make those efforts to keep that black love together.

Tracie Gardner: Exactly. But look at the statistics of there being a lack of quote-unquote viable black men. So many black men in parts of this country happen to have involvement with the criminal justice system on a regular basis. And we can talk about the reasons and whys of that. But the reality is that the prison and the prison policies of a particular jurisdiction tend to hew real closely to the HIV prevalence numbers in different parts of the country.

And so prison health, and community health -- I've talked about this a long time -- it creates an imbalance in communities, where the ratio of men to women is such that men naturally, so to speak, have an ability to choose from a greater number of women than women have to choose from a greater number of men. Because on average, the man is not in the community, and that encourages concurrent relationships. It encourages closed sexual networks in closed communities. The epidemic that's happening in certain parts of the South and certain parts of New York City is not unlike the epidemic that was popping up in the gay enclaves in the '80s, when HIV was first rearing its head.

Claire Simon: When we talk about the male-to-female ratios -- I don't even know how much it is now -- one man to every three women, four women, five, or whatever. But when we're thinking about that, we're not thinking that this goes back to this whole notion of, "Oh, well, at least he comes home at night. At least he gives me money. Oh, at least I have a man."

It goes back to the notion of what is fueling this epidemic. Because I may be with someone who I know is with other women. But because he calls me every Tuesday, and we have a date every Wednesday, or he comes over and leaves me some money then that's what I do.

How do we really begin to break that? How do we begin to have honest conversations in our communities around that? That could be very well what's putting us at risk. That is what's putting us at risk for infection.

Part two: The panel discusses more about how poverty, race and gender inequality increase HIV risk for young girls of color.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Kent Denning (Pacifica, CA) Fri., Jan. 6, 2017 at 4:05 pm UTC
Great forum and a good article for all of us at "AIDS, Inc.". The comments speak well of the internal dialogue that we all have around sexuality and survival.
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Comment by: Pastor Concerned (Phoenix, Arizona) Fri., Jan. 6, 2017 at 1:00 pm UTC
The only way to effectively address this issue is to enter the battlefield that is most effective in enticing people to be sexually active and appealing only to the arousal factor with no emphasis whatsoever placed on safety, risk, or responsibility.
It is entirely impossible to effectively change this dynamic with getting this information out to the males that are largely responsible for the infecting of females.
So, commercials, as well as the interjection of discussion of responsibility and caution should be a requirement television show encouraging the engagement of sexual activity.
The sexual revolution which has experienced unforeseen nuances and liberties in the last few years has had an incredible effect on this phenomenon. Since society has empowered and incorporated into the realm of acceptability, to a large degree, the LGBT lifestyles, emphasis has shifted from the concerns of contracting HIV to the establishment and push for more acceptance and entrenchment into the bedrock of society for LGBT issues.
However, because of the huge part of human interaction that sexual relations occupies, this issue unaddressed has surged due to a lack of emphasis on and focused warnings and consistent public awareness efforts. It's almost as if HIV has been cured, the way the warnings have disappeared from the public forum, which I believe is central to the increased diagnosis that is heartbreaking.
A/A family life is the most fragile as it has been under attack since slavery and every government experiment or change of agenda, like frogs in the ecosystem, A/As are effect, due to a constant quest for betterment which they were so deprived from for generations. This rest lenses has cause a vulnerability, die to a lack of foundational stability that a proper family unit, replete with traditional values instilled from one generation to the next would naturally pass down..
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Comment by: Eric (Bismarck, ND) Sun., Dec. 18, 2016 at 7:38 pm UTC
Education and prevention is key. I would imagine that reaching whatever demographic is having sex with this demographic would be important, but that might take some people leaving their comfort zone in a day where we dance around the real root of problems at the expense of those who can do little to protect themselves.
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Comment by: roger (fla) Mon., Aug. 22, 2016 at 3:10 pm UTC
I believe that the rise in HIV is contributed the prison system. Where were there a large pop. Of aids. When these guys come on the street the y should be screen more. Tm
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Comment by: Robert Russell (Atlanta Georgia ) Sun., Jun. 26, 2016 at 4:03 am UTC
this is an excellent article
I was intrigued by the article for two reasons 1 I have a 19 year old daughter 2 I worked for an organization that provided free HIV and Hep C testing not to mention that some of our grants where i CDC or HIV testing and prevention grants.
I can see the need for going beyond the traditional walls of schools and health centers to educate people.
the church and the community at Large must participate an education prevention testing and abstinence seminar
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Comment by: R. Loggins (Chucago, il) Thu., May. 5, 2016 at 2:41 am UTC
Stop! Stop perpetuating this fallacy - uhgg. The higher numbers of AIDS in the AA community can be largely attributed to the fact that AFRICAN immigrants are included in these numbers and African immigrants are 6x more likely to have AIDS than there American counterparts. Also it affects heterosexual Africans at a higher rate - many who are born with it. The African continent ALSO has had the highest rate of legal immigration to the US since the 90's.

