In honor of April being STD Awareness Month, Bill Johnson II suggests more black men get outside their comfort zones and talk about STD and HIV prevention.
I am a Clinical Psychologist, licensed to practice in both the United States and Australia, and currently residing in Melbourne, Australia. And I hate talking about STDs. Hate it! First of all, the very thought of them ruins my erection or terminates a good sexual day dream. Despite my misgiving, this is an important and timely topic which warrants exposure.
For some reason, as a culture we have trouble portraying Black male sexuality positively, without it being about avoiding either disease and oppression. One might conclude that the academic focus on Black male sexual behavior pertaining inflexibly to disease and oppression itself constitutes a racist distortion of Black male sexuality. Furthermore, this rigid focus on sexuality inadvertently deflects attention away from African American men’s individual attitudes about their sexuality.
In 2010, Black men accounted for 70% (14,700) of the estimated 20,900 new HIV infections among all adult and adolescent Blacks. The estimated rate of new HIV infection for Black men (103.6/100,000 population) was seven times as high as that of white men, twice as high as that of Latino men, and nearly three times as high as among Black women. One in 16 Black men will be diagnosed with HIV at some point in their lifetime.
The reasons for these rates of infection are multiple and complex. African Americans, like all ethnocultural groups are more likely to be romantically involved intra-racially, thereby increasing the likelihood of transmission within the Black community. Additionally, there remains a lack of resources and adequate health care services in low income areas where African Americans are disproportionately numbered. The mistrust that Black men have towards the health care system as a result of historical and present marginalization of this group also prevents those at risk from receiving adequate care. Finally, the culture of silence exacerbated by fear, stigma and homophobia pushes those infected or at risk to the margins and prevents some individuals from being tested or seeking intervention.
To be clear, the silence around sexually transmitted disease is not a phenomenon unique to African Americans. This issue is pervasive within the broader U.S. culture/context. Institutionally speaking, the media and both scholastic and mainstream journals are not tenacious in addressing STDs. Anecdotally, as someone who has been a student and held professorships at predominantly white universities, based on my experience these issues are not discussed across ethnoculturally diverse environments.
Coming to think of it, I have had countless discussions over the past month about racism, sexism, sexual behavior, rape, religion, and a host of other issues. However, I cannot recall one discussion about sexually transmitted disease with friends or family. Obviously my limited experience is by no means a representative sample, yet I can’t help but wonder how many others are operating with this same avoidance/denial tactic. Such an approach will only exacerbate the rate of infection.
I also agree with Dr. Boyce Watkins that African American churches should be leading the charge in encouraging discussion about STDs within the community as opposed to colluding in this culture of silence around sexually transmitted infection.
This is not about demonizing individuals who have acquired an STD; demonizing is little more than cowardice which allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our own behavior while scapegoating others. Furthermore, it also makes it more difficult for anyone infected to seek testing and inform others
This cannot be said enough: protect yourself by wearing condoms if you are sexually active. I would also suggest requiring any new sexual partner to get tested before engaging in sexual activity, and keep in mind that transmission can occur genital to mouth as well as genital to genital. I would also suggest yearly or twice yearly testing.
Reinforcing the good news, rates of HIV infection among African Americans has steadily declined since 2007, so there are approaches to prevention that appear to be working, albeit slower than many of us would like.
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