Scared Straight: High HIV Rates Among Black NYC Women Frighten a Health Reporter

Tomika Anderson

My longtime lover and I were driving through Harlem when we passed a billboard that made me want to slam on the brakes and pull the car over. On it were two women -- one Black and one Latina -- their pretty, youthful faces in lights. But under their pictures was a statistic that sucker-punched me: 93.4 percent.

As in, 93.4 of all new HIV cases among women in NYC occur among Black and Latina women.

As in a mere six-plus percentage points away from 100?

"Oh, hell no!" I thought, and then turned to my boo and asked, "When was the last time you took an HIV test, again?"

Letting Down Our Guard

Sadly, the question I posed -- which I certainly haven't always -- is one that not enough of us are asking our partners. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a majority of the newest reported infections among women in that city were obtained during heterosexual sex. And the number of newly infected Black women is on the rise: The latest count (which covers the first half of 2009) is up nearly 2 percent from 2008.

The astronomical figure hits even closer to home for me: Not only do Black women account for more than 66 percent of all new cases (beating Latinas two to one), but the group of sistas getting infected fastest are 30 to 39 years old -- an age when many of us are getting married or are trying to be married. When many of us are having children. When many of us -- myself included -- figure, hell, I've been in this long-term relationship for a while . . . I can let down my guard and trust my partner. Right?

Clearly, wrong.

Three days later, I got my second HIV test of the year.

I went because even though my sexual partner and I have assured each other of our negative statuses, I have never actually seen his paperwork; nor has he seen mine. Plus, even though I'm pretty sure he's not an IV-drug user, and I don't think he's slept with (or is sleeping with) men, I don't know that for sure -- particularly since we are not in a committed relationship. To put it simply, I am at risk. If I hadn't seen that billboard and then thought enough to call the Department of Health to learn more, I don't think I would have fully understood at just how much risk I actually am.

Getting Infected During Our 30s

That made me think: If I write HIV-related stories for a living and I'm not fully informed about my risk, how informed is the average sista?

To find out, I hit up a friend who runs a Facebook community called Married to Me, a mostly Black, women-only group that advocates for healthy living -- mentally, physically and spiritually.

We posed this question to its membership of 2,000-plus women, mostly in their 30s and 40s: Which group has the fastest-growing rate of infections in New York City? The options were Black women, 16-25; Latina women, 35-44; Black women, 30-39; and Latina women, 18-27.

Only seven women ventured to guess, and all of them got it wrong.

The answer is C, but all of them said A, mistakenly believing, as many media messages suggest, that this is a youth-driven epidemic. But because the topic was broached in a safe, nonjudgmental community space, scores of women now have the right answer and are armed, in turn, to empower others. (Interestingly, all four brothers who answered the same question on the male version of the site -- Married to Me for Men -- got it right.)

Real Talk

For me the issue is how am I going to better protect myself, knowing what I now know. Fortunately, my most recent HIV test came back negative, but since a few of my trysts have been unprotected, I have scheduled a follow-up, since HIV sometimes takes up to six months to detect. I have also instituted a firm no-condom, no-love policy with my lover. He is cool with that and even smiled when I opened a conversation recently with, "No more guest appearances for Mr. Condom -- he's here to stay."

My boo says he was tested less than six months ago, but I plan on telling him, "I'll show you my paperwork if you show me yours" the next time we're together. And I've decided that safer sex is a topic I can and need to bring up with other sisters I trust, since it's a part of everyday life. Besides, I can use the encouragement to continue making safe, healthy choices regarding my sexual health.

In the end, I'm realizing, we must be our sisters' keepers. We've got to have these discussions on social-media sites as well as in our living rooms, at the bus stop, in the workplace and at the nail salon. We need to have real talks that include facts and figures. Just as we babysit each other's kids, cook for each other when we're sick and listen to each other's relationship problems, sometimes we just need to ask our sister-friends, Do you know your HIV status? Are you protecting yourself?

Tomika Anderson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Essence_,_ POZ_,_ Real Health and Ebony magazines, among others.