These numbers are calculated without country of origin for the black community (although they are broken out in the Hispanic community in many studies) SPECIFICALLY to further the negative narrative and stereotypes of AA's. Teenage black girls are NOT more promiscuous or risk takers than their beer pong, binge drinking heroine addict white counterparts - stop it!
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Comment by: william jones (detroit) Mon., Apr. 18, 2016 at 8:05 am UTC
I realize the focus here is on health issues related to sexual activity. Another important issue that should be addressed is the financial aspects of child rearing. This cycle of state support to these young mothers really should be put in check. In addition to overcoming this power struggle with these men with no sense of responsibility, these young girls need to be taught o sense of financial responsibility.
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Comment by: Erica (Nh) Thu., Apr. 7, 2016 at 6:11 am UTC
They are not telling themselves that, doctors are telling them that!
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Comment by: Brenda (Oakley, CA) Thu., May. 3, 2012 at 12:39 am UTC
I really enjoyed reading the whole conversation.I was diognosed 2009. I got it fom my husband, who did many things behind my back. He used heroin, which lead to him sleeping with whomever had what he wanted. Enough anout that.
The day I was told. I was devistated, thought I was gonna die. So, now that I know I'm NOT gonna die. My goal is to bring awarness & prevention to my community.To talk to youths anywhere that I can.My 11 year old talks to her friends & educates them. At least the ones that stick around to listen.I'm so proud of her.
The only support thats in nmy area is the Rainbow communtiy center. & to be honest,I didn't feel welcomed. I'm not a gay man or a gay women. So basicaly there 's nothing for straight people. So I started a small group in Pittsburg & working on getting word out that I'm here to support you & to listen to you. This is my calling. But its going to be a very long road.Baby steps to glory.
I believe people need to see AIDS/HIV signs more often, more commercials ect.
Great job ladies.
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Comment by: Christine Makena (Nairobi,Kenya) Tue., Feb. 8, 2011 at 2:16 am UTC
I like your views and contribution in trying to control the HIV/AIDS pandemic among the youth.Young people should be involved more in healthy activities to occupy their minds so as to keep them away from negative activities.atahis is because at this age they have a lot of energy,so many ideas and they want to experiment hence the need to push them into productive activities.
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Comment by: Justified (Little Rock, AR ) Sun., Feb. 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm UTC
What saddens me is the fact that the African American Community has for so long push things aside they don't know how to face tings head on thinking we always were struggling. Now I say to mu friends we need to talk about it, even if it's not you, if it's someone you know or don't know it affects you this is our community! I had the experience of going to an event held by the AAF in Little Rock, my dismay their were more Caucasions than African American. They attack this with strength and character. Why do we "African American" Women and Men, look at this as danger? No matter how a person contracted the fact remains getting them to a point where they can access better judgement from that day forward, and access better judgement before it happens. Where does it start and will it ever end. We talk until no more words are spoken and everyone still walks around like it could never happen to them. Aids and Me!
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Comment by: Graham (Little Rock, AR) Wed., Feb. 2, 2011 at 10:38 am UTC
This was FANTASTIC! My heart breaks for all the young women who only know this type of "love".

The only type of love they really need is to love themselves and protect their bodies and hearts at the same time. If he REALLY loves you, he'll strap up, be faithful and get tested! Nothing is better than a Woman's peace of mind. How does this message get out? How does it become ingrained in their heads? How do you teach people to respect themselves when they learn from their family a completely different set of values?

God bless you Ladies and the work that you do.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Real (Little Rock, AR ) Sun., Feb. 6, 2011 at 2:19 pm UTC
First It starts with knowledge and a solid strong bond within our community inwhich we don't have. The problem is for so long young lady's in our community never knew anything other than we lay we get payed, pleasure became an object of being taken care of. Trust became an object of distrust. I am a single mother and I tell my daughter often take care of you, no one else will and protect yourself at all times, the feeling will be more profound if you insist he wears a condom, because no one will ever disclose what's going on with them. To that I add, no one told me 19 years ago...

Comment by: Reuben K.Harpole,Jr. (Milwukee) Thu., Jan. 27, 2011 at 8:18 pm UTC
No strait anwsers. I had the medical person of our county jails tell me one day "The black community is in deep trouble" I asked why? He said that the men in the jails are have sex in prison and coming out and having sex with their girlfriends anthere wives and giving the HIV. Now that is one way in which this is spreading.
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Comment by: Rena Greifinger (Boston, MA) Thu., Jan. 27, 2011 at 2:05 am UTC
Thank you so much for initiating this powerful and informative discussion. Your passion really came through in your candid and informed remarks. I was particularly struck by the realization that so little attention/funding is paid to young heterosexual men of color. We work with many of these young men and are always struggling to find funding and mentors for programming geared towards them. If you have any ideas, please share! Thanks so much for all of your incredible work.

Rena Greifinger
Director, One Love Project
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