As we prepare to recognize National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day, a new research study has served as a wake up call for a community that might have gone too far. The Center for Disease Control now estimates that 1 out of every 32 black women will be infected with HIV during her lifetime. Although black women represent only 14 percent of the US female population, they constitute 66 percent of all new HIV infections. The infection rates of black women in the United States rival those in the Congo and Kenya.After hearing about this alarming study and realizing that I have daughters that I have to protect, my mind starting racing. I thought about the things I’ve observed after countless conversations with other black men and interacting with black women in the dating pool. I also thought about what I’ve read and analyzed as a social commentator and scholar, thus coming to these conclusions:
1) We must take a serious look at the prison industrial complex: The war on drugs sent hundreds of thousands of black men to prison for long periods of time. This dramatic move was no less devastating to the black family ecosystem than removing an entire species from the animal kingdom. Women have fewer men to marry, the children of these men grow up without fathers, and men come out of prison without the ability to provide for a family. Additionally, the fact that we’ve decided to make prison rape into some kind of joke at cocktail parties means that many lives are lost when women are infected by the men for whom they’ve been waiting.
2) Too many black men don’t go to the doctor: A scholar reached out to me stating that he does research on heterosexual black men (not just the downlow brothers that Oprah likes to talk about). The researcher took a random test for Chlamydia at a local barbershop. During the test, it was determined that nearly half (45%) of these men were infected with the disease, and none of them knew they were infected. In a world where mass media encourages black men to have sex with anything that moves, it’s frightening that there are men who’ve literally slept with 5 or 10 women per year for the last several years and have never taken an HIV test.
3) Most of the women in the study didn’t know their own status or that of their partners: It was bad enough when many men began teaching each other to be irresponsible in their sexual choices. Things got worse when women started to behave like men. While we can continue scapegoating gay and heterosexual men for the problems with the spread of HIV, many of our so-called “good Christian black girls” are “gettin it in” in their own little sexual revolution. Not that sex is a bad thing, but many of these women have been led to believe that you can do whatever you want and are completely safe as long as you wear a condom. So, the next time you share your body with the guy who swoons you with smooth words and nice smile, remember that there may be hundreds of other women who’ve shared the same man.
4) Many African Americans are delaying or walking away from marriage: I am not here to thump a bible and promote the values of marriage, for we’ve all seen the tragedy and financial devastation that occurs during divorce. But the deterioration of the black family has occurred largely because many of us don’t know the first thing about what it takes to keep a marriage together. The answer does NOT lie in a damn Steve Harvey book (the last thing we need is for women to start thinking like men).
Without judging one way or the other, the fact remains that when people get married, they usually have sex with fewer partners than they did when they were single. So, the 30-something year old black woman who might have focused all of her energy on one man suddenly finds herself going through 2 or 3 guys per year and promptly ends up on the wrong end of an STD exam. It happens regularly, but this quiet epidemic is hardly something that any of these women would advertise on the six o’clock news.
Life would be a lot simpler if every 25-year old black woman was assigned a 42 -year old mentor who could be honest about the consequences of her sexual choices. Unfortunately, sex is like going to the bathroom: Everyone does it, but no one talks about it. We then end up repeating the mistakes of our predecessors.
5) We seem to forget that there are STDs other than HIV: While everyone loves to focus on the deadliest and most highly publicized sexually transmitted disease, HIV, we often forget that there is an equally-alarming rise in the percentage of black folks being diagnosed with Herpes, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, HPV and Syphilis. So, checking your partner’s HIV status, quite frankly, isn’t enough. The sexually promiscuous person who brags about his/her negative HIV test may be carrying other “goodies” that can be yours for just one drunken night in the sack.
The fact is that sex in America has become dangerous and serious. While getting tested, checking your partner’s status and protecting yourself are incredibly important, this may not be enough. Instead, we must reconsider the systemic, cultural and personal factors that keep us from building sustainable families. We must also think about how these factors encourage us to engage in risky behavior (yes, black men and women are influenced by hip hop artists who brag about having sex with hundreds of women at the same time). There is no such thing as 100% safe sex, so perhaps the old fashioned idea of respecting your body might apply from here on out. Either way, something needs to change, and following the crowd is a great way to end up dead.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.
Jsais: It’s official, I’m practicing celibacy……for-real!