Addressing the Rise in HIV Rates Among Young African-American MSM

With the summer months soon approaching, we here at AIDS Survival Project usually see a rise in the number of people testing positive for HIV. Young African-American Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) 18-26 years of age are testing positive at a disturbing rate. Over the past couple of months, the majority of our clients that have tested positive have been young African-American males. What is the reason for this increasing rate of infection among young African-American men? Is it because of casual sex, online dating, and sex parties? What can we do to prevent or decrease the rate of infection? These are just a few of the questions for which we are searching answers. This is of great concern to us both here at AIDS Survival Project and within the African-American community.

In the month of March, 50% of our clients who tested positive were African-American youth between the ages of 18 and 26; in the month of April, that percentage rose to 75%. Many of those testing positive for HIV are diagnosed with AIDS when following up for medical treatment. These percentages are too high. This is of great concern to me. Young African-American men must start practicing safer behaviors.

Risky behavior and unsafe sex is not an option in this day and time, not to say that there ever was a time. With the prevalence of casual sex, sex parties, online dating or "hooking-up," as it is commonly called now, it is imperative to practice risk reduction techniques. It only takes a few seconds in the midst of your passionate casual encounter to take the precautionary measures, which may possibly save your life. Condoms and lube are available from AIDS Survival Project at no charge. Until further advances in science provide better prevention tools such as microbicides or the HIV vaccine, we must use the tools we have that are proven to reduce risk.

I've spent a lot time checking out various online dating sites. Some things I've seen are quite disturbing. Although these sites allow advertising for friendships, dating and/or relationships, they seem to encourage casual encounters, sex parties and anonymous sex. Even though dating sites require the user to post personal attributes about himself such as age, height, weight and HIV status, you can't always believe what you read in a personal ad or profile. They allow you to be as open and as honest as you want yet still remain anonymous. Honesty is the keyword in this situation, and people are not forthcoming about their HIV status. So, online daters, beware: when you read a personal ad or profile that says the person is HIV negative, it may or may not be true.

What can we do to prevent or decrease the rate of infection? We have peer counselors you can talk with during normal business hours at ASP, and in the Prevention Department, we have HIV counselors if you have any concerns about your risk. THRIVE! Weekend at AIDS Survival Project offers a workshop called "Conscious Sex" that I would encourage young African-American men to attend. If you lack condom negotiation skills we can help. Get to know your partner, even if he is only a casual encounter. Dialogue is a good thing; talking reveals a lot of useful information as to whether this is an encounter you really want to pursue. This dialogue can be the opportune time to discuss issues of status and risk-reduction methods and alternative means of stimulation.

I'm encouraging all African-American MSM, young and older, to come in and get tested. We offer free rapid HIV testing, with your results the same day. You don't have to come to AIDS Survival Project to get tested, but please, Young Brothers, get tested! We hope that this article helps you come up with some solutions and safer sex goals that will help our young African-American men reduce their risk and make better choices.

Maurice Bell is an HIV Pre- and Post-Test Counselor in AIDS Survival Project's Prevention Department.